Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam.  The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.  Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense.  Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime.  Christian leaders expressed concern that the elimination of language providing for freedom of conscience in a new constitution that entered into force at the end of 2020 could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities and reported changes in their interactions with governmental authorities they attributed to the new constitution.  In February, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders said there were 50 Ahmadi Muslims who were defendants in the court system, a decline from their October 2020 estimate of 220.  In November, authorities charged the president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), Pastor Salah 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.  In August, according to press reports, government authorities abducted Christian convert Soulimane Bouhafs in Tunisia – where he had refugee status – and transferred him to Algeria, where he was detained on charges of being a member of the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), an organization the government has designated as terrorist.  In April, a 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.  Several religious groups, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the EPA, said the government again failed to act on their registration applications, pending since 2012.  In February, the government announced that mosques that had been closed due to COVID-19 mitigation measures could reopen, but Christian churches would remain closed.  According to media reports, authorities continue to arrest, jail, and fine members of the EPA on charges of proselytizing.  In April, the EPA reported that the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) routinely limited its import of Bibles.  Twenty EPA churches remained closed, 16 of them sealed off, under a government order from 2017.  In February and March, the MRA summoned EPA and Anglican Church officials for questioning.  Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist groups said the government did not respond to their requests for foreign religious workers’ visas, resulting in de facto visa refusals.

Some Christian leaders and congregants stated family members abused Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity.  Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance.  Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.”  Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

The then Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers frequently met with senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to discuss religious tolerance and the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas.  Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public.  The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.

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 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

Legal Framework

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.

Government Practices

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.


On February 1, the military overthrew the democratically elected civilian government, declaring a state of emergency and creating a State Administration Council (SAC), a military-run administrative organization led by armed forces Commander-in-Chief (CINC) Min Aung Hlaing that assumed executive, legislative, and judicial functions.  On February 5, democratically elected parliamentarians from the National League for Democracy (NLD) and other prodemocracy political parties formed the Committee Representing the Union Parliament (CRPH) before announcing the self-proclaimed “National Unity Government” (NUG) on April 16.  Governance in the country remained contested through the end of year.

Executive Summary

The 2008 constitution, drafted by the military, guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.”  The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs.  In December, the OHCHR stated that, since the coup, regime security forces had committed “an alarming escalation of grave human rights abuses.”  As was the case in previous years and following the military coup in February, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity.  During the year, there were reports of threats, detentions, and violence targeting minority religious and ethnoreligious groups.  On May 24, media reported military forces bombed the Sacred Heart Church in Kayan Tharyar, Kayah State, killing four persons who had taken refuge there.  According to media, on May 28, military forces fired upon the church of Saint Joseph in Demoso, Kayah State, and killed two men who were collecting food for internally displaced persons (IDPs).  In April, local media reported that residents found the body of a Muslim muezzin, who was wearing a dress and lipstick, hanging in a mosque in Yangon Region.  Residents said regime security forces likely had killed him.  In September, regime soldiers shot and killed a Christian pastor in Chin State while he attempted to extinguish a fire started by artillery fire.  In June, the prodemocracy NUG issued a statement promising to “seek justice and accountability” for crimes committed by military forces against more than 740,000 Rohingya and said if it returned to government, it would repeal a 1982 law denying citizenship to most Rohingya.  In August, the NUG issued a statement in which it held the military regime responsible for having “perpetuated crimes against humanity,” including war crimes committed on the basis of religion.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that regime authorities had confined 144,000 predominantly Muslim Rohingya in camps within Rakhine State at year’s end.  The government enforced extensive restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya.  According to humanitarian aid organizations, regime authorities made no genuine efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees.  In September, regime security forces arrested 30 Rohingya traveling without documentation and sentenced them to two years in prison.  According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a nonprofit human rights organization, as of December 6, the regime had detained 35 Buddhist monks and nine Christian leaders since the military coup.  The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM), established by the UN Human Rights Council to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyze evidence of the most serious international crimes and violations of international law committed in Myanmar since 2011 and to prepare files to facilitate and expedite fair and independent criminal proceedings, continued to engage with local actors, including the NUG, to collect evidence of potential crimes but was not able to travel inside the country during the year.  According to leaders of minority religious communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the inconsistent enforcement and interpretation of government regulations, in place before the coup and continuing afterward, exacerbated communal disparities during the year, with harsher outcomes reported for minority religious communities.  Religious leaders also expressed concern that the regime might misconstrue religious assembly as part of prodemocracy activities.

According to local media, some armed ethnic organizations operating in the country continued to pose a threat to ethnic and religious minority groups, including the Arakan Army (AA), which continued to force local villagers, including Christian religious leaders, to work without pay and recruited villagers to attend military training camp.  In September, gunmen shot and killed Rohingya Muslim activist and community leader Mohib Ullah in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.  According to press reports, Ullah’s killers were likely associated with the insurgent group Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA).  Ullah had spoken out against ARSA militancy and abuses in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

In July, the NUG announced its appointment of a Rohingya activist as an advisor to its “Ministry of Human Rights.”  Members of ethnic minorities said they continued to face discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion.  Rohingya continued to be perceived as foreigners, irrespective of their citizenship status, and as members of a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain.  There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya.  Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent.  Some local media reports, however, said the Bamar ethnic majority’s empathy for the decades of persecution suffered by Rohingya and other minorities had grown due to their own post-coup experiences.  A June public opinion poll found that when asked about relations among persons of different faiths in the country, 47 percent of respondents said that strict protection of one’s own religion would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future, while 48 percent said that granting more rights to religious minorities would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future.

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and for human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. government concerns about religious freedom with the regime and other internal political actors, as well as with international organizations and also engaged in advocacy on social media calling for an inclusive democracy that respects all ethnicities and religions.  Concerns raised included the plight of Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, Kayah, Karen, Shan, and Chin States amid escalating post-coup violence.  The U.S. government pressed for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.  The embassy amplified the Department of State spokesperson’s message on the fourth anniversary of the military’s August 25, 2017, ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State.[1]  U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to address the root causes of discrimination and religiously motivated violence.  While embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay suspended most of their public programs following the coup, the embassy continued to prioritize ethnic and religious diversity in its exchange programs, selecting participants from Shan, Wa, Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Rakhine, and Mon ethnic groups, many of whom belong to religious minority groups.  Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, continued to engage with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 57.1 million (midyear 2021).  According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists.  Approximately 6 percent are Christians, primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations.  Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population.  There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of Judaism, traditional Chinese religions, and animist religions.  The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the deposed civilian government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016.  There are an estimated 600,000 stateless Rohingya in Rakhine State, and according to the United Nations, as of August 31, Bangladesh continues to host approximately 860,000 Rohingya refugees.

There is a significant correlation between ethnicity and religion.  Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups.  Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups.  Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist, and some Karen are Muslim.  Individuals of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south-central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian.  Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Yangon, Ayeyarwady, Magway, and Mandalay Regions, practice Islam.  Chinese ethnic minority groups generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity.  Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions are animists, observing traditional indigenous beliefs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2008 constitution, drafted by the military junta in control at that time, states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs.  The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution.  It further provides to all citizens the right to profess and practice their religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.

The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings “of any class” by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs.  The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status.  This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities.  The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs, whether religious in nature or not, and removes punishments for noncompliance for both local and international NGOs.

The law bars members of religious orders, such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group, from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting.  The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha).  The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.”  The election law states that a candidate’s parents must be citizens at the time of the candidate’s birth; authorities have denied citizenship to most Rohingya, thus precluding most Rohingya from running for office.

Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.”  The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”

The law bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders.  Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties.  The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC or Ma Ha Na), whose members are elected by monks.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture’s Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools.  Religious education is not included in public schools; however, some schools with Buddhist-majority student bodies may start the school day with a Buddhist prayer.

Monastic schools, run by monasteries and nunneries in all states and regions of the country, serve approximately 320,000 students.  Those that are officially registered use the official state primary and middle school curricula but also teach about Buddhist culture and ways of life.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect.  One of the laws bans polygamy, making it a criminal offense to have more than one spouse, which observers say targets the country’s Muslim population.  A marriage law specifically for Buddhist women stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance.  A religious conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards.  The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion.  A population control law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing

To register a Buddhist marriage, a couple must appear in court with their national identity card (which identifies their religion as Buddhist) and attest that they are married.  Buddhist marriages may be registered at any court with relevant jurisdiction.  Christian marriages are regulated under a Christian marriage act dating from 1872, and to be recognized, must be officiated by a Christian religious figure registered with the Supreme Court.  There are only a handful of ministers or priests registered in the country.  The officiating church must submit details of a marriage from its registry to the Supreme Court within three months of the marriage ceremony solemnization, and only the Supreme Court is permitted to recognize Christian marriages, making it nearly impossible for a Christian marriage to be legally recognized.  Muslim marriages officiated by a mullah are recognized under the law with no court filing requirements.

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

As was the case in previous years and following the military coup in February, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity.  Both before and following the military coup and the deposition of the civilian government in February, there were reports of threats, detentions, and violence targeting minority religious and ethnoreligious groups, which, according to media reports, increased under the military regime.  According to local and international NGOs, there continued to be almost complete impunity for regime security forces that had committed or continued to commit abuses, including what the NGOs said was genocide and crimes against humanity against Rohingya, most of whom are Muslim.  Local media outlet The Irrawaddy reported in February that one of the military units responsible for the 2017 atrocities and other human rights abuses in Rakhine State against Rohingya was also involved in crackdowns on prodemocracy demonstrators following the military coup.

According to Agence France Presse (AFP) and other news sources, in February, following reports that military forces beat, arrested, and used rubber bullets against protestors in and around Myitkyina, the capital of predominantly Christian Kachin State, a Catholic sister knelt before security forces, begging them not to shoot children.  In March, Pope Francis said, “I, too, kneel on the streets of Myanmar and say, ‘Stop the violence,’” referencing the actions of the Catholic nun from the Sisters of St. Francis Xavier.

In April, local media reported that residents found the body of a Muslim muezzin, who was wearing a dress and lipstick, hanging in a mosque in Yangon Region.  Residents said regime security forces likely killed him.  Also in April, according to local media outlet Myanmar Now, soldiers opened fire inside the Sule Mosque in Mandalay’s Maha Aungmyay Township, killing Ko Htet, who was sleeping inside the mosque when the attack started approximately10 am.  He had spent the night there after fasting, as Muslims around the world began observing Ramadan.  According to the news report, witnesses said soldiers started firing immediately after storming the mosque.  Two others were injured in the shooting.

On May 24, local media reported that military forces bombed Sacred Heart Church in Kayan Tharyar, Kayah State, killing four persons who had taken refuge there, and that on May 28, government forces fired upon the Church of Saint Joseph in Demoso, Kayah State, and killed two men who were collecting food for displaced persons.  Local media also reported military forces killed a volunteer from a Catholic seminary on May 29, in Kayah State.  After the Sacred Heart bombing, Cardinal Charles Bo, Archbishop of Yangon, issued a statement on May 25, asking the junta not to target places of worship.  Violence involving houses of worship and other holy sites continued however, including on June 6, when the military reportedly shelled another church in Kayah State that it stated was being used by “terrorists” to launch offensives against the regime.

In June, the opposition NUG issued a statement promising to “seek justice and accountability” for crimes the military committed against more than 740,000 Rohingya.  In addition, the NUG said that if it returned to government, it would repeal a 1982 law denying citizenship to most Rohingya.  In August, the NUG issued a statement in which it held the military regime responsible for having “perpetuated crimes against humanity,” including war crimes committed based on religion.

In June, Pope Francis lamented the suffering of IDPs in Burma, stating, “Churches, pagodas, monasteries, mosques, temples, just as schools and hospitals, [must] be respected as neutral places of refuge.”

In September, regime soldiers shot and killed Baptist pastor Cung Biak Hum in Chin State while he attempted to extinguish a fire started by artillery fire.  A soldier reportedly cut off his finger post-mortem to remove his wedding ring.  The general secretary of Chin Baptist Convention told local media, “The military should carefully distinguish between their enemies and civilians… If they continue this way, fighting could grow into a larger ethnoreligious conflict.”

In October, The Irrawaddy reported Buddhist Gurkha student Lin Paing Soe, from Kyaukse Technological University, was tortured to death while detained by regime security forces.  According to the report, regime security forces used racial and religious slurs and beat him “inhumanely.”  An October Associated Press report on the military’s use of torture included a story of an unnamed monk who described unsanitary conditions in detention and how the military forced him to defrock and “kicked him in the head, chest, and back.”

In February, regime security forces arrested Myanmar Now reporter Kay Zon Nway for her coverage of peaceful protests in Yangon and placed her in solitary confinement for staging a “hunger strike.”  Her lawyer told local media that she was fasting for Ramadan.  Kay Zon Nway was released from Insein Prison in June after 124 days in detention.

On February 1, Myanmar Now reported that regime security forces arrested and detained three senior influential monks, including vocal critic of the military Ashin Ariya Vansa Bivansa, better known as Myawaddy Sayadaw.  Authorities sentenced him to six months in prison and subsequently released him on August 2, after serving his full sentence for defamation.

In May, the online Buddhistdoor Global journal and multimedia platform reported that the military raided a monastery in Mandalay purported to be associated with prodemocracy activities.  A teacher from the monastery reported that he was beaten repeatedly by three members of the military before being sent to an interrogation center at Mandalay Palace.

In June, The Irrawaddy reported that regime security forces arrested three Christian pastors from Kachin State who organized a prayer for “peace in Myanmar.”  If convicted, the pastors could serve up to three years in prison for incitement.  Regime security forces released all three in October.

In August, Myanmar Now reported the military issued, then rescinded, plans that would have installed Buddhist monks at military checkpoints in Mandalay.  Local monastics objected to the plan, with one Mandalay monk saying that the military was “…trying to exploit the religion for their political gains.”

On September 16, in Mandalay, armed men in plain clothes, accompanied by uniformed military, arrested Reverend Thian Lian Sang, an ethnic Chin pastor.  According to the Baptist World Alliance, following his arrest, regime security forces entered Sang’s home, where they confiscated money and cellphones belonging to the Church and the pastor’s family.

In November, a regime court extended by two years the prison sentence of prominent Buddhist monk Ashin Thawbita, who was charged earlier in the year with violating a section on defamation in the telecommunications law for his comments on social media the military perceived to be defamatory.  His new sentence stemmed from an additional charge of incitement under the penal code.

Religious leaders also expressed concern that religious assembly could be misconstrued by the regime as prodemocracy organizing.  In June, according to multiple local media reports, soldiers in Mandalay beat Buddhist monks for reciting suttas (religious discourses) interpreted as antiregime.

According to media reports, in April, Christian leaders said regime security forces raided and searched several Christian churches across the country, including in Kachin State and Mandalay Region.  Regime security forces reportedly said they were looking for individuals involved in illegal activities and for antiregime activists.

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region experienced destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by the military.  Myanmar Now reported in December that in Thantlang, Chin State, the military had destroyed at least seven churches, in addition to 842 homes, in a series of arson attacks starting in October.  In November, the Burma Human Rights Network (BHRN) condemned the military’s attacks on civilians, citing as an example the military’s continued shelling of the town of Thantlang and its setting fire to homes and churches.  According to BHRN, the attacks were part of the “Kill all, burn all, and destroy all strategy the military is documented using against other ethnic and religious minorities.” 

In October, media sources reported regime security forces arrested seven workers from the Catholic Church social agency Caritas (Karuna) who were on a mission to provide aid for IDPs in Kayah State.  At year’s end, Church officials were working to secure the release of the aid workers.  Local residents with knowledge of the situation said that it was common for the military to inflict violence against local residents in the area and make arbitrary arrests based on religious affiliation.

According to AAPP, the military regime had detained 35 Buddhist monks for participating in protests, as well as nine Christian leaders, and a Muslim religious leader for unexplained reasons since the military coup as of year’s end

According to the IIMM, it collected and analyzed more than two million pieces of evidence of possible human rights violations or abuses in Burma from 2019-2121, including reports of approximately 1,300 victims and eyewitnesses in Rakhine, Chin, Shan, Kachin, and Karen States.

According to The Union of Catholic Asian News, more than 100,000 persons, many Christians, remained in camps for displaced persons in Kachin and Shan States, while another 100,000, mostly Karen Christians, were in camps across the Thai border.

In August, the regime amended the penal code to include a provision on genocide.  According to legal experts, the decision reflected an attempt to ease international pressure on the regime as it faced a genocide charge at a United Nations court for genocide and crimes against humanity committed by members of the military against Rohingya.  According to The Irrawaddy, the provisions of the law include up to the death sentence for killings committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national ethnic, racial, or religious group.

The regime enforced at least three different laws to limit gatherings, including religious gatherings.  A gathering of five or more persons – including for religious reasons – could result in charges and punishment under a natural disaster management law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine, or both), a communicable diseases prevention and control law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code – defiance of a government order (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine).

On October 7, the UNHCR reported that regime authorities continued to confine approximately 148,000 Rohingya in 21 displacement camps.  Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive, with authorities requiring them to carry special documents and obtain travel permits even to travel within Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside.  According to humanitarian aid organizations, regime authorities made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year, most of whom remained in camps in neighboring Bangladesh.  According to these organizations, under the military regime, there was no possibility for the voluntary, dignified, safe, and sustainable repatriation of Rohingya.

The regime’s General Administration Department reinstated legal action against Rohingya traveling without documentation, a reversal of an April 2020 order.  For example, in September, regime security forces arrested 30 Rohingya traveling without documentation and sentenced them to two years in prison.  In November, Myanmar Now reported that regime authorities in Buthidaung, northern Rakhine State, had tightened travel restrictions on local Rohingya, requiring them to obtain a permission slip from an immigration office to leave the township.  According to one Rohingya interviewee, previously Rohingya residents had to obtain a recommendation from their village administrator to travel outside the township but now immigration officials had to grant permission as well.

Rakhine local media reported human smuggling of Rohingya from Rakhine State to Malaysia continued, including eight identified cases in October.  Radio Free Asia reported in December that a court in Maungdaw Township, Rakhine State sentenced 109 Rohingya to five years in prison with hard labor after convicting them on illegal immigration charges.  The refugees had fled Burma during the military’s 2017 crackdown against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State and made their way to camps in Bangladesh; Burma’s navy intercepted them in late November as they attempted to reach Malaysia.

During the year, the regime tightly restricted external access to ethnic majority areas where religious minorities also live, including access by UN, humanitarian, and media organizations.  Fighting between the military and some ethnic armed organizations, such as the Chin National Front, escalated after the coup, though it was difficult to categorize the increase in fighting as primarily religiously motivated.  The United Nations reported that as of December 17, more than 296,000 persons were newly displaced since the coup, particularly in ethnic majority areas, including Kayah, Karen, Chin, and Shan States.  According to UN reports, thousands more were displaced by year’s end, particularly in Kayah and Karen States in the southeastern part of the county.  According to the Karenni Human Rights Group (KnHRG), as of the end of the year, more than 156,900 persons had been displaced since May, of which 95 percent were Karenni Christian, due to the escalation in violence between the military and ethnic armed organizations.  According to The Union of Catholic Asian News, in April, more than 100,000 persons, many Christians, remained in camps for displaced persons in Kachin and Shan States, while another 100,000, mostly Karen Christians, were in camps across the Thai border.

The regime continued to restrict the right to freedom of association, including of religious groups.  In the run-up to the November 2020 general elections, the now deposed NLD-led civilian government reinterpreted the law on registering organizations to require NGOs that received foreign funding to register with the government.  After the coup, the regime required banks to report on all foreign funds received by both local and international NGOs.  According to various religious groups and NGOs, the process to register an NGO remained lengthy and was often unsuccessful.

Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, continued to report difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings.  Buddhist leaders said obtaining such permission was more difficult for non-Buddhist groups.  Representatives of religious groups said the need for multiple permissions, unclear authority, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions.  Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

According to local media reports, at least 30 churches and a mosque were damaged or destroyed during fighting between the military and joint ethnic armed organizations and opposition People’s Defense Force.  CHRO reported that as of November, the military had destroyed 36 churches and Christian-affiliated buildings in Chin State.  Similarly, KnHRG reported that as of December, the military had destroyed at least seven Christian churches in Kayah State.

In August, CHRO reported soldiers were camping in church compounds.  They reportedly tore up Bibles, destroyed property, drank alcohol, and slaughtered livestock on church grounds.  KnHRG reported similar incidents in the first week of December in Karenni State’s Demoso Township.

According to a BHRN report entitled Before Our Eyes, which it released in July, on February 28, eyewitnesses saw many military officers gathering around the gate of a mosque compound in Mandalay.  They proceeded to shoot the gate open and advance into the compound.  Eyewitnesses heard gunfire and saw military forces destroying the mosque’s interior.  According to the BHRN report, on 18 March in Thingangyun township, police and military forces destroyed the doors of a Hindu temple.

According to local media and NGOs, there were no reports that the regime held perpetrators accountable for crimes against members of religious minority communities.  NGOs also said that regime authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings.  In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, with the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya, restricted by the regime.  Restrictions varied governing the travel between townships of persons whom the government (before its removal in February) and the regime considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others in northern Rakhine State.  Depending on the township, restrictions usually required the submission of an immigration form.  The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s immigration and national registration department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors.  The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was issued almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists.  Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.  Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit.

According to NGOs, such restrictions, which continued under the regime, continued to impede the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods and education, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities.  Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim continued to receive additional scrutiny on their movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion; obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, services to process the registration of NGOs, whether religious or not, were unavailable during the year because of regime-imposed COVID-19 protocols.  According to representatives of some civil society groups, NGOs refrained from registering because doing so would require providing extensive information on the staff to the regime, which they preferred not to provide.

According to CHRO, neither the government overthrown in February nor the subsequent military regime issued any permits to Christian groups to register and own land and properties.  All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 16 years.

In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes.  As the democratically elected government had done before it, the regime Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture continued to restrict non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.

Both prior to and following the military coup in February, COVID-19 restrictions limited access of members of minority religious groups to religious sites.  This led to the suspension of applications by Christian groups to buy land in Chin State and Sagaing Region.

Sources continued to state that authorities of both the deposed democratically elected government and the regime generally did not enforce laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”

In June, the military regime ordered all primary schools to reopen following months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but approximately 90 percent of primary and secondary school students refused to enroll, many reportedly to protest against the military regime.  Similarly, hundreds of university students refused to enroll, although it was unclear to what degree COVID-19 also played a role in their decision.  In early July, following a third wave of COVID-19, the regime ordered all primary schools to close again; many schools did not reopen until the end of the year.  Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.  At year’s end, the regime ordered all institutions of higher learning to reopen on January 6, 2022.

Due to continuing regime-imposed restrictions of movement on Rohingya, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools.  Rohingya and Kaman children in central Rakhine State had physical access to only one high school, located in Thet Kae Pyin, Sittwe township, according to international observers.  Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university, but Rohingya students could take a limited number of online courses.  Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students.  These students could attend classes and take examinations but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

On September 24, military regime-appointed Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture U Ko Ko issued an order to monasteries and convent schools not to accept long-term guests and requiring that temporary guests register at the ward administration office.  According to local media outlets, the order explicitly named the CRPH, NUG, and other prodemocracy organizations, making clear it was designed to prevent these institutions from becoming safe havens for prodemocracy supporters.

In February, the regime granted amnesty to several high-profile ethnic Rakhine politicians, including Dr. Aye Maung and writer Wai Hin Aung, sentenced to long jail sentences for high treason under the deposed NLD government.  In September, local media outlets reported that the regime had dropped charges against and released promilitary, ultranationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, and several other monks.  Media reports indicated that some Buddhist nationalists had joined a promilitary militant group called Phyu Saw Hti to assist the military regime in its counterinsurgency operations.  The prior civilian government had charged Wirathu with sedition based on comments he made during a 2019 promilitary rally, where he criticized Aung San Suu Kyi’s relationships with foreigners and her wearing of high heels.  According to press reports, Wirathu was widely known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and prejudice against Rohingya.

According to leaders of minority religious communities and human rights activists, during the COVID-19 pandemic, inconsistent enforcement and interpretation of COVID-19 pandemic regulations exacerbated communal disparities, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities.  In February, the regime-controlled Global New Light of Myanmar and Myawaddy News announced the regime had allowed the reopening of houses of worship.  Some chose to remain closed due to COVID-19.  According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violations were disproportionally applied to religious minorities, restrictions that continued under the regime.  Although Muslims said authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity during the year.  Regime-controlled media continued to report frequently on officials and military personnel paying respect to Buddhist monks, offering donations at pagodas, and organizing “people’s donations” of money and food.  Regime-controlled media also highlighted regime COVID-19 vaccination efforts.  In August, The Irrawaddy reported that only citizens were eligible for the military’s nationwide COVID-19 vaccination program, which excluded noncitizens such as Rohingya.

Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service.  Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion.

Authorities continued to require citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship.  These identification cards indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity.  Citizens were also required to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves did not indicate the bearer’s religion.  Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, continued to face problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards.  Some Muslims reported they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on their application for a citizenship card.

The regime halted the deposed government’s previous call for Rohingya to participate in the citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs).  Under the civilian government, NGOs reported that authorities coerced or pressured Rohingya to apply for NVCs.  Rohingya generally expressed distrust of any documentation process that did not affirm their citizenship or that would grant naturalized versus full citizenship, which carries fewer rights under law.  NGOs documented past cases where Rohingya were forced to identify as “Bengali” when applying for an NVC, with the implication that Rohingya are viewed as “foreigners” not entitled to full citizenship rights.  The few Rohingya who did receive citizenship through the NVC process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits and that they had to pay bribes at different levels of government to receive the document.  The regime announced a citizenship documentation project in May, which, it stated, was a concerted, nationwide effort to issue household registration lists and national identification cards and a means to prevent the kind of voter fraud the military regime said occurred in the 2020 general election.  According to the director general of the Department of National Registration and Citizenship, as of November 5, the regime had issued 171,149 household lists and 567,371 national registration cards.  Authorities issued no citizenship cards to Rohingya through this program by year’s end.

Statements by some authorities before and after the coup exhibited Buddhist nationalist sentiment.  In August, CINC Min Aung Hlaing said in a speech, “Most of us are primarily Buddhists in our country.  The Buddha devotees were disheartened in their faith in Buddhism during the previous five years.  Since the time we took power, we have emphasized religious affairs under the provisions of the constitution.”

Regime-controlled media continued to report frequently on officials and military personnel paying respect to Buddhist monks, offering donations at pagodas, and organizing “people’s donations” of money and food.

In May, The Irrawaddy reported that the regime released Michael Kyaw Myint, the leader of the Yeomanry Development Party detained by the deposed civilian government.  Kyaw had previously served a year in prison after leading an anti-Muslim mob in Yangon.

According to local media, some ethnic armed organizations operating in the country continued to pose a threat to ethnic and religious minority groups.  The AA continued to force local villagers, including Christian religious leaders, to construct roads without any pay for their labor and recruited villagers to attend military training camp.  According to a local source, the AA also forced Christian religious leaders to attend its administration training, often holding them against their will.

In September, gunmen shot and killed Rohingya Muslim activist and community leader Mohib Ullah in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh.  Ullah was known for his detailed compilation of abuses and atrocities committed in 2017 against Rohingya in Burma.  According to press reports, his killers were likely associated with the insurgent group ARSA.  Ullah spoke out against ARSA militancy and abuses in the refugee camps in Bangladesh.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In July, the NUG announced its appointment of a Rohingya activist as an advisor to its “Ministry of Human Rights.”  The NUG’s August 24 statement on the anniversary of atrocities committed against the Rohingya received public support via social media.  Some social media users commented that the coup had united the country against the military regime and had produced more sympathy for the Rohingya, which, they said, may have been responsible for a decline in online hate speech aimed at the Rohingya noted by some observers.

According to Muslim activists, Rohingya continued to be perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and as belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain.  There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya.  Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent.  There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.  Some local media reports, however, said the Bamar ethnic majority’s empathy for the decades of persecution suffered by Rohingya and other minorities had grown due to their own post-coup experience of the brutal crackdown by regime security forces on innocent persons irrespective of ethnic and religious background.  For example, a schoolteacher told the New York Times, “I saw soldiers and police killing and torturing people […] I started to feel empathy for Rohingya and ethnic people who have been suffering worse than us for many years.”

In June, a public opinion poll found that, when asked about relations among persons of different faiths in the country, 47 percent said that strict protection of one’s own religion would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future, while 48 percent said that granting more rights to religious minorities would provide a stronger foundation for democracy in the future.

Despite a continuing order by the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, that no group or individual operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.  According to Myanmar Now, in March SSMNC announced in a statement that it would suspend its activities and called on the military to end the violence and arrests.  One of SSMNC’s 47 abbots said of the suspension, “It is similar to the [Civil Disobedience Movement].”  According to local media, some Ma Ba Tha-affiliated monks held a rally in November in support of the military.

In March, protestors waved flags made of women’s sarongs in celebration of International Women’s Day.  Regime-controlled Myawaddy News called the act “inappropriate” and “severely insulting to religion and contempt of [Buddhist] religion…and monks.”

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

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities,” without defining “normal.”  The government recognizes five official religions:  Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism.  Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services, although other groups reported meeting unofficially.  CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices.  National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education.  Some provinces have additional laws precluding minors’ participation in religious activities.  The government continued to assert control over religion and to restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports.  NGOs and media continued to report deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, disappeared, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced labor and forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, and harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.  The NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers estimated the government imprisoned 2,987 individuals for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of December 7.  According to Minghui, a Falun Gong-affiliated publication, 101 Falun Gong practitioners died during the year as a result of persecution of their faith, compared with 107 in 2020, and both Minghui and the Falun Dafa Infocenter reported police arrested more than 5,000 practitioners and harassed more than 9,000 others.  According to the annual report of The Church of Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 11,156 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions, resulting in the death of at least nine individuals.  There were reports the government pressured individuals to renounce their religious beliefs.  The government continued its multiyear campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, which included requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions and suggesting content for sermons that emphasized loyalty to the CCP and the state.  The State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) issued regulations, effective May 1, entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” requires all clergy to pledge allegiance to the CCP and socialism and created a database of “religious personnel” to track their performance.  Authorities did not issue a “clergy card” to individuals not belonging to one of the five officially recognized patriotic religious associations, including pastors of Protestant house churches, Catholic clergy who rejected the government’s 2018 provisional agreement with the Holy See and refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), teachers and clergy at independent mosques and Buddhist and Taoist temples, rabbis, and religious personnel of new religious movements.  The SARA issued new regulations on September 1 that require all religious schools to teach Xi Jinping Thought and adhere to the “Sinicization of religion.”  The government prohibited private tutors, including those based abroad, from using textbooks “propagating religious teachings” and closed several informal, religiously affiliated schools.

During the year, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID-19 restrictions.  The government intensified its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong, and conducted propaganda campaigns against xie jiao (literally “heterodox teachings”) aimed at school-age children.  Authorities limited online worship.  Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, the Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized businesses that copied and published religious materials.  The government removed religious apps from app stores and censored religious content from the popular messaging service WeChat.  Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible and there were continued reports that authorities destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country.  The government continued to remove architectural features that identified some churches and mosques as religious sites and removed crosses from private property.  The SARA’s “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy” made no provision for the Holy See to have a role in the selection of Catholic bishops, despite the 2018 provisional agreement between the Vatican and the government concerning the appointment of bishops.  At a national conference on religious affairs in December, President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping called on religious personnel and government officials to “uphold and develop a religious theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities.  International media reported growing anti-Muslim sentiment in society as a result of the government’s Sinicization campaign.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons.  The Charge and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom.  The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives and advocacy directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.  The U.S. Secretary of State, Charge, and other State Department and embassy officials issued public statements, including via social media, supporting religious freedom and condemning the PRC’s violations of the rights of religious minorities.  The U.S. Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom in China, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.  On January 19, the then Secretary of State determined that since at least March 2017, the PRC has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.  On January 13, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a Withhold Release Order that prohibited the import of all cotton and tomato products produced in Xinjiang.  On March 22, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned two officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.  On May 12, the Secretary of State announced visa restrictions against a PRC government official for his involvement in gross violations of human rights against Falun Gong practitioners.  On June 24, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Department of Commerce, and U.S. Department of Labor took action against companies in the polysilicon industry using forced labor of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.  On July 9, the U.S. Commerce Department added to the Entities List 14 Chinese electronics and technology firms and other businesses for helping enable “Beijing’s campaign of repression, mass detention, and high-technology surveillance” against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.  On July 13, the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, and Labor, and the U.S. Trade Representative issued an updated Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory that highlighted for businesses with potential supply chain and investment links to Xinjiang the risk of complicity with forced labor and human rights abuses.  On December 6, the Presidential press secretary announced the United States would not send diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic or Paralympic Games because of human rights abuses in China.  On December 10, the U.S. Department of State imposed visa restrictions on four current and former PRC officials for complicity with human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the U.S. Department of Treasury also sanctioned two officials and one company.  On December 23, the President signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2021).  According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People:  70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country.  An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear.  Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers.  The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported.  The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than 1 percent.  According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Roman Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions.  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are 499 million folk and ethnic religionists (34 percent), 474 million agnostics (33 percent), 228 million Buddhists (16 percent), 106 million Christians (7.4 percent), 100 million atheists (7 percent), 23.7 million Muslims (1.7 percent), and other religions adherents who together constitute less than 1 percent of the population, including 5.9 million Taoists, 1.8 million Confucians, 20,500 Sikhs, and 2,900 Jews.  According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2022 report, there are 96.7 million Christians.  According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

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

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion.  Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni.  The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces.  The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million.  A June report on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) issued by the Department of Population and Employment Statistics of the PRC’s National Bureau of Statistics estimates the total population in Xinjiang is 26 million.  The report states Uyghurs, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 15 million residents, or 58 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by school, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.  Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion.

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

On January 18, the SARA issued new regulations, effective May 1, entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy.”  The regulations require all clergy to pledge allegiance to the CCP and socialism and to create a database of “religious personnel” to track their performance.  Article 3 of the regulations states religious clergy “should love the motherland, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system, abide by the constitution, laws, regulations, and rules, practice the core values of socialism, adhere to the principle of independent and self-administered religion in China, adhere to the direction of the Sinicization of religion in China, and operate to maintain national unity, religious harmony, and social stability.”  Article 6 states, in part, clergy should “resist illegal religious activities and religious extremist ideology, and resist infiltration by foreign forces using religion.”  The regulations also provide that “entrance to religious places of worship should be regulated through strict gatekeeping, verification of identity, and registration.”  The regulations also stipulate that authorities will hold religious organizations and institutions responsible for the behavior of individual religious clergy.  Article 7 stipulates religious staff should “focus on improving their own quality, improving their cultural and moral literacy, studying the contents of doctrines and regulations that are conducive to social harmony, progress of the times, and health and civilization, and integrate them into preaching, and play a role in promoting the Sinicization of religion in our country.”

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

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

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

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

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

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in 2020, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code.  The revisions formalize the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions.

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

Revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs in 2018 increased restrictions on unregistered religious groups.  Individuals who participate in unsanctioned religious activities are subject to criminal and administrative penalties.  The regulations stipulate that any form of income from illegal activities or illegal properties shall be confiscated and a fine imposed of between one to three times the value of the illegal income or properties.  If the illegal income or properties cannot be identified, officials impose a fine of less than 50,000 renminbi (RMB) ($7,800).  Authorities may penalize property owners renting space to unregistered religious groups by confiscating properties and illegal incomes and levying fines between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100-$31,400).

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

The Regulations on Religious Affairs require members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.”  Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100-$31,400).  Illegally obtained income connected to such travel may be seized and, “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

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

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site.  Regulations state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,700) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval.  Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

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

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations.  Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect.  In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody, but not a right to exercise their faith, such as by accessing prayer facilities or meeting with clergy.  Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

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

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

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

In December, the government published new regulations to limit online religious content.  The Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services, set to go into effect on March 1, 2022, would prohibit overseas organizations and individuals from operating online religious information services in the country.

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

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

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

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools.  Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations.  One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools.  The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students.  The SARA also issued new regulations on September 1 entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Schools” that stipulate religious schools should ensure CCP ideological training is included in all religious education, including required classes on Xi Jinping Thought, ideological and political theory, and socialism.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities.  No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.”  Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues.  Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.”  Individuals, including parents, who violate these regulations may be criminally liable.  Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

On September 1, the Ministry of Education published the “Administrative Measures for Off-campus Training Materials for Primary and Secondary School Students.”  “Off-campus training” refers to private tutoring services designed to help students prepare for entrance exams.  The regulations prohibit private tutors, including those based abroad, from using textbooks “propagating religious teachings, doctrines, canons, or xie jiao, or feudal superstitions, etc.”

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

In 2020, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect.  These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels.  The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism.  Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

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

Government Practices

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

NGOs, religious groups, and media sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances (often through “residential surveillance at a designated location” – a form of black-site detention utilized by authorities against individuals accused of endangering state security), and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation.  NGOs and media reported authorities used violence during arrests and tortured detainees, including by forcing them to maintain stress positions, beating them, and depriving them of food, water, and sleep.  NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers estimated that the government imprisoned 2,987 individuals for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of December 7.

The Political Prisoner Database of the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,793 individuals imprisoned as of September 30 for “unorthodox” religious beliefs, including 2,751 Falun Gong practitioners, 578 CAG members, and 147 members of other Protestant groups.

Minghui reported 101 Falun Gong practitioners died as a result of persecution suffered because of their faith, compared with 107 in 2020.  It also reported that authorities arrested 5,045 (8,160 in 2020) and harassed 9,245 (10,973 in 2020) Falun Gong practitioners during the year.  The Falun Dafa Infocenter reported police arrested more than 5,000 practitioners and harassed more than 9,000 others during the year.

Minghui stated police often used violence during arrests of Falun Gong practitioners and that individuals were tortured in custody.  Police in Anyang City, Henan Province, arrested shopkeeper Li Xianxi on May 11 for talking about Falun Gong in a market.  When he performed Falun Gong exercises at the local detention center following his arrest, authorities handcuffed and shackled him.  On June 13, authorities informed his family that Li had died on June 12.  According to those who saw his body, he was emaciated, his head was swollen, and there were injuries to his back and knees.

Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported that on April 12, authorities informed the family of Colonel Gong Piqi, a Falun Gong practitioner and former deputy chief of staff of the Shandong Provincial Reserve Artillery Division, that Gong had died in prison.  He had been forced to retire when authorities discovered he was a practitioner.  Authorities arrested Gong in 2017 and sentenced him in 2018 to seven and a half years and a fine of RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for being active in a banned religious group.  According to authorities, Gong experienced a “sudden cerebral hemorrhage” and died despite receiving medical treatment.  His family and friends reported seeing signs of torture on his body, causing them to doubt he died of natural causes.

Minghui reported that Hubei Province resident Hu Hanjiao died in prison while serving a four-year sentence for practicing Falun Gong.  Authorities arrested Hu on March 15 for talking to people about Falun Gong and the Xiaochang County Court sentenced her in late June.  During the seven months authorities held her at the Hanchuan City Detention Center, Hu staged a hunger strike in protest and was force fed.  Thirteen days after she was transferred to the Hubei Province Women’s Prison, prison authorities called Hu’s husband to inform him she had died.  They refused to release her body to her family.

In June, Bitter Winter reported that government and police officers confirmed that, in the context of the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, the government ordered increased arrests for members of all dissident groups, particularly CAG members.  One document issued by the Office of State Security in Shanxi Province ordered officials to “put real efforts to strengthen surveillance over key personnel and carry out a severe crackdown on The Church of Almighty God.”  According to Bitter Winter, authorities throughout the country arrested more than 1,000 CAG members in the first half of the year.  From May 19 to 25, Guangdong Province police arrested approximately 160 CAG members in Foshan, Guangzhou, Zhuhai, and other cities.  Authorities also arrested 403 CAG members in Shanxi Province from the beginning of the year through June, and at least 265 CAG members in Henan Province from mid-April to mid-June.  In April, the government in Anhui Province arrested at least 116 CAG members after a long-term surveillance and tracking operation and confiscated at least RMB 750,000 ($118,000) of church and personal assets.

During the year, Bitter Winter reported on several cases of authorities imprisoning CAG members, pressuring them to sign statements renouncing their faith, and subjecting them to psychological and physical abuse, including beatings and stress positions, when they refused.  One CAG member from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region said during his imprisonment, a guard tightly wrapped a copper wire as thick as a little finger around his body five times, cutting off his circulation.  After authorities forced him to stand for four hours, the man’s legs became swollen, his hands were numb and trembling, and his abdomen became numb to the touch.  One CAG member from Anhui Province said authorities forced her into a stress position eight hours a day for five consecutive days during which she had to squat while keeping her torso upright, her hands raised above her head, and her body unmoving.  Another CAG member reported being deprived of sleep for five nights.  Two CAG members said when they refused to sign a statement renouncing their faith, guards encouraged fellow inmates to beat them, resulting in bruises and broken teeth.  Another CAG member described fellow prisoners, at the guards’ instigation, smearing feces on his body.

In April, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported authorities in Sichuan Province detained members of Christian house churches in unofficial detention facilities where they pressured individuals to renounce their faith.  One Protestant individual said authorities held him in a windowless basement for eight or nine months, during which time they physically and mentally abused him.  He said, “You can’t see the sun, so you lose all concept of time,” and that suicidal thoughts and self-harm among detainees were commonplace.  Secret police attempted to coerce inmates into signing confessions of guilt and held those who refused in solitary confinement for prolonged periods.  Another Christian told RFA that similar facilities were being used to abuse members of the underground Catholic Church and Falun Gong practitioners.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 68,456 Church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with at least 42,807 in 2020.  The report stated that authorities harassed at least 57,300 Church members (at least 35,752 in 2020), arrested 11,156 (7,055 in 2020), detained 3,636 (4,045 in 2020), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 6,125 (5,587 in 2020), sentenced 1,452 (1,098 in 2020), and seized at least RMB 250 million ($39.23 million) in Church and personal assets.  At least nine Church members died as a result of being physically abused during detention (at least 21 in 2020).

The NGO ChinaAid reported that on May 23, police in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, arrested Pastor Yang Hua of the Guiyang Living Stone Church for conducting religious activities.  At the station, leaders of the Guiyang Yunyan District Party Committee reportedly struck Yang, causing injuries that required medical attention.

Media reported authorities used measures ostensibly intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups.  The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that on June 7, the Qinnan District People’s Court in Qinzhou City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, sentenced 21 members of the Blood and Water of Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit Full Gospel Evangelistic Group to prison for being active in a cult.  They were part of a group of Church members detained by the Qinnan Branch of the Qinzhou Public Security Bureau in August 2020.  Police also seized 113 books, 989 loose “propaganda materials,” 183 CDs, 3 calendars, 2 diaries, and 48 signs, among other items.  The movement was founded in Taiwan and the government declared it a cult in 1995.

According to Minghui, police arrested and harassed Falun Gong practitioners throughout the country.  Harassment spiked in April and May, around the “sensitive dates” of April 25, the anniversary of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners’ appealing in 1999 outside the central government compound for the right to practice their beliefs, and May 13, the 29th anniversary of Falun Gong’s introduction to the public.  According to Minghui, harassment was also driven by the “stability maintenance” campaign prior to the CCP’s centennial anniversary.  From July to August, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, Shanxi, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted.  Those arrested included teachers, restauranteurs, librarians, construction workers, factory workers, academics, nurses, engineers, farmers, shop owners, and many retirees.

On September 12, Minghui reported multiple examples of police harassment and arrests of practitioners of Falun Gong.  On March 10, police in Fushun City, Liaoning Province, arrested Yang Xiaozhi for distributing Falun Gong materials.  She reported that detention officers shocked her with electric batons before releasing her on bail on March 15.  On May 14, police in Jilin City, Jilin Province, arrested 98-year-old Cai Xiufang for talking to people about Falun Gong.  They held her in a metal cage at the police station for several hours and ransacked her home before releasing her on bail.  Authorities arrested Gong Ruiping, a former elementary school teacher in Beijing, on July 20 in connection with practicing Falun Gong.  Guards force fed her when she attempted a hunger strike.  On July 23, authorities arrested Li Lihong, a middle school teacher in Ningxiang City, Hunan Province, for talking to people about Falun Gong.  Minghui reported that Baimaqiao police station head Zhang Jie threatened to shoot and kill her.  On August 15, a plainclothes police officer in Handan City, Hebei Province, beat Wang Shuqin for talking to him about Falun Gong.  Wang suffered two broken ribs and was taken to the hospital.

ChinaAid reported that in January in Hengyang City, Hunan Province, officials detained Chen Wensheng for 25 days for preaching Christian teachings on the streets.  Following his release from detention on January 29, local authorities came to his home to persuade him to stop “street evangelism.”

On June 14, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a statement from a group of 11 UN-affiliated independent human rights experts, including UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed, who were “alarmed by reports of alleged organ harvesting targeting minorities including Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Muslims, and Christians, in detention in China.”  The independent experts reported receiving credible information from NGOs and activists stating that authorities “may have forcibly subjected… detainees from ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities” to blood tests and organ examinations such as ultrasounds and x-rays without their informed consent, while other prisoners were not required to undergo such examinations.  The results of the examinations were reportedly registered in a database of living organ sources that facilitated organ allocation.  The independent experts stated, “According to the allegations received, the most common organs removed from the prisoners are reportedly hearts, kidneys, livers, corneas and, less commonly, parts of livers.  This form of trafficking with a medical nature allegedly involves health sector professionals, including surgeons, anaesthetists and other medical specialists.”  The experts said that despite the gradual development of a voluntary organ donation system, “[I]nformation continues to emerge regarding serious human rights violations in the procurement of organs for transplants in China,” and concern remained at the lack of independent oversight as to whether consent to donation and organ allocation was effectively given by prisoners or detainees.  The experts noted that authorities reportedly prevented families of deceased detainees and prisoners from claiming their bodies.

On August 9, the government responded to the High Commissioner, asserting the experts’ report was “based on false information and makes groundless accusations against China” and was “filled with malice and prejudice.”  The government said witnesses were “‘actors’ who repeatedly engage in slander and rumour-mongering on the issue of human rights in China[.]”  The government stated that regulations required medical examinations for persons entering detention facilities “for the purpose of determining the detainee’s physical condition at the time of admittance to the facility and providing prompt treatment in the event of illness.”  It stated that, by law, organ donation was “voluntary and nonremunerative” and that organ trading and involuntary organ harvesting had been criminalized.

In July, Minghui reported authorities collected DNA, blood samples, and other biometrics from Falun Gong practitioners against their will.  During the first half of the year, this reportedly occurred in 18 provinces and municipalities – Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Zhejiang, Liaoning, Gansu, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Guizhou, Hebei, Hubei, Henan, Shanxi, Sichuan, Guangdong, and Shaanxi.  Between April 26 and 29, four practitioners in Shanghai reported police broke into their homes and forcibly collected blood samples.  Practitioners reported police also collected handwriting samples, fingerprints, height information, photographs, and phone numbers.  According to Minghui, some practitioners suspected authorities were collecting these biometrics and blood samples to establish a DNA and organ matching database, as well as to enhance the surveillance of practitioners.

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

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) reported local Catholic sources said authorities abducted Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Yongjia (Wenzhou) Diocese in Zhejiang Province on October 25 and held him incommunicado for two weeks before releasing him.  Shao was ordained a bishop in 2011 with Vatican approval, but his appointment was not approved by the two state-sanctioned church bodies – the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) and the CCPA – and he was not among the Vatican-approved bishops recognized by the CCPA as a result of the 2018 Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.  According to UCA News, this was the seventh time since 2016 that authorities detained Shao, and his prior arrests stemmed from his refusal to join the CCPA.

Media reported the status of Catholic Bishop Taddeo Ma Daqin, whom authorities placed under house arrest in Shanghai following his resignation from the CCPA in 2012, remained unchanged at as of April.

RFA reported that on April 21, police in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, raided the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during a study session and detained 19 Church members, including 12 children.  At the local police station, officers questioned the children without their parents present, in contravention of the law regarding detention of minors.  According to a Church member, police released 16 of the 19 persons after detaining them for 11 hours and continued to hold three individuals without giving a reason to their families.

International Christian Concern reported that on August 22, police in Chengdu City entered the home of an ERCC member during a Sunday worship service and arrested 28 individuals, including 10 children.  During the arrests, police injured Pastor Dai Zhichao on his arm and confiscated his mobile phone.  An ERCC member said police beat many individuals in detention and when the children became unruly, officers threatened to hit them on their heads.  Police held Dai and the homeowner, He Shan, in detention for 14 days and fined He RMB 1,000 ($160) for holding an illegal religious gathering.

Bitter Winter reported that in May the Beijing Municipal Court sentenced Lin Xianzan, a member of the Shouters, to three years in prison for being active in a banned religious group.

There were reports that authorities continued to crack down on qigong movements that it classified as cults or equivalent to cults.  Bitter Winter reported that on April 27, the Zhaouyan City People’s Court in Shandong Province sentenced Sun Xuhui to two years in prison after she confessed to leading a branch of Zhonggong, a qigong movement, and “brainwashing” followers.  According to Bitter Winter, the Ministry of Public Security set up a special task force with anti-Zhonggong divisions in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, and Yunnan, Hebei, Liaonin, and Shandong Provinces.  In May, police in Luoyang, Henan Province, arrested several followers of the Buddhist master Tian Ruisheng (also known as Shijakai), and accused them of spreading the teachings of the banned movement Xiang Gong, originally known as Buddhist Qigong.

ChinaAid reported that on March 7, authorities in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, raided the Fountain of Life house church during a Sunday service and took Pastor Zha Changping, his wife, and three other church members to the local police station for questioning.  Authorities released them after several hours.

According to Bitter Winter, authorities arrested 181 Association of Disciples members in a large operation carried out in late 2020 and early 2021 in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.  They charged the members with being active in a cult.  Authorities told local media the arrests were the result of the program implemented in 2018 to grant rewards up to RMB 50,000 ($7,800) to those who denounced their neighbors or acquaintances as cult members; the program included a tip line for doing so.

On May 5, RFA reported that authorities arrested two elders of Zion Church in Beijing, as well as elder Zhang Chunlei of the Renai Reformed Church in Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, on suspicion of fraud.  Zhang’s defense attorney said the fraud accusations were related to his receiving his living allowance from member donations and said, “This [practice] happens in all religions, and it doesn’t constitute fraud.”

Bitter Winter reported that authorities arrested 10 teachers at a Christian school in Wuhu City, Anhui Province, on May 27.  Authorities claimed the school was an illegal operation because it was not affiliated with the TSPM.  According to Bitter Winter, local Christians viewed the raid as part of a larger crackdown on all forms of education not directly controlled by the CCP.

On May 27, a ChinaAid source reported the arrests and imprisonment of numerous Christians affiliated with the Local Assembly, a house church, in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province, Nanning City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and Beijing, accusing them of “using a cult to undermine the enforcement of law.”

ChinaAid reported that on November 16, the Xi’an Municipal Intermediate Court in Shaanxi Province upheld a lower court’s sentencing of Chang Yuchun and Li Chenhui to seven years’ imprisonment and a RMB 250,000 ($39,200) fine for an “illegal business operation.”  Chang and Li printed and sold Christian books from 2015 to 2020, when local police shut down their business, confiscated more than 210,000 books, and forcibly disappeared them into “residential surveillance at a designated location.”

On August 7, RFA reported that police in Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province, detained nine Golden Lamppost Church leaders and members who refused to join the TSPM, including Pastor Wang Xiaoguang and preacher Yang Rongli.  According to sources, the group was carrying out a house church baptism when police arrested them.  Shortly afterwards, local authorities used dynamite to demolish a Golden Lamppost church in Taiyuan City.  On September 27, police arrested seven Church members.  On December 27, authorities charged them with fraud.  RFA said the detentions and demolition came amid a series of raids on unofficial Protestant house churches in Linfen County, Shanxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported on that on August 14, a court in Kaili City, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province, convicted four Seventh-day Adventist Church clergy of fraud for collecting offerings outside of the purview of the TSPM.  The court sentenced one member to 12 years in prison, and the others to three to six years.

In November, Minghui reported that on October 14, nine officials came to Yi Shuying’s home and ordered her to sign a letter renouncing Falun Gong.  They threatened officials would deny her granddaughter, a junior high school student, admission to college in the future if Yi did not renounce Falun Gong.  Yi refused to comply.

In June, ChinaAid reported that ERCC Pastor Wang Yi, whom authorities sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2019, was “being treated very badly in prison,” held in solitary confinement in Chengdu Province’s Jintang Prison under constant supervision, and malnourished.  ChinaAid stated prison officials continued to prevent family members and lawyers from visiting him and withheld medical treatment.  According to the NGO International Christian Concern, since his arrest, Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location, under surveillance.

On April 20, RFA reported the police department of Yulin City, Shaanxi Province, confirmed to his wife that it was still detaining Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer taken into custody in September 2017.  Previously, Gao’s family had not known his whereabouts or whether he was alive.  Gao had previously defended on-trial members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other minority groups.

On July 20, ChinaAid reported that the Xiamen City religious affairs bureau fined Pastor Yang Xibo of Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, and his wife RMB 200,000 ($31,400) for organizing an “illegal religious activity.”  According to RFA, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at the church in April and May 2020.  Yang told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM.

During the year, authorities continued to detain Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country.  Authorities took Cui into custody in January 2020 and accused him of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

On April 9, Bitter Winter published an article in which it described several CAG members being forced to perform labor during their imprisonment.  One CAG member said she had to produce 250 artificial flowers per day, and if she failed to reach her quota, authorities forced her to stand four to six hours per night.  The article stated that the plastic used in the artificial flowers contained chemicals and heavy metal elements harmful to the human body, such as vinyl chloride, formaldehyde, and lead, leading to endocrine disorders, decreased immunity, aplastic anemia, leukemia, and other blood diseases.  The report also stated that exposure to the chemicals disrupted women’s menstrual cycles.  Another female CAG member who was sentenced to three years in a women’s prison described working on 550 dresses per day in a dressmaking shop while standing for 13 hours.  After her release, she was diagnosed with a herniated disc, which caused her pain if she sat for more than 10 minutes.

AsiaNews reported that the new SARA regulations entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” which took effect on May 1, placed additional ideological controls over the training, selection, and monitoring of clergy, including emphasizing allegiance to the CCP and socialism.  The new regulations also stipulated the government would hold religious organizations and institutions responsible for the behavior of clergy and created a new centralized database to record information about clergy, as well as to track their behavior and “misdeeds.”  Local governments were instructed to update the database with information on “rewards and punishments” of clergy.  On February 11, Bitter Winter published an English-language translation and analysis of the new regulations.  According to Bitter Winter, registration in the government database was “complicated.”  Individuals who were not listed in it but claimed to be clergy would be committing a crime.  Individuals unable to obtain a “clergy card” would include anyone not belonging to one of the five officially recognized patriotic religious associations, such as pastors of Protestant house churches, Catholics who rejected the government’s 2018 provisional agreement with the Holy See and refused to join the CCPA, teachers and clergy at independent mosques and Buddhist and Taoist temples, rabbis, and religious personnel of new religious movements.  According to AsiaNews, “living buddhas,” under the regulations, “will not be able to exercise any ministry, nor will they be considered true reincarnations without the permission of the [CCP].”  According to Bitter Winter, individuals had to prove they “support[ed] the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and support[ed] the socialist system.”  Bitter Winter stated the regulations created “an Orwellian system of surveillance, and strengthen[ed] the already strict control on all clergy.”

The SARA continued to maintain publicly available statistics on some, but not all, registered religious groups.  According to the SARA, there were 42,439 Buddhist temples and 8,349 Taoist temples registered in the country as of year’s end.  The SARA did not publish the number of registered Islamic mosques, Catholic churches, and Protestant churches.  According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered to the CCPA.  The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper stated approximately 144,000 places of worship were registered to conduct religious activities in the country, among which were 33,500 Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.  The SCIO white paper also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country:  222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and other groups.  At times, authorities said they shuttered a group because the group or its activities were unregistered; at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits.  Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations.  Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally.  In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader.

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state.  The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Groups, promulgated in 2020, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.  Commenting on the administrative measures, one Catholic Priest told AsiaNews, “In practice, your religion no longer matters, if you are Buddhist, or Taoist, or Muslim or Christian; the only religion allowed is faith in the Chinese Communist Party.”

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity, issued in 2018, called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.”  On its website in 2018, the TSPM pledged to “cultivate and practice core socialist values,” “carry out patriotic education,” and incorporate Sinicization into Christian theology, TSPM rules and regulations, theological education, and believers’ faith practice via symposiums, seminars, essay contests, and commemorative activities such as art exhibitions.  During the year, the TSPM celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP and sponsored activities to “cultivate a Christian charity culture with Chinese characteristics.”  The TSPM website stated that in 2022, it planned to examine experiences of Sinicization in various regions, determine best practices from the 2018-2022 five-year plan, and formulate a 2023-2027 work plan for further promoting the Sinicization of Christianity.

On March 31, the Economist reported that the government targeted all religions for Sinicization and instructed Christian preachers to promote “core socialist values.”  The Economist stated that government policy dictated “[i]nterpretations of the Bible should become more Sinified – meaning, presumably, that they should help to bolster belief in socialism.”  Authorities required state-approved churches to display national flags and portraits of President Xi, a move some TSPM pastors resisted, and encouraged them “to use Chinese architecture and Chinese tunes for hymns, as well as Chinese-style painting, calligraphy and other ‘popular cultural forms.’”  According to the Economist, despite increased pressure on house churches, authorities faced difficulties imposing Sinification on these unofficial, unregulated religious communities.

UCA News reported that according to the state-controlled BCCCC and the CCPA, on September 24, Catholics from two churches in Zibo City, Shandong Province, attended an event organized by the BCCCC called “One Hundred Sermons” that sought to explain President Xi’s instructions on religious activities and the promotion of Sinicization in the Catholic Church and how to adapt Catholicism to the socialist society.  On September 27-29, 18 key members of the CCPA from various provinces and cities met in Xibaipo village, Hebei Province, for an educational program based on the theme, “Take the Red Footprints and Inherit the Red Spirit,” intended to cultivate positive feelings toward the CCP, patriotism, and socialism.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders.  Bitter Winter reported that on October 26, authorities in Shangqiu City, Henan Province, held a “Sinicization Seminar and Exchange Conference” for TSPM pastors and teachers.  During the conference, participants raised the national flag and sang patriotic songs.  Authorities told participants Christian social teaching should be Sinicized and that they would establish a “Research Office of Sinicization of Christianity” in Shangqiu.  They said sermons should be preached on socialist themes.

Bitter Winter reported that at the national conference of the TSPM and the China Christian Council on July 8, state-appointed heads of the TSPM and the council ordered pastors to study and preach about President Xi’s July 1 speech on the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding.  During the conference, religious authorities told pastors to make President Xi’s speech a principal topic of sermons and Bible study groups.  TSPM chairman Xu Xiaohong offered pastors a model sermon based on nine points in the speech that glorified the nation, the CCP, and President Xi.  He said pastors should instruct Christians to say, “Long live the great, glorious, and correct Chinese Communist Party.  Long live the great, glorious, and heroic Chinese people.”  Wu Wei, chairman of the China Christian Council, said pastors should direct Christians in “thanking God for putting us in this great era” and “continuing to learn the spirit of General Secretary Xi’s speech.”

Bitter Winter reported that on October 29 in Tianjin Municipality, Huasheng Temple authorities required Buddhist monks to watch a film entitled, “The Battle at Lake Changjin.”  On its WeChat account, the temple stated the activity was “to carry out in-depth education on Party history and promote the spirit of patriotism.”  The film depicted the “story of Chinese soldiers defeating American troops, despite great odds” at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.  One monk told Bitter Winter, “Party classes are supposed to be an activity that only Communist Party members need to attend.  Compelling monks to take a Party movie class is something incestuous, making the temple look like a branch of the Communist Party.”

According to the UFWD, from May 20-24, the Nanhai Buddhist Academy held a training session for more than 50 Buddhist deacons in Hainan Province.  The training, themed “Love the Party, Love the Country, Love Socialism,” included studying President Xi’s speeches and PRC religious laws and regulations and viewing patriotic documentary films.  Deputy minister of the provincial UFWD Liu Geng praised the Party, urged attendees to learn its history, promoted the Sinicization of religion, and advocated for socialist values in religious settings.  He urged the deacons to be “politically reliable, religiously accomplished, and morally convincing.”

According to the religious affairs bureau of Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, on August 11, the Guangdong Taoist Association hosted an interfaith conference on the theme “Love the Party, the Country, and Socialism” to study Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, and to view “patriotic” films and exhibits.  The chairmen, vice chairmen, and secretaries general of the Guangdong Buddhist Association, Islamic Association, Catholic Association, and Christian Association attended.  Participants vowed to promote Sinicization in their respective religious teachings.

According to the Haixia Buddhist Network website, on February 26, monks and employees of Guangdong Buddhist Association and Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP by watching a video lecture on CCP history presented by the Central Party School.  According to the network’s website, monks in attendance said the CCP’s history was “a history of seeking happiness for the people” and that “the Chinese people have become prosperous and strong under the leadership of the CCP.”  Master Mingsheng, president of the Guangdong Buddhist Association, called on Buddhists to adhere to the Sinicization of Buddhism and to “guide Buddhism to be compatible with Socialism.”

According to a TSPM news outlet, the Guangdong Provincial Two Christian Councils held a ceremony at the Guangdong Union Theological Seminary on March 5 to launch a series of programs celebrating the CCP’s 100th anniversary.  Pastoral personnel and approximately 200 teachers and students participated.  The programs included lectures on Party history and a knowledge contest on the themes of “knowing the Party’s history, feeling the Party’s favor, listening to the Party, and following the Party.”  There was also a seminar on the Sinicization of Christianity.  Pastor Fan Hongen told participants the Guangdong Provincial Two Christian Councils was actively adapting to socialist society and strengthening the mission of Sinicizing Christianity.

According to ChinaAid, on June 25, the TSPM-affiliated Shandong Theological Seminary in Shandong Province held a theatrical performance with the theme of “Sing a Praise to the Party” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding.

According to the UFWD of Guangdong Province, from March 22 to 28, the Guangdong Islamic Association organized imam training classes at the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Socialism.  Thirty-six imams from nine cities in the province attended the one-week training session, at which they studied the history of the CCP, socialism, and how to “adhere to the direction of the Sinicization of Guangdong Islam.”  Imams attending the training said they would “unswervingly” listen to the Party.

According to the CCPA website, the Guangdong Catholic Association celebrated the 100th anniversary of the CCP by organizing a CCP training session in Guangxi Province from April 12 to 16 for 40 priests from 21 different cities.  The participants toured several CCP “red education” sites, learned the “heroic deeds of revolutionary martyrs,” and were encouraged to “love the party.”

In May, the Minnan Buddhist Institute, located in Nanputuo Buddhist Temple, Xiamen City, Fujian Province, held a public speaking contest on the theme of “studying the history of the Party, thanking the Party, and following the Party.”  Approximately 700 faculty members and students attended the contest to praise the Party’s “brilliant history and great accomplishments,” according to the Nanputuo Buddhist Temple’s website.  RFA reported that a Shandong monk criticized the contest, saying that the Buddhist Institute coerced monks into participating.  He stated that the institute would prohibit students who did not participate from studying there.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country.  Many religious groups, including groups connected to the five “patriotic religious associations,” faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances.  On April 3, International Christian Concern reported that the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) planned to intensify efforts to shut down social organizations, private nonenterprise units, and foundations that were not registered with relevant authorities.  Organizations that had their registration revoked but nevertheless continued with their activities would also be targeted, the ministry said.  According to RFA, “The MCA’s latest campaign has already begun in some provinces, such as Sichuan.  The Department of Civil Affairs in Sichuan published a list of 84 ‘Illegal Social Organizations’ on March 25 which contain[ed] several Buddhist and Christian groups, including the heavily persecuted house church Early Rain Covenant Church.”

ChinaAid reported that authorities continued to harass members of the Trinity Gospel Harvest Church in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, during the year.  On March 1, security officials warned members against gathering to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Church’s founding.  On April 25, police and religious affairs officers raided Church services and detained pastors Mao Zhibin and Cao Yuan and eight members for questioning, without explanation.  On July 11, authorities again raided Sunday worship services.  The government formally banned the Church at the end of April.  According to ChinaAid, in May, authorities closed a beach where baptisms of new members were to take place in order to prevent the baptisms, causing the group to move to another beach.  In September, under instructions from the local police, a Shenzhen hotel refused service to Church members and refunded fees they paid to stay there.

Bitter Winter reported authorities cracked down on religious groups that organized prayer meetings in hotel rooms.  On March 16 in Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, the Renai Reformed Church organized a prayer meeting in the Wenzhou Hotel complex.  Police raided the room and arrested several congregants.  When Church elder Zhang Chunlei went to the station to negotiate the release of the Church members, police arrested him as well and held him in detention for 15 days.  They raided the houses of followers and confiscated computers and religious materials.  Reporting on the same March 16 raid, RFA said officials stated they detained the individuals because gatherings were restricted to family members due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October, ChinaAid reported that the local government of Jiake village, Yunnan Province, the TSPM, and the Chinese Christian Council banned Kai Yiduo from taking part in religious activities in what ChinaAid said was retribution for his dispute with the local government.  Yiduo said the government had not compensated him after demolishing his home.

In November, the Jerusalem Post reported that authorities again did not permit Jews in Kaifeng City, Henan Province, to celebrate Hanukkah.  Sources reported that on November 28, the Jewish community in Shanghai was able to hold a Hannukah commemoration.

In September, Bitter Winter reported the China Christian Council instructed all churches and congregations to “organize worship activities” to commemorate the 76th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan in World War II and to “further promote the fine tradition of patriotism and love of religion and to demonstrate the good image of peace-loving Christianity in China.”  The directive stated, “Churches are requested to submit evidence of the relevant activities (text, video and photo materials) to the Media Ministry Department of the China Christian Council by September 10.”  A photograph accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed students at Fujian Theological Seminary in Fujian Province praying for Red Army “martyrs.”

Throughout the year, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups from congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown.  According to media, in some localities, government officials used COVID-19 precautions as a pretext to prevent religious organizations from recommencing their activities long after restrictions had been lifted in analogous nonreligious contexts.  According to the National Catholic Reporter, authorities prevented Catholics from celebrating the Feast of Mary on May 24 at the Sheshan Shrine in Shanghai, the country’s most famous Marian shrine and traditionally a pilgrimage site.  Authorities cited the COVID-19 pandemic, but critics noted the government permitted amusement parks and a golf club in the area to remain open during the same period.  There was at least one case, however, where authorities relaxed restrictions:  when monks at the Shenyang Ci’en Buddhist Temple in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, declared, “Monks and believers love the Party and will continue to follow the party to accomplish Sinicization,” government officials authorized them to resume large-scale services.

One source said the government used COVID-19 prevention as a pretext to close Islamic venues, particularly in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where Hui Muslims are concentrated, while allowing Buddhist temples to remain open.

RFA reported that on April 30, officials in Yunnan Province shut down the Bulai Protestant Church in Lao Muden village, Fugong County, ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, despite the church’s having been allowed to meet previously throughout the pandemic.  China Christian Daily reported that on August 1, an unregistered church in Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province, was forced to interrupt its on-site Sunday service when local officials, citing “reducing crowds for epidemic prevention and control,” cut off the electricity and pasted seals on the doors.  Authorities also suspended services at other local churches in Suzhou, China Christian Daily reported.

According to the Economist, many house churches held services online and there were numerous Bible study groups and church forums on WeChat.  Some unauthorized seminaries and missionary training schools moved online.  One pastor said some online congregations were 50 percent larger than in-person meetings.  However, in March, Open Doors USA reported officials monitored online activities and “even officially registered churches were ordered to stop online services.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although they allowed some musical and cultural events to take place in what Bitter Winter described as “cosmetic” activities designed to give the appearance of religious tolerance.  Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Rong’an County, Liuzhou City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region ordered elementary and kindergarten teachers and students not to celebrate Christmas at school or at home, calling the holiday a “Western celebration.”  The directive included the name and contact number for a tip line for people to report individuals “doing any event” for Christmas.

Media and human rights organizations reported SARA regulations stating that only the Islamic Association of China was permitted to organize Muslim pilgrimage trips, issued in 2020, remained in effect.  The regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” must have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health.  They also had to be able to pay all costs associated with Hajj travel and to oppose religious extremism.  According to a notice issued by the Islamic Association of China on June 15, citing the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended all Hajj activities during the year.

The government continued to label several religious groups, including the CAG, Shouters, Association of Disciples, All-Sphere Church, and many others, as cults or xie jiao organizations.  The government also continued to ban groups, such as Falun Gong, that it classified as illegal organizations.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 26, the Supreme People’s Court published its “Opinion on Providing Judicial Services and Protection for Accelerating the Modernization of Agriculture and Rural Areas.”  The “opinion” included provisions to “intensify the punishment of illegal religious activities and overseas infiltration activities” in rural areas, “crack down on organizing and using xie jiao organizations to commit crimes,” and “stop the use of religion and xie jiao from interfering in rural public affairs.”

Bitter Winter reported that on October 23, approximately 100 children from preschools of the district of Jiaocheng in Ningde City, Fujian Province, underwent a program of “preventive education.”  The children, ages three to six, received picture booklets, viewed a panel exhibition, and watched cartoons warning against “xie jiao and illegal religion.”  One film presented the CAG as a cult, and others admonished against “superstition” and “illegal religion” in general.

Bitter Winter reported provincial governments shut down local branches of the Good News Mission, a Protestant religious group with ties to South Korea.  On March 30, the Civil Affairs Bureau of Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province, banned the group and raided local communities.  On April 30, the government in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, announced prefecture authorities had banned the Good News Mission and shut down its churches.  According to Bitter Winter, the Good News Mission was “not in the list of xie jiao, but it is now a common strategy to ban a religious movement in one region and province after the other, leading to a de facto national ban.”

Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to link xie jiao to criminal activities and other social ills.  In November, border police and “legal education” officers carried out a surveillance and propaganda operation in Ningming County, Guangxi Province, and Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, both on the border with Vietnam, prompted by what Bitter Winter said were fears that illegal religious groups might enter the country via Vietnam.  The campaign against drug smuggling and HIV/AIDS included indoctrinating residents against “illegal religion” and xie jiao.  It targeted 600,000 Hani, who hold predominantly shamanistic beliefs, and 900,000 Yi, who practice both Christianity and shamanistic religions.

Bitter Winter reported that on National Security Education Day on April 15, authorities mounted exhibitions as part of an anti-xie jiao campaign, and students across the country signed pledges to renounce illegal religious activities by groups labeled cults.  Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court, called cults “a cancer” and stated the CCP had three main targets:  Falun Gong, CAG, and the Association of Disciples.  He also said cults colluded with Western anti-China forces, and he accused the Association of Disciples of manipulating some local elections.  The article included a photograph from the social media site Weibo showing students from Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications in Chongqing Province signing a large billboard pledging to renounce xie jiao.

State-run media reported that on September 10, Qiongshan District in Haikou City, Hainan Province, organized a series of anti-illicit drugs and anticult propaganda activities in middle schools.  Government officials distributed brochures, hung propaganda banners, and gave lectures to teachers and students on how to recognize a cult and “consciously resist it.”

Media reported that in June in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, volunteers conducted large-scale COVID-19 testing at multiple locations, where they distributed educational literature warning against xie jiao alongside personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.  The volunteers reportedly posted signs publicizing an “anti-xie jiao” app, and digital billboards warned residents about the harmful influence of xie jiao and advised them to “be wary of cult organizations taking advantage of the epidemic to spread rumors and create chaos.”

According to Bitter Winter, in October, prefecture-level city authorities in Hui’an County and nearby Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, launched an anti-xie jiao program as part of their celebration of the CCP’s centennial anniversary.  Teachers organized lessons in all elementary and middle schools and distributed propaganda material against xie jiao and “illegal religion.”  Individuals played a WeChat game in which they proved they had read the propaganda material by answering questions.  Those who answered the most questions correctly won prizes.  According to Bitter Winter, the names of those who scored low were sent to the local CCP secretaries.  Local CCP officials said the initiative was needed because during the COVID-19 pandemic, “illegal religion” and xie jiao had increased in Fujian.

According to media, authorities maintained a near ubiquitous surveillance system through the development and widespread deployment of advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, CCTVs, and social media applications.  In October, an academic who studies the subject told the Diplomat that domestic police departments in ethnic minority areas in Ningxia, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces and elsewhere purchased digital forensics tools to scan mobile phone hard drives for “more than 50,000 markers or patterns of illegal activity.”  More than 500 cities and municipalities across the country developed “smart city systems” that used forms of biometric surveillance that could surveil ethnic and religious minorities.

According to ChinaAid, on March 19, the Siming District Religious Affairs Bureau in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, released a circular that instructed police officers to patrol office buildings and hotels in the district on Saturday evenings and Sundays to prevent a resurgence of house church gatherings that were suppressed in past months and years.  The circular identified several buildings and streets for priority patrol.

CBN News reported in August that the government encouraged citizens to report anyone distributing printed religious material or holding worship gatherings.  Authorities offered informants RMB 1,000 ($160).  One Hui Muslim source said officials instructed children to report on their parents’ and family’s religious and cultural practices.  ChinaAid reported that in early January, authorities in Shijiazhuang, Baoding, Xingtai, and other areas in Hebei Province encouraged the public to report house churches.  Authorities in Xingtai issued a “Notice on Rewards for Reporting Religious Activities during the Epidemic,” promising whistleblowers a reward of more than RMB 500 ($78).  In early August, authorities in Meilisi Daur District, Qiqihar City, Heilongjiang Province, announced a “Reward System for Reporting Illegal Religious Activities and Crimes,” under which individuals could make reports by phone, email, or letter, and receive RMB 1,000 ($160).  According to ChinaAid, reportable violations included “unqualified religious personnel, unauthorized cross-regional activities, preaching and distribution of printed religious works, audiovisual products outside of worship venues, unauthorized donations, and private family gatherings.”

In January, the Christian rights advocacy NGO World Watch Monitor reported authorities in Henan and Jiangxi Provinces placed surveillance cameras in all state-approved religious venues.  Many of the cameras were reportedly installed next to standard CCTV cameras but were linked to the Public Security Bureau, meaning artificial intelligence could instantly connect with other government databases.

The New York Times reported in February that authorities in Sanya City, Hainan Province, continued to take measures against the 10,000-member, predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, including efforts to ban girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school.  Signs on shops and homes that read “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) in Arabic were covered with foot-wide stickers with the words “China Dream,” a nationalistic official slogan.  Restaurants removed the Chinese characters for halal from signs and menus.  Authorities closed two Islamic schools.  Local mosque leaders said authorities told them to remove loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer from the tops of minarets, place them on the ground, and turn down the volume.  Authorities halted construction of a new mosque because of its supposedly “Arab” architectural elements.  According to residents, the city barred children younger than 18 from studying Arabic.  The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued “Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui,” which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods in the island province.  One academic, commenting on the measures, told the New York Times, “This is about trying to strengthen state control.  It’s purely anti-Islam.”

According to a National Review article published in July, the government continued to require churches to display banners with CCP slogans, perform the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and “demonstrate their loyalty to the CCP above all, and only secondarily to the church.”  According to the National Review, “Consistent indoctrination and blatant submission to communist standards [was] spreading across all religious groups.”

According to Open Doors USA, in Shanxi, Henan, and Jiangxi Provinces, authorities threatened Christians with the removal of social welfare benefits and pensions if they refused to replace Christian imagery, such as crosses, with pictures of Xi Jinping.  One Christian on welfare assistance reported officials told him that since he believed in God, he should ask God for food instead of living off the CCP.

In April, UCA News reported that authorities in Zhaoxian City, Hebei Province, closed the House of the Dawn orphanage operated by Catholic nuns from the Sisters of the Child Jesus congregation, accusing the nuns of “illegal adoption practices.”  Local sources stated authorities actually closed the orphanage as part of a crackdown on church facilities operated by the unregistered Catholic Church.  The orphanage served more than 100 children, many with special needs.  According to UCA News, authorities accused Christian-run organizations of proselytizing and converting children through their social and charitable work.

According to ChinaAid, on September 4 in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, more than 30 CCP officials, including SWAT officers, police, religious affairs bureau officials, and local school district administrators, raided the Maizi Christian Music High School and arrested all staff members and several students.  They seized school assets, including pianos, computers, and documents.  Prior to the raid, police took the school’s principal into custody.  The students were released after 24 hours, but authorities held staff for questioning for several days.  According to AsiaNews, there were reports authorities would charge the school principal with proselytizing.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, the Quran, and other religious texts.  The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups.  During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” emanating from unofficial distribution channels.

ChinaAid reported in July that the Bao’an District Court in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, found four Christian employees of the Shenzhen Life Tree Technology Development Company guilty of “illegal business” and gave them sentences ranging from fifteen months to up to six years in prison, with fines of up to RMB 200,000 ($31,400).  Authorities arrested the individuals in 2020 for illegally selling audio Bible players and confiscated their electronics and other belongings.

Local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Lunar New Year.  Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them.  According to ChinaAid, officials in Pingdingshan, Henan Province, went house to house tearing couplets off the doors of Christian families that displayed faith-related messages.

In October, the BBC reported that Apple, at the request of the government, removed from its store the app Quran Majeed, which allows users to download the Quran.  The media outlet stated, “The BBC understands that the app was removed for hosting illegal religious texts.”  Apple declined to comment to the BBC.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials.  According to International Christian Concern, authorities removed Bible-related apps from app stores.  Catholic News Agency reported in October that a digital Bible company removed its app from the Apple app store after Apple stated the company must demonstrate it had authorization from the government to distribute an app with book or magazine content in mainland China.

In May, International Christian Concern reported that according to a tweet by Father Francis Liu from the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness, the home pages of some Christian WeChat accounts, such as “Gospel League” and “Life Quarterly,” no longer showed any content.  Instead, visitors saw a message reading, “[We] received a report that [this account] violates the ‘Internet User Public Account Information Services Management Provisions’ and its account has been blocked and suspended.”

China Christian Daily reported the government blocked many registered churches’ WeChat accounts during a crackdown on online Christian content.  The banned accounts were managed by TSPM-approved churches in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Yunnan Provinces.  The Shanghai Pure Heart Church, Huai’an Church of Jiangsu Province, and Nanjing Holy Word Church of Jiangsu Province were among the churches whose official WeChat accounts that authorities blocked.  “Today’s Nanjing Union Life,” the WeChat page of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the only national Protestant seminary in the country, was inaccessible from May to the end of the year.  China Christian Daily further reported that WeChat censored the words “Christ,” “gospel,” and “fellowship.”  ChinaAid also reported that authorities blocked key words related to Christianity from search engines.

International Christian Concern stated Bibles in hard copy were not available for sale online and said TSPM-owned bookstores were increasingly selling books promoting Xi Jinping Thought and CCP ideology.  According to International Christian Concern, “Even their WeChat accounts are turning into propaganda channels for CCP.”

ChinaAid reported that at the end of the year, a court upheld the initial verdict in the second trial of Chen Yu (also known as Zhang Xiaomai).  Chen owned and operated the Xiaomai Bookstore in Linhai, Zhejiang Province, which sold Christian books online and in-store.  In September 2019, the government arrested Chen for selling online “illegal religious overseas publications” and sentenced him to seven years in prison and a fine of RMB 200,000 ($31,400).  Authorities also confiscated 12,864 books and investigated more than 10,000 individuals who bought from Chen.  Nationwide, authorities confiscated all copies Chen sold of ERCC Pastor Wang Yi’s Transformation of the Gospel.

ChinaAid reported that the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee censored information related to Christianity in school textbooks.  In one textbook containing a picture of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, authorities changed the word in the description from “God” to “Old Man,” and in the description of a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, they changed “Holy Mother and Holy Son” to “mother and son.”

A Hui Muslim source told international media the government was attempting to remove characteristics of Hui religion and culture to make Hui citizens indistinguishable from Han citizens, with whom they share physical characteristics and language.  Authorities took down minarets and domes and consolidated mosques.  He said authorities trained clergy in Party doctrine and instructed them to pass those teachings on to their religious communities.  The government targeted Hui cultural and business elites to remove Hui texts and art and cut off independent financial support to the community.  The source called this a kind of “cultural genocide.”

On October 24, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that the government had removed domes and minarets from thousands of mosques across the country, saying these were evidence of “foreign religious influence,” and to replace them with more traditionally Chinese architectural features.  Authorities removed the dome and minarets from the Dongguan Mosque in Xining City, Qinghai Province.  According to one local resident, “The government says they want us to ‘Sinicize’ our mosques so that they look more like Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.”  NPR stated the campaign coincided with rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and growing religious restrictions.

According to ChinaAid, on February 1, authorities for the second time removed a 100-year-old cross from Shuixin Church in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province, against the wishes of the congregation.  They first cut the building’s electricity and then took the church’s night watch staff into custody.  According to one Christian observer, several security guards held one church member in a headlock and confiscated his mobile phone.  They warned him, “Do not fight back.  We are enforcing orders from higher officials.”  Authorities had removed the cross in June 2014, but the church later reinstalled it.

ChinaAid reported that on July 28, authorities in Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province, forced several fishermen to remove crosses from their privately owned fishing vessels.  Authorities also erased “Emmanuel” slogans painted on boats and threatened that if the fishermen refused to cooperate, authorities would not grant them fishing permits or allow them to purchase gasoline for their boats.  The authorities did not present any legal documents supporting their actions.  The fishermen wrote on social media, “The government is completely unreasonable.  Fishing boats are our personal property.  We have the right to put crosses on our boats.  Religious freedom is written in the constitution.  However, it is just empty talk.  The government never enforces the constitution.”

According to Bitter Winter, in January authorities sentenced Pastor Li Juncai of the Yuan Yang County House Church in Xinxiang City, Henan Province, to five and a half years in prison.  In early 2019, Li had resisted government orders to remove the cross from his building and change the Church motto from “Love God and Love Others” to “Love the Country and Love Religion.”  He also objected to constructing a stand within the church where a national flag would be placed.  Authorities arrested Li in February 2019, and the Yuan Yang County prosecutor’s office charged him with “misappropriation of office, obstruction of official duties, and destruction of accounts.”  He remained in jail until his trial.  The court found him guilty on all three counts.

According to the SARA data, at year’s end, religious groups ran 87 schools in the country, including 37 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, nine Catholic, and 21 Protestant.  Authorities barred students younger than 18 from receiving religious instruction, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.  According to the SARA, there were six national-level religious colleges.  Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said one of these institutions was primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors.

In March, Open Doors USA reported authorities using CCTV observed a woman in Shandong Province taking her child to a state-affiliated church.  Officials reprimanded her for violating the ban on children participating in religious activities, such as attending church.

In May, Bitter Winter reported that police came to the home of Zhao Weikai, a worker at Taiyuan Reformed Church in Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province, with an arrest warrant for “religious fraud.”  Police arrested Zhao and confiscated his mobile phone and other items.  They reportedly told Zhao to stop homeschooling minors, which is prohibited by law.  Individuals present questioned the summons’ validity, saying that court officials had neither signed nor stamped it.

In November, ChinaAid reported that during the year, the government shut down several informal Christian schools.  On May 27, authorities raided the Xuan De learning center, affiliated with the Wuhu Jiamishan Christian Church in Anhui Province.  They confiscated books, computers, and mobile phones, and detained the school’s headmaster and teachers.  On May 28, the Wuhu civil affairs bureau labeled the center an “illegal social organization,” and in July, the Wuhu local government deemed the Church an “illegal gathering.”  On October 12, police arrested five educators from the Abeka Academy, a U.S.-based Christian homeschool education program in Zhenjiang City, Jiangsu Province, and detained children, parents, and teachers.

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

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

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations, and the Holy See had no official representative to the country.  Media stated the SARA’s “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy” made no provision for the Vatican to have a role in the selection of Catholic bishops, despite the 2018 Sino-Vatican provisional agreement reportedly involving both Chinese authorities and the Holy See in the process of appointing bishops.  AsiaNews stated the regulations undermined the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.  The news outlet said, “Even Catholic bishops, although ‘approved and ordained’ by the Council of Chinese Bishops, can only exercise their ministry after registering with the SARA.  In this way, the state and not the Church retains management of the pastoral ministry of bishops.”  According to AsiaNews, the provisions reenforced the distinction between official and unofficial priests and bishops, “thus endorsing and supporting the division imposed by the regime.”  Some senior Chinese sources, however, told the Catholic news outlet The Pillar that the new rules would not invalidate the agreement.  One Catholic cleric said provisions on financial management were aimed not at Catholic churches but rather at Buddhist temples, while those pertaining to “foreign domination” were aimed primarily at underground Protestant house churches.  He said the government had omitted the Vatican from the regulations because the CCP would not want to publicly identify a foreign power in any way, despite coordinating on the selection of bishops.

Media reported that on May 20, authorities detained seven priests and an unspecified number of seminarians in Xinxiang City, Henan Province, for using an abandoned factory as a seminary to train priests.  On May 21, they arrested Vatican-approved Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu.  All were accused of violating the SARA’s May 1 regulation outlawing religious activities, including worship, in places not registered with the state.  The CCPA does not recognize Xinxiang as a diocese, although it was created by the Vatican in 1936.  Zhang was ordained by the Vatican as a bishop in 1991, but his appointment was not approved by the two state-sanctioned church bodies – the BCCCC and CCPA – and he was not among the Vatican-approved bishops recognized as a result of the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.

Media reported in April that authorities in Cangnan County, Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province, fined Catholic Huang Ruixun RMB 200,000 ($31,400) for offering his private chapel to Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin and approximately 20 worshippers to conduct services.  They charged that the event was an illegal religious activity.  Shao was ordained by the Vatican as Bishop of Yongjia/Wenzhou Diocese in 2016, but he was not among the Vatican-approved bishops recognized as a result of the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.

On September 8, Franciscan Father Francis Cui Qingqi was ordained Bishop of Hankou/Wuhan Diocese, with the approval of the state and the Catholic Church, making him the sixth bishop ordained since the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement of 2018, and the fourth since it was extended in 2020.  The Vatican press office director told journalists that Pope Francis appointed Cui on June 23, 2020.  Media stated the state-sanctioned BCCCC had elected him “democratically” on September 27, 2020.

A number of Catholic clergy, including some bishops appointed by the Pope, remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that during an August 27-28 conference on ethnic affairs attended by CCP leaders, legislators, and the political advisory body, including all seven Politburo Standing Committee members, President Xi told attendees to “continue to eradicate poisonous thoughts of ethnic separatism and religious extremism.”  SCMP reported that Xi’s statements were an apparent attempt to “rebuff international allegations of human rights abuses.”

According to the State Council website, the government convened a national conference on religious affairs on December 3-4, the first since 2016, that called on clergy, the CCP, and government officials to ensure religious doctrine followed the CCP.  At the conference, President Xi said religions in the country had made progress in “enhancing their recognition” of the Chinese nation and culture, along with the CCP and socialism.  Xi emphasized the need to “uphold and develop a religious theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics, work in line with the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, and uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation.”  Xi urged “full and strict governance of religions.”  He told CCP and government officials to train individuals who were “adept at the Marxist view on religion, familiar with religious affairs, and competent to engage in work related to religious believers.”  According to media reports, Xi further emphasized strengthening “the management of online religious affairs,” which critics said implied that religious practitioners would be disciplined for inappropriate online commentary.

The Associated Press reported that on May 18, the host of a program on CGTN, the overseas channel of state broadcaster CCTV, used antisemitic tropes.  Speaking in English, Zheng Junfeng said, “Some people believe that U.S. pro-Israeli policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews in the U.S. and the Jewish lobby on U.S. foreign policy makers… Jews dominate finance and internet sectors.”  Responding on Twitter, the Israeli embassy in China stated, “We have hoped that the times of the ‘Jews controlling the world’ conspiracy theories were over, unfortunately antisemitism has shown its ugly face again.  We are appalled to see blatant antisemitism expressed in an official Chinese media outlet.”

In a June SCIO white paper entitled, “The Communist Party of China and Human Rights Protection – A 100-Year Quest,” the government stated that it protects “normal religious activities” and “does not interfere in the internal affairs of religions.”

On August 13, the outlet Algemeiner described as antisemitic a caricature of the U.S. Secretary of State that the state-owned Xinhua news agency published alongside Xinhua’s article on the Secretary’s July meeting with World Health Organization head Tendros Ghebreyesus.  The cartoon depicted the Secretary as a devil with red skin, horns, and a large, elongated nose, holding a report entitled “COVID-19 Origins Tracing.”  The American Jewish Committee denounced the cartoon on Twitter, calling it “despicable.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers.  Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities.

In 2020, the Economist reported employment discrimination against ethnic minorities was pervasive, citing a study that found that Hui job seekers had to send twice as many applications as Han applicants and that Uyghurs had on average to send nearly four times as many applications just to hear back from potential employers.  The study found the gap was greater for highly educated workers, with Uyghur candidates who were in the top 1 percent academically having to send six times as many applications as their Han counterparts.  According to the Economist, the application gap was “similar in both smaller cities and in the provincial-level regions of Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai.  State-owned enterprises, which have an official mandate to hire more minority workers, appeared at least as biased as other firms.”

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

In June, the Diplomat reported growing anti-Muslim sentiment in society as a result of the government’s Sinicization campaign, which the Diplomat said could lead to violence.  Sources said government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility toward that group.  Anti-Muslim speech in social media reportedly remained widespread.

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

In January, media reported messages on social media blamed local Catholics from Shijiazhuang City and “several priests from Europe and the United States” for the spread of COVID-19 in Hebei Province that resulted in a lockdown on January 6.  Local priests denounced the posts, saying there had been no religious activities, masses, or meetings since December 24, 2020.


Executive Summary

The constitution specifies Islam is the state religion and defines the national identity as being based on a single religion – Sunni Islam – but proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all, regardless of religious belief.  The constitution also specifies that the principles and rules that regulate worship and social life be based on Sunni Islam under the Shafi’i doctrine.  Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so.  The law prohibits the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places on the basis of “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.”  There were no reports of arrests for Comorians engaging in other religious practices, but members of non-Sunni groups reported broad self-censorship and stated they practiced or spoke about their beliefs only in private.  Shia Muslims continued to report government surveillance during religious observances important to their community.  For the second consecutive year, there were no reports of national leaders making public statements against religious minorities.  One religious minority group leader said that 2021 had been “generally quiet and peaceful” and attributed the government’s relative restraint to international engagement related to this issue.  Shia commemorations of all Eids, Ramadan, and Ashura proceeded peacefully on all three islands.  Shia Muslims on Anjouan said that local authorities prevented them from practicing in the Shia mosque that had existed on the island for more than a year; they were forced to worship in a Shia community center instead.

There continued to be reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals who were suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity or from Sunni to Shia Islam.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar engaged on issues of religious freedom with government officials, including President Azali Assoumani and officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Justice, focusing on the importance of individuals having the ability to practice their religion freely and of government officials refraining from statements criticizing religious minorities.  Embassy representatives also discussed religious freedom with religious and civil society leaders and others, including members of minority religious groups.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Comoros 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 864,000 (midyear 2021), of which 98 percent is Sunni Muslim.  Roman Catholics, Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Protestants together make up less than 2 percent of the population.  Non-Muslims are mainly foreign residents and are concentrated in the country’s capital, Moroni, and the capital of Anjouan, Mutsamudu.  Shia and Ahmadi Muslims mostly live on the island of Anjouan.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and citizens shall draw principles and rules to regulate worship and social life from the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam.  The preamble “affirms the will of the Comorian people” to cultivate a national identity based on a single religion, Sunni Islam.  It proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all individuals regardless of religion or belief.  A law establishes the Sunni Shafi’i doctrine as the “official religious reference” and provides sanctions of five months’ to one year’s imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs ($230-$1,200), or both, for campaigns, propaganda, or religious practices or customs in public places that could cause social unrest or undermine national cohesion.

The law prohibits anyone from insulting a minister of religion in the exercise of his functions, punishable by a fine of 50,000 to 150,000 francs ($120-$350), and anyone who strikes or assaults a minister of religion in the exercise of his function will be punished with imprisonment of one to five years.

Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for the deportation of foreigners who do so.  The penal code states, “Whoever discloses, spreads, and teaches Muslims a religion other than Islam will be punished with imprisonment of three months to one year and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs” ($120-$1,200).  The law also states, “The sale [or] the free distribution to Muslims of books, brochures, magazines, records and cassettes or any other media teaching a religion other that Islam” will be punished with the same penalties.

There is no official registration process for religious groups.  The law allows Sunni religious groups to establish places of worship, train clergy, and assemble for peaceful religious activities.  It does not allow non-Sunni religious groups to assemble for peaceful religious activities in public places, although foreigners are permitted to worship at three Christian churches in Moroni, Mutsamudu, and Moheli, and foreign Shia Muslims are permitted to worship at a Shia mosque in Moroni.

The law prohibits proselytizing or the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places, to avoid “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.”  Without specifying religion, the penal code provides penalties for the profaning of any spaces designated for worship, for interfering with religious leaders in the performance of their duties, or in cases where the practice of sorcery, magic, or charlatanism interferes with public order.  The new penal code, adopted in February, provides a penalty from one to six months imprisonment and a fine of 150,000 to 750,000 francs ($350-$1,700) for those offenses.

According to the constitution, the Grand Mufti is the highest religious authority in the country.  The President appoints the Grand Mufti, who manages issues concerning religion and religious administration.  The Grand Mufti heads an independent government institution called the Supreme National Institution in Charge of Religious Practices in the Union of the Comoros.  The Grand Mufti counsels the government on matters concerning the practice of Islam and Islamic law.

The law provides that before the month of Ramadan, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Council of Ulema publish a ministerial decree providing instructions to the population for events that month.

The government uses the Quran in public primary schools for Arabic reading instruction.  There are more than 200 fee-based schools with Quranic instruction that also receive some support from the government.  The tenets of Islam are sometimes taught in conjunction with Arabic in public and private schools at the middle and high school levels.  A new education law adopted in May provides that “pre-elementary education (for ages three to five years) aims at acquiring the first elements of the Muslim religion,” including initiation into reading the Quran.

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

Government Practices

A Shia leader said in July that 2021 had been “generally quiet and peaceful” for Shia Muslims in Moroni and that private Shia commemorations of all Eids, Ramadan, and Ashura were allowed to proceed and did so peacefully on all three islands.  Shia Muslims continued to report government surveillance during religious holidays important to their community.  For the second consecutive year, the President and other political leaders refrained from making public statements against religious minorities.  One religious minority group leader attributed the government’s relative restraint to international engagement related to this issue.

There were no reports of arrests for Comorians engaging in other religious practices, but members of non-Sunni groups reported broad self-censorship and stated they practiced or spoke about their beliefs only in private.  Shia and Ahmadi Muslims stated that they were not able to worship publicly and that government authorities sometimes attended religious gatherings held in private homes to observe their practices but did not interfere.

Ahmadi Muslims stated the tract of land on the island of Anjouan that was the site of an Ahmadi mosque seized and destroyed by local authorities in 2017 had not been returned to them.  Shia Muslims on Anjouan stated that local authorities prevented them from practicing in the Shia mosque that has existed on the island for more than a year.  Instead, they were forced to worship in a Shia community center that only has a rooftop space for prayer, exposing them to the elements.  Ahmadi and Shia Muslims on Anjouan stated they did not live in fear of violence but needed to exercise caution and self-censorship to avoid attracting unwanted attention from local authorities.

Expatriate Christian community members reported they had been waiting for more than four years for a government response to their application for a license to build a new nondenominational church.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were continued reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity.  Societal abuse and discrimination against non-Muslim citizens persisted, particularly against Christians or those who were converts from Islam.  Non-Muslim foreigners reported little to no discrimination.

Most non-Sunni Muslim citizens reportedly did not openly practice their faith for fear of societal rejection, and some Shia Muslims reported being harassed by Sunni Muslims.  Societal pressure and intimidation continued to restrict the use of the country’s three churches to noncitizens.  Christians reported they would not eat publicly during Ramadan so as not to draw attention to their faith.


Executive Summary

The country’s constitution contains written provisions for religious freedom and prohibitions against discrimination based on religious grounds.  According to the religious freedom advocacy organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the Cuban Communist Party (CCP), through its Office of Religious Affairs (ORA) and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), continued to control most aspects of religious life.  In its annual Watch List, Open Doors reported a continued rise in persecution of Christians in the country.  According to media, on July 11, security forces (a general term covering military, police, and vigilante forces) committed acts of violence against, detained, and harassed religious leaders from multiple faith communities who were participating in peaceful demonstrations across the country.  According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), security forces beat Roman Catholic priest Jose Castor Alvarez Devesa when he offered aid to an injured person at a protest in Camaguey on July 11.  CSW reported Pastor Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo faced up to a 10-year sentence for participating in a march the same day.  Rosales Fajardo was found guilty of charges in December and awaited sentencing at year’s end.  Sissi Abascal Zamora, a member of the Ladies in White opposition group, received a six-year sentence for participating in the July protests.  Authorities continued to subject members of the Association of Free Yorubas of Cuba (Free Yorubas) to arbitrary detentions, threats, physical violence, and verbal harassment.  The U.S.-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Global Liberty Alliance reported four members of Free Yorubas faced extended pretrial detention after their arrests following the July protests and prison sentences of up to 10 years.  The Spanish NGO Cuban Observatory of Human Rights registered at least 30 acts against leaders and laypersons from multiple faith communities as the government attempted to suppress public support for peaceful protests called for November 15.  According to NGO and media reports, those actions included the orchestration of demonstrations (acts of repudiation) in front of the homes of Catholic priests, police surveillance, internet cuts, and the harassment of a nun as she left her residence in Havana to meet a friend.  In August, security service officials arrested Apostolic Church pastor Alain Toledano Valiente for “propagating the COVID pandemic” when he held what he said was a socially distanced service.  Religious groups reported the ORA and MOJ continued to deny official registration to certain groups, including to several Apostolic churches, or did not respond to long-pending applications, such as those for the Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ).

Some religious groups and organizations, such as the Catholic charity Caritas, continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to individuals regardless of religious belief.  The Catholic-affiliated Community of Sant’Egidio continued to hold prayer and small group meetings in spite of COVID-19 restrictions.

Due to a lack of government responsiveness, U.S. embassy officials did not meet with or otherwise engage the ORA during the year.  In public statements and on social media, U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call upon the government to respect the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including the freedom of religion.  Embassy officials met regularly with a range of religious groups concerning the state of religious freedom and political activities related to religious groups’ beliefs.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Cuba 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 11 million (midyear 2021).  There is no independent, authoritative source on the overall size or composition of religious groups.  The Catholic Church estimates 60 percent of the population identifies as Catholic.  Membership in Protestant churches is estimated at 5 percent.  According to some observers, Pentecostals and Baptists are likely the largest Protestant denominations.  The Assemblies of God reports approximately 150,000 members; the four Baptist conventions estimate their combined membership at more than 100,000.

Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate their members at 95,000; Methodists 50,000; Seventh-day Adventists 36,000; Presbyterians 25,000; Anglicans 22,500; Episcopalians 10,000; Anabaptists 4,387 (mostly Iglesia de Los Hermanos en Cristo, the Brethren of Christ); Quakers 1,000; Moravians 750; and the Church of Jesus Christ 357 members.  There are approximately 4,000 followers of 50 Apostolic churches (an unregistered, loosely affiliated network of Protestant churches, also known as the Apostolic Movement) and a separate New Apostolic Church associated with the New Apostolic Church International.  According to some Christian leaders, evangelical Protestant groups continue to grow in the country.  The Jewish community estimates it has 1,200 members, of whom 1,000 reside in Havana.  According to a representative of the Islamic League, there are approximately 4,000 Muslims in the country, of whom fewer than half are native-born.  The representative also said that the majority of the Muslim population is Sunni.  Immigrants and native-born citizens practice several different Buddhist traditions, with estimates of 6,200 followers.  The largest group of Buddhists is the Japanese Soka Gakkai; its estimated membership is 1,000.  Other religious groups with small numbers of adherents include Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Baha’is.

Many individuals, particularly Afro-Cubans, practice religions with roots across Africa, including Yoruba groups often referred to by outsiders as Santeria, but by adherents as the order of Lucumi or Orisha worship.  Bantu-influenced groups refer to themselves as Palo Monte.  These religious practices are commonly intermingled with Catholicism and other forms of Christianity, and some require Catholic baptism for full initiation, making it difficult to estimate accurately their total membership.  Rastafarian adherents also have a presence on the island, although the size of the community is unknown.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “The state recognizes, respects, and guarantees religious liberty” and, “Distinct beliefs and religions enjoy equal consideration.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs.  It declares the country is a secular state and provides for the separation of religious institutions and the state.

The constitution also “recognizes, respects, and guarantees people’s freedom of thought, conscience, and expression.”  It provides for the “right to profess or not profess their religious beliefs, to change them, and to practice the religion of their choice…,” but only “with the required respect for other beliefs and in accordance with the law.”  At the same time, it states, “Conscientious objection may not be invoked with the intention of evading compliance with the law or impeding another from the exercise of their rights.”  Military service is mandatory for all men, and there are no legal provisions exempting conscientious objectors from service.  Similarly, the penal code prohibits anyone from using a religious basis to oppose “educational objectives, the duty to work, the defense of the Homeland…” and other requirements in the constitution.

The government is subordinate to the CCP; the party’s ORA enlists the entire government, especially the MOJ and the security services, to control religious practice in the country.  The ORA regulates religious institutions and the practice of religion.  The Law of Associations requires all religious groups to apply to the MOJ for official registration.  The MOJ registers religious denominations as associations on a basis similar to how it officially registers civil society organizations.  The application process requires religious groups to identify the location of their activities, their proposed leadership, and their funding sources, among other requirements.  Even if the MOJ grants official registration, the religious group must request permission from the ORA each time it wants to conduct activities other than regular services, such as holding meetings in approved locations, publishing major decisions from meetings, receiving foreign visitors, importing religious literature, purchasing and operating motor vehicles, and constructing, repairing, or purchasing places of worship.  Groups failing to register face penalties ranging from fines to closure of their organizations and confiscation of their property.

The penal code states membership in or association with an unregistered group is a crime; penalties range from fines to three months’ imprisonment, and leaders of such groups may be sentenced to up to one year in prison in addition to fines.

The law regulates the registration of “house churches” (private residences used as places of worship).  Two house churches of the same denomination may not exist within 1.2 miles of one another.  House churches must provide detailed information – including the number of worshippers, dates and times of services, and the names and ages of all inhabitants of the house in which services are held – to authorities.  The law states if authorization is granted, authorities will supervise the operation of meetings; they may suspend meetings in the house for a year or more if they find the requirements are not fulfilled.  If an individual registers a complaint against a church, the house church may be closed permanently and members subject to imprisonment.  Foreigners must obtain permission before attending services in a house church; foreigners may not attend house churches in some regions.  Any violation will result in fines and closure of the house church.

The constitution states, “The rights of assembly, demonstration and association are exercised by workers, both manual and intellectual; peasants; women; students; and other sectors of the working people,” but it does not explicitly address religious association.  The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.

A law in force since July 2019 curtails freedom of expression on the internet to protect against “disseminating information contrary to the common good, morals, decency, and integrity through public data transmission networks.”  The penalty for violating the law is 3,000 Cuban pesos ($120) or two to four years in prison.

Religious education is highly regulated, and homeschooling is illegal, with parents who homeschool their children subject to arrest.

The country signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 2008 but did not ratify it.  The government notes, “With respect to the scope and implementation of some of the provisions of this international instrument, Cuba will make such reservations or interpretative declarations as it may deem appropriate.”

Government Practices

Many religious groups said that despite constitutional provisions providing for freedom of conscience and religion and prohibiting discrimination based on religion, the government continued to use threats, detentions, violence, and other coercive tactics to restrict the activities of some religious groups, leaders, and followers, including the right of prisoners to practice religion freely.  Religious groups also said the government applied the law in an arbitrary and capricious manner to target religious groups and individuals whose views were not in line with the government’s.  Some religious groups continued to express concerns that the constitution, in effect since February 2019, significantly weakened protections for freedom of religion or belief and diluted references to freedom of conscience, separating it from freedom of religion.

In its annual Watch List, Open Doors, a self-described nondenominational, ecumenical Christian organization, reported a continued rise in the persecution of Christians in the country.  It attributed the continued rise to the government’s “highly restrictive measures against churches deemed to be opponents of the regime ­especially non-registered Protestant churches.”  The report noted the government used the COVID-19 crisis “as a pretext to hinder church and community activities, monitor church leaders, make arbitrary arrests, confiscate private property and impose extortion fees.”

CSW reported security forces targeted religious leaders amid unprecedented nationwide public protests that began on July 11 and led to state-directed violence, detention, and harassment against religious figures from multiple faith communities.  According to CSW, security officers arrested Lorenzo Rosales Fajardo, pastor of the unregistered nondenominational Monte de Sion Church, and his teenage son in the town of Palma Soriano during one of several peaceful protests across the country on July 11.  Authorities charged Rosales Fajardo with committing a series of crimes, including “disrespect” and “public disorder.”  He said that while he was in detention, guards subjected him to a brutal beating.  Following his December 20-21 trial, Rosales Fajardo was found guilty of the charges and awaited sentencing at year’s end.  A sentence could entail up to 10 years in prison.  Rosales Fajardo’s son was released following a week in captivity, after his mother paid a fine.  Government authorities had previously targeted Rosales Fajardo, including as far back as in 2012 when they seized his church property.

According to HRW, either a state security agent or a member of rapid response, government-affiliated paramilitary forces beat Catholic priest Jose Castor Alvarez Devesa with a bat while he tried to assist an injured protester during a July 11 demonstration in Camaguey.  Security forces detained him when he sought medical attention for his injuries.  The government later released Alvarez Devesa, but he remained under investigation through year’s end for incitement to commit crimes, and with his movements restricted.

CSW also reported two other pastors detained on July 11 in Matanzas, Yeremi Blanco Ramirez and Yarian Sierra Madrigal, spent two weeks in jail, with no means to communicate with their families, lawyers, or friends before their release to house arrest following international pressure.  Both men received fines for joining the protests and remained under police surveillance through year’s end.  While they were in custody, a landlord evicted the family of Pastor Sierra Madrigal from their home after state security pressured the landlord, according to CSW.  Later, authorities forced both men to sign a document that would justify their imprisonment should they participate in future protests.  Also on July 11, security forces detained, released, and later interrogated and threatened with charges of incitement Pastor Yusniel Perez Montejo of the Eastern Baptist Convention of Cuba.

During a visit to the country on September 9, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Archbishop of Boston, met with President Miguel Diaz-Canel.  The Associated Press reported that state media published images of the meeting but provided no details on the topics discussed.  On his departure from the country the following day, Cardinal O’Malley wrote in his blog that he had spoken to Diaz-Canel about the July 11 protests “and appealed for clemency for those involved in the demonstrations in a nonviolent way.”

The Global Liberty Alliance reported authorities continued to subject Free Yorubas leaders and members to additional arbitrary detentions, threats, fines, physical violence, and verbal harassment.  According to observers, although Yoruba and other African syncretic religious groups were given latitude to practice their beliefs as individuals, the government selectively recognized groups and leaders based on their favorable view of the government.  The NGO reported that in March, security forces beat and robbed a Free Yorubas youth leader, Dairon Hernandez Perez, outside his home as he returned from attending a religious event.  Hernandez Perez said members of the security forces and members of the government’s Black Berets, commonly described as shock troops and serving as a rapid response brigade, beat him extensively, damaged religious items, confiscated money, and threatened him with imprisonment for “pre-criminal dangerousness.”

In September, the Global Liberty Alliance sought precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of four members of the Free Yorubas, who faced extended pretrial detention after their arrests following the July 11 protests.  According to the NGO, Donaida Perez Paserio, Loreto Hernandez Garcia, Lisdiani Rodriguez Isaac, and Lisdani Rodriguez Isaac had faced repression from security forces over many years because the government did not recognize the Free Yorubas as a religious organization.  Prosecutors in Santa Clara cited a range of charges against the Free Yorubas detainees, including disobedience, public disorder, and assault or attack, and they sought eight-to-10-year combined prison sentences for the four.  At year’s end, all four were awaiting trial.

The Global Liberty Alliance recorded several other instances of Free Yorubas members being detained and fined for peaceful protests in July.  Police fined Elizabeth Cintron 3,000 pesos ($120) in August, thereby making her ineligible to stand trial.  Prior to paying the fine, Cintron was in pretrial detention.  Also in August, police forced Dayron Dadis Lorrando to pay a 1,000-peso fine ($40), which is approximately half the official minimum monthly wage, at a Santa Clara police station, a decision that denied him his right to due process.

According to media, in May, authorities released Christian human rights activist Mitzael Diaz Paseiro after he completed his three and a half-year sentence.  Diaz Paseiro said he was occasionally placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and deprived of water.  Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

In May, security forces arrested Pastor Yoel Demetrio, of the Cuban Apostolic Movement in Las Tunas, after eight security agents raided his church.  He was later released with a warning that he could face criminal charges for contempt.  In March, he had reported that unidentified individuals threw stones at his church in Las Tunas while members of his congregation held a prayer vigil inside.  Demetrio told reporters that authorities arbitrarily fined him several times, with no explanation of the reason for the fines.

Media reported police continued to detain members of the Ladies in White.  Throughout the year, Ladies in White leader Berta Soler Fernandez reported she faced repeated arrests and short detentions, although the organization had suspended much of its activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The group’s youngest member, Sissi Abascal Zamora, received a six-year sentence from a municipal court for participating in a July 11 protest.  The court found her guilty of contempt, hitting a police officer, and public disorder.

According to media, the potential for additional widespread protests in November led to increased repression against religious leaders, including the staging of “acts of repudiation” in front of their homes.  CSW condemned the targeting of religious leaders, which it said was a government attempt to block the November peaceful protests.  CSW reported police and state security agents summoned and interrogated many Protestant and Catholic religious leaders to intimidate and dissuade them from participating in the peaceful marches called by civil society groups.  The ORA delivered a direct warning to Catholic Church officials that three priests in Camaguey, Alberto Reyes Pias, Jose Castor Alvarez, and Rolando Montes de Oca, would be arrested if they participated in any protests.  One of the priests, Alberto Reyes, vowed to join the protests saying, “The gospel of Jesus Christ speaks of freedom, it speaks of justice, it speaks of truth… If being arrested is the price of being true to the teachings of the gospel, so be it.”  Multiple media outlets reported that on the morning of the proposed march on November 15, a group of CCP officials and sympathizers orchestrated an act of repudiation at the residence of the Archbishop of Camaguey, where Father Reyes was staying, along with Archbishop Wilfredo Pino Estevez.  According to press reports, the government used acts of repudiation that directed participants to verbally abuse and intimidate government critics so the critics would not leave their homes.  Because of the crowds at the protests and the presence of state security officers, the priests and many other religious leaders remained in their homes on November 15.

The Cuban Observatory of Human Rights registered at least 30 repressive acts against leaders and laypersons associated with various religious groups for showing their support for the proposed November marches.  Government actions included multiple acts of repudiation, police surveillance, internet cuts, and the harassment of the Mother Superior of the Daughters of Charity, Sister Nadieska Almeida, whom government supporters harassed on November 15 while she was walking to visit a friend in Havana.

According to CSW, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government targeted religious leaders by accusing them of hoarding goods, which many religious leaders provided to needy members of their communities.  CSW reported that in January, police arrested and detained Pastor Karel Parra Rosabal, the leader of an unregistered Apostolic Church in Las Tunas, on what the NGO said was a false charge of hoarding.  The pastor, who operated a small bike repair shop, was reportedly told by authorities he was being arrested “so that you learn that illegal churches in Cuba are not allowed.”  Authorities stated he had too many tools for his business without providing evidence that he had acquired them legally.  After 10 days in detention, authorities released him, and prosecutors dropped the charges against him.  They did not return his confiscated equipment, which he needed to provide for his family.

According to CSW, many religious groups continued to state their lack of legal registration impeded their ability to practice their religion.  Several religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ, continued to await decisions from the MOJ on pending applications for official registration, some dating as far back as 1994.  Despite a 2019 letter from Cuban Ambassador to the United States Jose Cabanas to the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ in Salt Lake City stating the denomination was “welcome” in the country, the MOJ had not approved the Church’s registration by year’s end.

Representatives of several religious organizations and religious freedom organizations said the government continued to interpret the law on associations as a means for the ORA and the MOJ to deny registration of certain groups.  They also said the MOJ’s determinations of ineligibilities for registration sometimes included the assertion that another group already had identical or similar objectives, which these representatives said was a pretext the government used to control and favor certain factions of a religious denomination or one religious group’s activities over others.

Members of Protestant denominations said some groups were still able to register only a small percentage of house churches in private homes, although some unregistered house churches could operate with little or no government interference.  CSW reported authorities continued to rely on two 2005 government resolutions limiting house churches to impose complicated and repressive restrictions on them.

At year’s end, Soka Gakkai continued to be the only Buddhist group registered with the government, and the Islamic League was the only registered Islamic group.

According to religious leaders and former inmates, authorities continued to deny prisoners, including political prisoners, pastoral visits and the ability to meet with other prisoners for worship, prayer, and study.  Many prisoners also said authorities repeatedly confiscated Bibles, crucifixes, rosary beads, and other religious items, sometimes as punishment and other times for no apparent reason.

CSW and religious leaders reported that the government, through the Ministry of Interior, continued to systematically plant informants in all religious organizations, sometimes by persuading or intimidating members and leaders to act as informants, or by sending informants to infiltrate a church.  The objective was to monitor and intimidate religious leaders and report on the content of sermons and on church attendees.  As a result, CSW said many leaders continued to practice self-censorship, avoiding stating anything that might possibly be construed as anti-Castro or counterrevolutionary in their sermons and teaching.  Catholic and Protestant church leaders, both in and outside the government-recognized Council of Cuban Churches (CCC), continued to report frequent visits from state security agents and CCP officials.  These church leaders said the purpose of the visits was to intimidate and to remind them they were under close surveillance, as well as to influence internal decisions and structures within the groups.

Many house church leaders continued to report frequent visits from state security agents or CCP officials.  Some reported warnings from the agents and officials that the education of their children, or their own employment, could be threatened if the house church leaders continued their activities.

According to news reports, authorities continued to harass Pastor Alain Toledano, a member of the Apostolic Movement and leader of the Emanuel Church in Santiago de Cuba.  Toledano said state security officials arrested him for “propagating the COVID pandemic” in August, when he said he held a socially distanced service.  In the weeks that followed, Toledano reported state security cited or interrogated at least eight members of his church for showing him support.

During the year, the government used internet laws restricting freedom of expression of independent journalists, including those promoting freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.  In addition, CSW continued to report the government used social media to harass and defame religious leaders, including Facebook posts and online editorials publicly targeting religious leaders or groups.  In most instances, accounts posting attacks targeting religious leaders seemed to be linked to state security.  According to the annual report of the U.S.-based human rights NGO Freedom House, the country had one of the most restrictive media environments in the world, including in terms of internet freedom such as restrictions on networks, blocking of social networks and websites, and the repression and arrest of individuals for using social media networks.  For example, according to HRW, on August 17, the government responded to the July 11 protests by issuing Decree Law 35, which further criminalized online content deemed to be critical of the government or that disseminated “content that violates the constitutional, social and economic precepts of the State” or incites acts that affect public order.

In July, the Cuban Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement calling for dialogue and imploring the government to respect citizens’ rights to freedom of expression.  In November, the Conference of Cuban Religious and Catholic leaders released statements condemning state intimidation of religious leaders, as well as what they termed the systematic repression of voices who criticize the government.

In May, 34 individuals and organizations signed a letter addressed to Cuba’s Chief of Mission at its embassy in Washington, raising concerns about violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief taking place under two decree laws (349 and 370) that limit freedom of expression either through artistic means or online.  The letter called for the repeal of the two laws and highlighted the case of independent journalist Yoel Suarez, who regularly reported on religious freedom issues.  During the year, state security agents summoned Suarez for multiple interrogations, threatened him with criminal charges, and questioned his wife, reportedly to pressure her to convince him to abandon his work.

According to CSW, Christian leaders from all denominations said a scarcity of Bibles and other religious literature continued, primarily in rural areas.  Some religious leaders continued to report government obstacles, including bureaucratic obstruction and arbitrary restrictions such as inconsistent rules on importing computers and electronic devices, prevented them from importing religious materials and donated goods.  In some cases, the government held up religious materials or blocked them altogether.  According to the U.S.-based Patmos Institute, a civil society organization focusing on religious freedom and interreligious dialogue, the Cuban Association for the Divulgation of Islam was unable to obtain a container of religious literature embargoed since 2014.  Several other groups, however, said they continued to import large quantities of Bibles, books, clothing, and other donated goods.

The Catholic Church and several government-recognized Protestant groups continued to maintain small libraries, print periodicals and other information, and to operate their own websites with little or no formal censorship.  The Catholic Church continued to publish periodicals and hold regular forums at the Varela Center, where participants sometimes criticized official social and economic policies.

According to media, government officials frequently instigated or did not investigate harassment of religious figures and institutions.  Although most cases of what CSW defined as religious persecution were directed toward Christians, CSW also reported that religious minorities were also likely to be victims of religious persecution.  Patmos continued to report that Rastafarians, whose spiritual leader remained imprisoned since 2012, were among the most stigmatized and repressed religious groups.

Muslim community representatives said the country’s small Muslim community was subject to discrimination.  The government denied a Muslim woman permission to travel abroad for urgent medical care, a decision she said she believed was linked to her affiliation with an unregistered religious group.  According to CSW, Yusdevlin Olivera Nunez was prohibited from travelling due to a five-year sentence of restricted liberty she received upon joining the unregistered Cuban Association for the Dissemination of Islam.  At year’s end, Olivera Nunez – known as Mercy Olivera – had not received travel documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  She said the treatment needed for her medical conditions was not available in the country.

Before her detention following the July 11 protests, Free Yorubas President Perez Paseiro and member Yaimara Reyes Soler filed a legal complaint in June in Santa Clara, stating the government had committed dozens of religious freedom violations against members of their group.  The petition stated authorities had erroneously and intentionally determined the Free Yorubas to be a political entity rather than an association of Yoruba believers and that it forbade them from observing traditional practices such as wearing garments or head coverings in accordance with their faith.  Court officials initially refused to even accept the legal filing and by year’s end had not acted upon the complaint.

While some religious leaders reported that access to broadcast media had marginally improved during the year, several religious leaders continued to express concern about the government’s restriction on broadcasting religious services over the radio or on television.

According to CSW, while movement to, from, and within the country was again highly restricted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, religious travelers said they continued to experience higher levels of scrutiny than others and were often denied freedom of movement, including traveling to religious gatherings outside the country.  Patmos reported that immigration officers continued to target religious travelers and their goods and informed airport-based intelligence services of their incoming and outgoing travel.

According to CSW, during the year there were no reported cases of the ORA and immigration officials targeting foreign visitors by denying them religious visas.  CSW attributed the change to the government’s overall closure of borders to tourists as part of its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Reportedly because of COVID-19-related restrictions on internal movement, government agencies continued to refuse to recognize changes in residence for pastors and other church leaders assigned to new churches or parishes.  These restrictions, not lifted until October, made it difficult or impossible for relocating pastors to obtain government services, including housing.  Legal restrictions on travel within the country also limited itinerant ministry, a central component of some religious groups.

According to media, religious discrimination against students continued to be a common practice in state schools, with multiple reports of teachers and CCP officials encouraging and participating in bullying of students belonging to religious groups perceived as being critical of the government.

According to religious leaders, the government continued to selectively prevent some religious groups from establishing accredited schools.  These leaders said religious groups with connections to the government and willing to participate in government events were allowed to operate seminaries, interfaith training centers, before-and-after-school programs, eldercare programs, weekend retreats, workshops for primary and secondary students, and higher education programs.  The Catholic Church continued to offer coursework, including entrepreneurial training leading to a bachelor’s and master’s degree through foreign partners.  Several Protestant communities continued to offer university-level degrees in theology, the humanities, and related subjects via distance learning; however, the government did not recognize these degrees.

Jehovah’s Witnesses leaders continued to state they found the requirements for university admission and the courses of study incompatible with the group’s beliefs because their religion prohibited them from political involvement.

On January 27, hundreds of Catholics, including bishops, religious, and laypersons, issued a public appeal for citizens to begin to take control of the future of their country.  The appeal stated, “The Cuban people, although slowly, have been overcoming and unlearning helplessness.… This is a very important path to empowerment and recovery of social self-esteem.  It is important that we come to feel stronger, that we convince ourselves that we can act and live without being paralyzed by fear, so that we come to express ourselves freely, to seek the good and justice while preserving peace, and to be critical of our reality, because in fact, it is the duty of everyone to contribute to the building of a new Cuba.”

According to international media, despite increased shortages of food, medicine, and other essential items, authorities greatly restricted many religious organizations’ ability to receive and distribute humanitarian assistance.  While the government allowed Caritas to continue providing food and other goods to the needy, it did not allow many smaller religious groups and charities that were not part of the government-recognized CCC to provide aid.  Other religious leaders also said the government continued to restrict their ability to receive donations from overseas.

Some religious groups continued to report the government allowed them to engage in community service programs and to share their religious beliefs.  Other religious groups reported government restrictions varied and were largely based on the government’s perceptions of the “political pliancy” of each religious group.  Religious leaders continued to report government opposition to and interference in religious groups’ providing pastoral services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to media, the Community of Sant’Egidio intensified its activities, despite COVID-19 restrictions.  It continued to hold prayer and meetings in small groups.  “The community has flourished in the pandemic,” said an 80-year-old woman and member of the “Long Live the Elderly” program in Santiago de Cuba.  Sant’Egidio established the program to encourage youth to assist elderly individuals in various neighborhoods of Santiago, including Maceo, Cicharrones, Flores, and Marti.

According to a May National Public Radio article entitled, The Youth of Cuba’s Tiny Jewish Minority, a lack of tourists during the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country’s small Jewish community hard because the community relied on tourism for attendance at religious services, for donations, and for solidarity.

International faith-based charitable operations such as Caritas and Sant’Egidio, both Catholic, and the Salvation Army maintained local offices in Havana.  Caritas continued to gather and distribute relief items, providing humanitarian assistance to all individuals regardless of religious belief.


Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, as well as the freedom to practice any religion.  The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups; their members have been arrested and mistreated and their eventual release from detention has sometimes been conditioned on a formal renunciation of their faith.  Some unregistered groups are allowed to operate, and the government tolerates their worship activities.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international media continued to report that members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions.  During the year, the government both arrested and released individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion.  According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), officials released 70 individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion in the first two months of the year:  six on January 27, and 64 on February 1.  On April 5, the Christian NGO Release International reported two new sets of arrests, one set of 23 persons in Asmara and the other of 12 persons in Assab.  On April 12, the BBC reported that 36 Christians were released on bail, including 22 from the previous group in Asmara reported by Release International and 14 who had been in prison on the Dahlak Islands for four years.  According to Christian Today’s September reporting, authorities arrested 15 Christians, all of whom had previously been imprisoned for their religion.  NGOs estimated authorities continued to detain from 130 to more than 1,000 people due to their faith.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  At least 20 Muslim protesters reportedly remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994 for refusing to participate in the referendum that created the independent state of Eritrea.

While the government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious communities created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom, religious tolerance appeared to international observers to be widespread within society.  Churches and mosques are located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on the occasions of religious holidays and other events.  There were no reports of sectarian violence, and most towns and ethnic groups included members from all the major religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington raised religious freedom concerns with government officials throughout the year, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of individuals, including members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara, in other countries in the region, and UN officials.  Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom and rebut the government’s argument that it does not persecute people based on their religious beliefs.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the ongoing denial of licenses or other approvals for exports or imports of defense articles and services as referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(n) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (midyear 2021).  The UN estimates a population of approximately 3.5 million.  Reliable population data in the country is difficult to gather.  There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation.  The Pew Foundation in 2016 estimated the population to be 63 percent Christian and 37 percent Muslim.  Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49 percent Christian and 49 percent Sunni Muslim.  The Christian population is predominantly Eritrean Orthodox.  Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, constitute less than 5 percent of the Christian population.  Some estimates suggest 2 percent of the population is traditionally animist.  The Baha’i community reports approximately 500 members, half of whom reside in the capital, Asmara.  Only one Jew is known to remain in the country and resides in Eritrea only on a part-time basis.

A majority of the population in the southern and central regions is Christian, while the northern areas are majority Muslim.  A majority of the Tigrinya, the largest ethnic group, is Christian.  Seven of the other eight principal ethnic groups, the Tigre, Saho, Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Nara, and the Rashaida, are predominantly Muslim and reside mainly in the northern regions of the country.  The Kunama are diverse, with Christians, Muslims, and animists.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.

Proclamation 73/1995, which serves as the guiding law on religious issues, calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities.  Some members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law reportedly continue to be subject to the former provisional penal code, which sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance.  A new penal code was promulgated in 2015 that does not directly address penalties for religious groups that fail to register or otherwise comply with the law, but it includes a punishment for “unlawful assembly” of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,001 to 20,000 nakfa ($330-$1,300); however, the new code has not yet been implemented.

The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official registration.  Each application must include a description of the group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other registered religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.

The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups:  the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation).  While Baha’is are not one of the four officially recognized religions, they have registered every year since 1959, the year the chapter was established, and have “de facto” recognition from the government.  A synagogue exists in Asmara, but there are not enough adherents for regular services.  A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval.

Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.

While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity.

By law, all citizens between ages 18 and 50 must perform 18 months of national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy.  In times of emergency, the length of national service may be extended indefinitely, and the country officially has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of the 1998 war with Ethiopia.  There is also a compulsory militia for all men not in the military, including many who had been demobilized from National Service, otherwise exempted from military service in the past, or are elderly.  Failure to participate in the militia or national service may result in detention.  Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling, and agricultural work.  Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures.  The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.

The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.

The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country.  The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.

The law limits foreign financing for religious groups, including registered groups.  The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign sources.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the government both arrested and released individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion.  According to CSW, officials released 70 Christian prisoners in the first two months of the year, six on January 27, and 64 on February 1.  On April 5, Release International reported two new sets of arrests, one set of 23 persons in Asmara and the other of 12 persons in Assab.  On April 12, the BBC reported that 36 Christians were released on bail, including 22 from the previous group in Asmara reported by Release International and 14 who had been in prison on the Dahlak Islands for four years.  According to Christian Today’s September reporting, authorities arrested 15 Christians, all of whom had previously been imprisoned for their religion.

NGOs estimated authorities continued to detain from 130 to more than 1,000 people due to their faith.  Determining more precisely the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and the reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  At least 20 Muslim protesters reportedly remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last appeared in public in July 2017, has remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting government interference in Church affairs.

The government continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service, for which the government stripped them of their citizenship in 1994.  The government continued to detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons and continued to deny them citizenship.  Authorities’ treatment of religious prisoners appeared to have been inconsistent.  In some prisons, religious prisoners reportedly were not allowed to have visitors, but in others, visitors were allowed.  Some former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter.  Other former religious prisoners reported acceptable conditions, adequate food, and no physical abuse.

Government authorization remained necessary for any organization to print and distribute documents; for religious groups, that authorization needed to come from the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from international NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders.  Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching their religious beliefs to others, although they reported that in many cases the government unofficially allowed them to worship in private homes as long as it was done discreetly.

The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, again approved no new religious groups during the year.  Unrecognized religious groups expressed fear that applying would open them to further repression.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, access to bank accounts, and travel.

Arrests and releases often went unreported.  Information from outside the capital was extremely limited.  Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.  Their eventual release from detention was sometimes conditioned on a formal renunciation of their faith.

Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences.  According to a 2019 report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of unrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation.

The government continued to ban all other practices of Islam other than Sunni Islam.

Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities.  Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting.  Local authorities sometimes denied government ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups.  Some religious prisoners reported they were allowed to worship together in prison as long as they did so quietly.

Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups.  The leaders of the four groups continued to say that their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice.  Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

The government announced plans to continue its confiscation and nationalization of Catholic schools, begun in 2018.  In June, it announced the scheduled closure of the remaining early childhood and intermediate primary schools, prompting the Eritrean Catholic Bishops collective to issue a letter denouncing the action, as “…explicitly detrimental to the most elementary principles of justice….”  As of year’s end, the schools remained open, according to Catholic sources.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged.  Religious structures formerly used by the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities in Asmara have been preserved.  The government protected the historic synagogue, which was maintained by the last Jew known to be remaining in the country.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, and as there is no longer a Greek Orthodox community; members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church sometimes held religious services on the site.  Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as the Church of Christ, remained shuttered.  The government allowed the Baha’i center in Asmara to remain open, and the members of the center had unrestricted access to the building.  A Baha’i temple outside of Asmara was allowed to operate.  There were indications other unregistered groups, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Faith Mission Church, operated to some degree.  The Anglican Church building held services, but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state that the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media, as well as a fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government actions against them, according to observers.  Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship in a designated place of worship, according to group members.

Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community; some international NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments.  The government denied this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities.  The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the head of the Sunni Islamic community and the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower-level officials for both communities.  On May 12, the Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church elected the fifth patriarch, Abune Qerlos, six years after the death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros, (and 15 years after the arrest of third Patriarch Abune Antonios, still seen as the rightful patriarch by many followers).  On July 10, Acting Mufti Sheikh Salim Ibrahim al-Muktar was elected Mufti of Eritrea, a position left vacant since 2017.

While the overwhelming majority of high-level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, four ministers in the 17-member cabinet, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader, were Muslims.

The government said its official party doctrine promoted national citizenship above religious sectarianism and stated that it did not officially prefer any religion.  Programs in support of this doctrine included National Service and required attendance for all 12th graders at Warsay Yikealo Secondary School at Sawa (co-located with a defense training center) where students from across the country study and receive military training.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

While government control of all media and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom, religious tolerance appeared to international observers to be widespread within society.  Churches and mosques are located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on the occasions of religious holidays and other events.  There were no reports of sectarian violence, and most towns and ethnic groups included members from all of the major religious groups.

Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects.  Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally.  Some shrines were venerated by both Orthodox and Muslim believers.  Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their religion.

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Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public.  The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  In 2020, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers.  The Falun Dafa Association and some churches active in the prodemocracy movement said the government had grown less tolerant since passage of the NSL.  Other religious leaders and advocates stated the NSL did not impair their ability to conduct or attend worship services in conformity with their religious norms; however, they continued to express concern regarding self-censorship and potential PRC targeting of civil society organizations affiliated with religious groups active in the 2019 prodemocracy movement.  An unknown assailant physically attacked the head of the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association, and unknown assailants vandalized and destroyed printing presses at the contracted printer’s facility of the Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times.  On April 2 and April 3, masked individuals wielding knives and spray paint destroyed eight Falun Gong public information displays in what the group said appeared to be coordinated attacks across several locations.  In April, Lo Hing-choi, president of the Baptist Convention and a critic of the NSL, resigned and moved abroad, saying he feared government retaliation if he remained in Hong Kong.  In May, the Good Neighbor North District Church, which had supported the prodemocracy movement, ceased operations.  There were reports of emigration of other religious leaders.  Media reported that on October 31, bishops and religious leaders from mainland China briefed Hong Kong Catholic clergymen on the PRC central government’s policy of “Sinicizing” Christianity.  Authorities curtailed activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, banning their street kiosks under what practitioners said was a pretext of violating COVID-19 protocols.  In July, several members of the SAR Legislative Council urged the SAR government to outlaw the Falun Dafa Association under the NSL.  In September, an editorial in the PRC-owned media outlet Wen Wei Po called on SAR authorities to ban “cult organizations,” a term the PRC government has historically used to refer to Falun Gong, among other groups.  In April, Wen Wei Po reported that national security police blocked access to the website of the Taiwan Presbyterian Church for internet users in Hong Kong due to “national security” concerns.

In June, an unknown group hung banners defaming Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Catholic Church policy on China, around each of the seven Catholic churches that were planning to hold a memorial Mass for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.  On May 17, Pope Francis named Reverend Stephen Chow Sau-Yan Bishop of Hong Kong.  The Vatican-affiliated outlet AsiaNews stated Chow was a “balanced” choice between prodemocracy and pro-Beijing camps.  Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong continued to provide spiritual and monetary support to underground churches in mainland China.

The U.S. Consul General and staff repeatedly raised concerns regarding the shrinking space for civil society, including religious groups, during meetings with a range of official counterparts in which they also affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief.  U.S. officials delivered similar messages to religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and community representatives, as well as in public messages.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.3 million (midyear 2021).  According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 800,000 Protestants; 404,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs.  The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 621,000 followers (404,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities).  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members.  According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates.  Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR.  Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems.  The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

In 2020, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) imposed the NSL for Hong Kong.  The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism, and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”  The law states that it shall override local laws if there are inconsistencies.  The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local courts.

PRC State Administration for Religious Affairs regulations entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” which came into force in mainland China on May 1, which require clergy to pledge allegiance to the CCP and promote the “Sinicization of religion,” do not apply to Hong Kong.

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

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

The NSL stipulates the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.”  Pursuant to the NSL, the Education Bureau issued new guidelines on February 4 to incorporate lessons on “national security” into the government curriculum, beginning at the kindergarten level.  All schools following the Education Bureau curriculum, including those run by religious groups, must incorporate this material.  Private and international schools that do not receive funding from SAR authorities, including those run by religious groups, are not required to follow the new guidelines, but the guidelines state that these schools have the “responsibility to help their students… acquire a correct and objective understanding and apprehension of the concept of national security and the National Security Law.”

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

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

In March, the PRC NPC Standing Committee imposed new measures to amend Hong Kong’s electoral system.  Hong Kong’s majority pro-Beijing legislature passed a bill in May incorporating these measures into local legislation.  The new electoral system creates a nomination and vetting system for all candidates for political office that Beijing and Hong Kong authorities described as designed to ensure that only “patriots” govern Hong Kong.  Hong Kong voters directly elect 20 of the Legislative Council’s newly expanded 90 seats.  Forty of the seats are elected by the Chief Executive Election Committee (CEEC) directly, while 30 are selected as representatives of “functional constituencies” from various economic and social sectors.  The CEEC comprises 1,500 members from five sectors.  The religious subsector, under the third sector (“Grassroots, labor, religious, and other”), is composed of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, Hong Kong Christian Council, Hong Kong Taoist Association, Confucian Academy, and Hong Kong Buddhist Association.  These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the CEEC.  The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance.  Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion.  Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

The Falun Dafa Association and some churches active in the prodemocracy movement stated the government had grown less tolerant since passage of the NSL.  For example, Falun Gong practitioners reported that SAR authorities shut down their public information kiosks on May 27 and 28 on what practitioners said was the pretext of violating COVID-19 prevention rules under Food and Environmental Hygiene ordinances.  Other religious leaders and advocates stated the NSL did not impair freedom to conduct or attend worship services, although they continued to express concerns regarding self-censorship and potential PRC targeting of civil society organizations affiliated with religious groups active in the 2019 prodemocracy movement.  Archbishop Andrew Chan, the head of the Hong Kong Anglican Church, stated that all religious activities continued to be organized and carried out “as normal” but said preachers were “very cautious to use sensitive terminologies in their homilies.”

Some religious leaders and activists said they were concerned SAR and PRC authorities could target religiously affiliated groups using tactics they repeatedly applied to associations or groups affiliated with the prodemocracy movement.  SAR authorities began investigations into and cut existing government ties with civil society groups, pressuring these groups into disbanding.  Even after threatened groups disbanded, SAR authorities publicly stated that individuals associated with these groups could face further investigations or arrests.  Observers stated these government actions had set numerous legal precedents that undermined fundamental freedoms guaranteed under the Basic Law, including freedom of religion.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported that unknown individuals for months surveilled Sarah Liang, head of the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association, and a journalist with the Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times.  On May 11, an unidentified man struck Liang more than 10 times with a baseball bat, bruising her legs.  June Guo, director of the Hong Kong edition of the Epoch Times, said the CCP was behind the assault on Liang.

The Epoch Times reported that on April 12, unknown assailants vandalized and destroyed printing presses at its contracted printer, forcing the facility to suspend operations for several days.  Guo stated the safety of the staff at the outlet’s printing plant was a continuing concern.  Falun Gong practitioners reported that no one had been prosecuted for the attacks as of year’s end.

The Falun Dafa Infocenter reported that on April 2 and April 3, masked individuals wielding knives and spray paint destroyed eight Falun Gong public information displays in what the group said appeared to be coordinated attacks across several locations.  At one location, an assailant pushed a volunteer to the ground.  Practitioners said they believed the attacks were instigated by pro-CCP groups.  The Falun Dafa Infocenter spokesperson said, “These violent acts against a religious minority that unfolded in broad daylight on Hong Kong’s streets are a clear indication that basic freedoms, and even the rule of law, are indeed in jeopardy in Hong Kong.”

In August, an unknown group falsely claiming to represent the Falun Dafa Association posted on social media that the group would leave Hong Kong.  The Falun Dafa Association stated it had no plans to leave the city.

Media reported that Baptist pastor Lo Hing-choi, president of the Baptist Convention since May 2018, resigned and moved abroad in April.  According to media, Lo led the Baptist Convention to publicly campaign against the Hong Kong government’s extradition law, and Lo also personally criticized the NSL in June 2020.  In 2019, he openly supported prodemocracy protests, writing articles comparing protesters to Jews facing persecution in the Old Testament.  In July and September 2020, pro-Beijing newspapers such as Ta Kung Pao publicly criticized Lo, reportedly causing him to fear repercussions under the NSL if he remained in Hong Kong.

In May, the Good Neighbor North District Church ceased operations.  Hong Kong police had launched an investigation into the church in December 2020 for alleged money laundering and fraud, arrested two individuals affiliated with the church, and ordered a freeze of the church’s bank accounts.  The church’s former pastor, Roy Chan, who relocated in 2020 to the United Kingdom, continued to state the investigation was an act of political retaliation because some church members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.  In October, the former pastor said accusations against religious leaders for “inciting subversion” had resulted in self-censorship within local churches and had caused some religious leaders to emigrate.

Reuters reported that on October 31, bishops and religious leaders from mainland China briefed Hong Kong Catholic clergymen on the government’s policy of “Sinicizing” Christianity to bring religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine.  Clerics who attended or had knowledge of the meeting said that while individual meetings with counterparts in mainland China had occurred in the past, this was the first formal meeting, and that PRC central government officials had arranged and monitored it.

In June, SAR authorities denied permission for gatherings to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, including the annual vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, but they did not interfere with memorial masses held at seven Catholic churches around the city honoring the victims of the massacre.  A spokesperson for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Catholic Diocese, which organized the masses, said that police for the first time questioned the commission about arrangements for the masses and the number of attendees, citing COVID-19 concerns.

Falun Gong practitioners stated they still operated openly and engaged in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials.  No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions, but practitioners continued to publicly gather in small groups, adhering to COVID-19 restrictions.  Falun Gong practitioners reported the group gathered in front of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government on July 20 to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the mass arrest of practitioners in mainland China.  Practitioners reported the Hong Kong police instructed them to remove three of their four banners during the event.

Methodist-run Wa Ying College reported difficulties obtaining SAR authorization or funding to renovate school buildings.  The South China Morning Post reported in May that these difficulties may have stemmed from concerns several legislators had regarding the positions many Methodists and the school allegedly took during the prodemocracy protest movement.

In July, several members of the SAR Legislative Council – including Elizabeth Quat, Wong Kwok-kin, and Holden Chow Ho-ding – urged the SAR government to outlaw the Falun Dafa Association under the NSL.  Quat stated the group “aims to subvert state power and should be immediately outlawed,” while Wong called for SAR authorities to freeze the group’s assets.  The SAR Security Secretary promised to investigate the group.

On October 7, pro-PRC Hong Kong media HK01 reported that according to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Exchange Association survey conducted between September 1 and October 5 among 8,855 respondents, 72 percent believed Falun Gong was an “anti-China and Hong Kong” organization that violated the NSL and should be banned.  At a press conference announcing the survey’s findings, Legislative Council member Eunice Yung stated Falun Gong should be banned in Hong Kong “as soon as possible.”  Yung said that Falun Gong had established an “anti-CCP platform” in Hong Kong and called for authorities to investigate the group’s funding sources.

On September 14, an editorial in the PRC-owned media outlet Wen Wei Po identified the Buddhist movement called the True Buddha School as a “cult” and a national security risk.  The editorial requested SAR authorities create legislation banning “cult organizations,” a term that the PRC government has historically used to refer to Falun Gong and the True Buddha School, among other groups, “to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for filth.”

In April, Wen Wei Po reported that national security police blocked access to the website of the Taiwan Presbyterian Church for internet users in Hong Kong due to “national security” concerns.  A pastor of the Church told Radio Free Asia the interference was done in retaliation for the Church’s support of the 2019 prodemocracy movement in Hong Kong and said, “Blocking the site like this is a warning sign that Beijing is extending more mainland China-style restrictions to Hong Kong.”

In the Legislative Council election in December, Peter Koon, the then secretary general of the Province of the Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui (the Anglican Church in Hong Kong), won one of the 40 seats in the Legislative Council elected by the CEEC.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In June, an unknown group hung banners around each of the seven Catholic churches that were planning to hold a memorial Mass for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.  The banners contained photographs of Cardinal Joseph Zen, an outspoken critic of the CCP, with the word “devil,” as well as slogans, including “A Cult Has Invaded the Faith” and “Incitement in the Name of Worship.”

Media reported that on May 17, Pope Francis named Reverend Stephen Chow Sau-Yan as the new Bishop of Hong Kong.  Chow, head of Hong Kong’s Jesuit order, replaced Cardinal John Tong, who had served as interim bishop since 2019.  According to one senior cleric, “The security law has made the job a lot more tricky and the pressure is intense.”  The Holy See and the PRC do not have formal diplomatic relations, but the 2018 Sino-Vatican agreement reportedly gives both Chinese authorities and the Holy See a role in the process of appointing bishops in mainland China.  According to Reuters, Vatican officials said the agreement did not apply to Hong Kong; however, some senior clergy stated the PRC was seeking to extend its control over the Diocese of Hong Kong.  The Vatican-affiliated outlet AsiaNews stated Chow was a “balanced” choice between prodemocracy and pro-Beijing camps.  On May 18, Chow told media, “Religious freedom is our basic right.  We want to really talk to the government not to forget that.  It is important to allow religious freedom, matters of faith – not just Catholic – but any religion should be free.”

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong continued to provide underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support, including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members.  Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited individuals in mainland China from attending their online services.


Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion.  It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia.  The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”  The penal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia), including amputation, flogging, and stoning, and specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.  In January, parliament amended the penal code to criminalize insulting “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.”  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) said these new provisions put religious minorities at a higher risk of persecution.  The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The constitution also stipulates that five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs.  The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians, excluding converts from Islam, are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and form religious societies “within the limits of the law.”  According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reporting, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda and, in the case of members of some religious minorities, detained them and held them incommunicado.  Amnesty International reported an “alarming rise” in the execution of ethnic minority prisoners since mid-December 2020.  Authorities denied prisoners access to attorneys and convicted them based on “confessions” extracted under torture.  In January, authorities executed Baluchi Javid Dehghan (also known as Dehghan-Khold) in Zahedan Central Prison on charges of “enmity against God,” “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic,” and alleged membership in banned Sunni separatist groups.  The NGO Iran Human Rights (IHR) reported that as of October, government executions continued at an “alarmingly high” rate, with at least 226 people put to death, 125 of them under “retributive” (eye-for-an-eye) justice.  According to the database of the NGO United for Iran, Iran Prison Atlas, least 67 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned at year’s end for being “religious minority practitioners.”  Of the prisoners listed in the database, the government sentenced at least 62 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or “armed rebellion against Islamic rule” (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”  Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minority prisoners, including beatings, sexual abuse, degradation specifically targeting their religious beliefs, and denial of medical treatment.  The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran, a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 1 to September 24, the government sentenced at least 77 individuals to flogging, based on its interpretation of sharia, and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases.  NGOs reported that in January, authorities transferred women’s rights activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, originally charged in 2014 with “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “spreading propaganda” for criticizing the government’s policy of stoning women to death for adultery, to Amol Prison in Mazandara Province, far away from her family.  According to IranWire and the London-based NGO Article 18, which focuses on religious freedom in Iran, in September, security forces in Shiraz and Mazandaran Province conducted multiple arrests of Baha’is in their homes or workplaces in the last week of September without providing reasons or charges.  In a July report, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Iran (UNSR) Javaid Rehman stated there continued to be reports of forced evictions of members of the Sunni Baluch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  An August report by the UN Secretary General highlighted that the Supreme Court upheld the death sentences for 10 Kurdish political prisoners on charges involving “acting against national security,” “spreading corruption on earth,” and “membership in Salafi groups.”  According to an October report by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), at least 10 Baluchi individuals were summoned to court following a rally in the village of Ramin to prevent the destruction of the Eidgah (land reserved for Eid prayers for Sunni followers).  Officials continued to disproportionately arrest, detain, harass, and surveil non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, according to Christian NGOs.  On March 9, the Tehran Appeals Court reduced Saba Kord-Afshari’s prison sentence, which she received in 2019 on a set of charges relating to protesting the compulsory hijab, from 24 years to seven years and six months in prison.  UNSR Rehman’s July report and NGOs said authorities continued to confiscate Baha’i properties as part of an ongoing state-led campaign of economic persecution against Baha’is.  Authorities issued an order in April denying Baha’is permission to bury their dead in empty plots at the Tehran-area cemetery designated for Baha’is, forcing them to bury them at a mass grave site.  Sunni Muslims stated the government did not permit them to build prayer facilities sufficient to accommodate their numbers, and government restrictions forced many Christian converts and members of unrecognized religious minority groups, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.  Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as members of other unrecognized religious minority groups, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.  The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported textbooks at all grade levels and across many subjects contained antisemitic material.  Government officials continued to disseminate anti-Baha’i and antisemitic messages using traditional and social media.  On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution expressing concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief” and “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred” against recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs.  Yarsanis reported experiencing widespread discrimination.  They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities.  Yarsani men, recognizable by their distinct mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination.  According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.  According to human rights NGOs, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.  Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.  Sunni students reported professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.  Baha’is reported continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries.  According to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), on September 8, a Baha’i cemetery in Dena County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province was partly destroyed by unknown individuals using heavy machinery.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Iran.  During the year, the U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn and promote accountability for the government’s abuses against and restrictions on worship by members of religious minorities.  Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds.  On March 9, the United States sanctioned Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) interrogators Ali Hemmatian and Masoud Safdari for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Evin Prison, including torturing activists advocating for religious freedom.  On December 7, the United States sanctioned the Special Units of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) and Iran’s Counter-Terror Special Forces (NOPO) for violently suppressing protests in November 2019.  It sanctioned two LEF commanders, Hassan Karami and Seyed Mousavi Azami, as well a Basij commander, Gholamreza Soleimani, and the Governor of Qods City, Leila Vaseghi, for their roles in carrying out crackdowns against peaceful protesters.  Two prisons, Zahedan Central Prison and Isfahan Central Prison, as well as the warden of Qarchak Women’s Prison, Soghra Khodadadi, and IRGC commander and brigadier general Mohammad Karami were also sanctioned for their roles in the “flagrant denial” of the rights of prisoners and other citizens, including religious minorities.  The Treasury Department statement announcing the sanctions said, “Zahedan Prison holds several political prisoners who belong to the Baluch ethnic minority group.  According to public reports, on January 3, 2021, Baluch prisoner Hassan Dehvari was executed in Zahedan Prison.  Dehvari was sentenced to death for ‘armed rebellion against the Islamic Rule.’  His prison sentence was escalated to execution after he engaged in several acts of peaceful protests, such as signing statements condemning executions of Sunni prisoners and condemning the mistreatment of fellow prisoners.”

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.  The following sanction accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.9 million (midyear 2021).  According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, respectively.  Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population, but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable.  There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians.  The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country.  Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported.  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are approximately 579,000 Christians.  NGO Open Doors USA estimates the number is 800,000, and Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000.  There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers.  Christian groups outside the country disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000.  Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the NGO Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million.  Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979.  The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians, although the World Religion Database estimates this number to be 64,000.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while representatives of the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing.  The 2020 World Religion Database estimates their number to be 239,000.  Often, however, these groups do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for apostasy.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion.  The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia.  The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.”  The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The only recognized conversions are from other religions to Islam.  Sharia as interpreted by the government considers conversion from Islam apostasy, a crime punishable by death.  Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempt to convert a Muslim to another faith or belief.  The law considers these activities to be proselytizing and punishable by death.  In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross.  The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

On January 13, parliament passed amendments that added two provisions to the penal code criminalizing “insulting legally recognized religions and Iranian ethnicities.”  The Guardian Council approved the amendments on February 3, and then president Hassan Rouhani signed them into law on February 18.  Under the amendment to Article 499 of the code (which criminalizes membership in any group that “disturbs the security of the country”), authorities may impose a sentence of between two to five years in prison and/or a monetary fine where violence is involved, and between six months and two years and/or a monetary fine if no violence is involved, on anyone who “insults Iranian ethnicities or divine religions or Islamic schools of thought recognized under the constitution.”  Under the amendment to Article 500, authorities may impose prison sentences of two to five years and/or a fine on anyone who commits “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam.”

The constitution states the four Sunni schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school of Islam are “deserving of total respect,” and their followers are free to perform religious practices.  It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities.  “Within the limits of the law” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies.  They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon.  The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979 to be Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, because the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution.  The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though they state they do not consider themselves as such.  The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (also known as Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai).  Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia to obtain government services.  The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with authorities.  Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes.  Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or if unregistered individuals attend services.  The law does not recognize as Christian individuals who convert to Christianity.  They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution.  The courts, each headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities.  The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretations of Islamic legal sources.  The constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.”  The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity.  The IRGC also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press, except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education determines the religious curricula of public schools.  All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course to advance to the next educational level, through university.  Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.  Applicants to university must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology, based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools.  The Ministry of Education supervises private schools operated by recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements.  The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts.  These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well.  Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi for official review.  Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion.  This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions.  A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known.  Government regulations state Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is.  To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of one of the four officially recognized religions (i.e., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, a group of 86 popularly elected and Supreme Leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the Supreme Leader.  To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or Majles) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council, composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation.  The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, President, and parliament, and supervises elections for those bodies.  Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system, or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliamentary seats reserved by the constitution for members of recognized religious minority groups.  There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states that in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school, within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money,” or diyyah, as restitution to families for Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage.  Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive blood money.  This law also reduces the blood money for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man.  Women are entitled to equal blood money as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder.  In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

The criminal code provides for hudud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.  As part of hudud, the code allows for qisas (retribution in kind).  The code also allows for ta’zir, which allows judges to use their personal discretion to determine punishment.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the regular armed forces), or as public school principals.  Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements.  Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system.  Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property.  A religious fatwa from the Supreme Leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.  The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage.  The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution.  In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad.  The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation.  The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces.  Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but they may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

According to numerous international human rights NGOs and media reports, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and producing anti-Islamic propaganda.  In February, Amnesty International reported an “alarming rise” in the execution of ethnic minority prisoners since mid-December 2020.  Officials arrested Kurdish individuals, including civil society activists, labor rights activists, environmentalists, writers, university students and political activists.  Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to January reports by the NGOs IHR and Iran International, authorities executed three Sunni prisoners – Hamid Rastbala, Kabi Saadat-Jahani and Mohammad Ali Arayesh – on December 31, 2020, at Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad.  Ministry of Intelligence officers arrested the three men in 2015 for suspected membership in Hizb al-Forghan, a militant Sunni group, and in the National Solidarity Front of Iranian Sunnis.  Branch One of the Revolutionary Court of Mashhad sentenced them to death for “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic.”  The men denied being members of Hizb al-Forghan, which was active in the country from 1992 to 1997, when the three men were boys between ages 10 and 12.  According to HRANA, prior to their execution, authorities deprived the prisoners of contact with their families for months, including a final meeting, and denied the men legal representation during the trial.  In an August 2020 letter, Rastbala said that following their arrest, interrogators tortured all three and threated to arrest or rape family members to convince them to make televised confessions of their “crimes.”

According to Iran International and United for Iran, on January 30, the Justice Department of Sistan and Baluchistan Province announced that authorities executed Javid Dehghan-Khold in Zahedan Central Prison.  He had been sentenced to death on charges of “enmity against God/moharebeh” and “armed rebellion against the Islamic Republic” for alleged membership in banned Sunni separatist groups Jaish ul-Adl and Jaish al-Nasr of Iran.  A court also convicted Dehghan-Khold of taking part in an attack that killed two Revolutionary Guard officers in 2015 and the kidnapping of five border guards in the city of Saravan in 2017.  According to his lawyer, Dehghan-Khold denied membership in these groups or participation in the attacks.  The Office of the High Commission on Human Rights (OHCHR) in a January 29 post on Twitter condemned Dehghan-Khold’s execution as part of “the series of executions – at least 28 [Iranians] – since mid-December, including of people from minority groups.”  According to Amnesty International, the court had “relied on torture-tainted ‘confessions’ and ignored the serious due process abuses committed by Revolutionary Guard agents and prosecution authorities during the investigation process.”

CHRI and HRANA reported that on February 28, authorities executed four Sunni Ahwazi Arabs – Jasem Heidary, Hossein Silawi, Ali Khasraji, and Nasser Khafajian (Khafaji) – in Sepidar Prison in Ahwaz City, Khuzestan Province, without any advance notice to their families.  Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Heidary in December 2017 and allegedly tortured him into falsely confessing to being a member of an armed group.  Security forces detained the other three men in June 2017 as suspects in an armed attack on a military outpost and police station near Ahvaz in May 2017.  Officials charged all of the men with “armed rebellion against Islamic rule” (baghi).  According to Amnesty International, family members who visited the men in prison observed bruises on their bodies, indicating prison authorities had physically abused them.  Following the executions, Ministry of Intelligence agents told the four families they were not permitted to hold public memorials or invite family to their homes to mourn.  Amnesty International said the families were told the men “would be buried in la’nat abad [damned land].”

In March, IHR reported that a woman, Maryam (Masoumeh) Karimi, was executed in Rasht Central Prison at the hands of her own daughter.  Authorities had sentenced Karimi more than 13 years earlier for having killed her husband, who was reportedly abusive and had refused to separate from her.  In accordance with the rules of qisas, Karimi’s estranged daughter, as the victim’s next-of-kin, carried out her execution by hanging on March 15.  IHR stated that for unknown reasons, Karimi’s father, her co-accused in the killing, was not executed on the same day, but prison officers brought him to the gallows to see her corpse.

On October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty, IHR released its findings on the country’s use of capital punishment.  According to IHR, as of October, government executions continued at an “alarmingly high” rate, with at least 226 individuals – one juvenile offender, nine women, and 216 adult men – put to death.  One hundred and twenty-five executions were qisas executions for murder, compared with 164 for the same period in 2020.  The qisas executions included the juvenile offender, five adult women, and 119 adult men.  Among the men, officials executed eight in Zahedan Prison, including Sunni Baluch prisoners Elias Qalandarzehi and Hassan Dehvari, on charges of armed rebellion against Islamic rule/baghi for alleged involvement with Jaish al-Adl, and Sunni Ahwazi Arab Ali Motayyeri [Motiri] on charges of moharebeh, afsad-i fil arz (“spreading corruption on Earth”) and killing two individuals from the Basij paramilitary militia forces.  According to United for Iran, authorities held Motayyeri in solitary confinement for more than one year and subjected him to physical and psychological abuse to force a false confession.  According to Dehvari’s attorney, authorities escalated his original prison sentence to execution after he peacefully protested inside Zahedan Central Prison, including by signing statements condemning the executions of Sunni prisoners.  Dehvari’s attorney said his execution was carried out despite a retrial request pending with the Supreme Court.

In April, IHR released its annual report on the government’s use of the death penalty, covering the 2020 calendar year.  According to the report, murder was the most common charge brought against those executed, and 211 of the 267 individuals executed had been sentenced under the qisas code.  IHR said that between 2010 and 2020, the government carried out at least 1,678 qisas executions.

In October, UNPO, the Kurdistan Human Rights Association Geneva, the Baluchistan Human Rights Group, and the Ahwaz Human Rights Organization submitted a joint report to the UNSR in which they stated executions of the predominantly Sunni Baluch minority and of Kurdish citizens increased between June and October, with at least 39 Baluchi citizens and 56 Kurds executed during that time period.  According to IHR’s report entitled Women and the Death Penalty:  A 12-Year Analysis, between January 1, 2010, and October 10, 2021, three of the at least 164 women who were executed were convicted on security charges.  One of these was Shirin Alamhooli, who was executed in 2010 on charges of moharebeh/enmity against God and membership in PEJAK, a Kurdish opposition group.  According to IHR, Alamhooli did not speak Farsi at the time of her interrogations and legal proceedings.  In her letters from prison, she described experiencing three months of physical and mental abuse.

Residents of provinces containing large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported judicial authorities and members of the security services continued to repress them, including through extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture in detention.  They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects.  The UN Secretary General’s August report compiled by OHCHR, IHR, and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.  The Secretary General’s August report also stated the Supreme Court upheld death sentences for 10 Kurdish political prisoners on charges involving “acting against national security,” afsad-i fil arz/spreading corruption on earth, moharebeh, and membership in Salafi groups.

According to the UNSR Rehman’s July report, on February 22, IRGC officers killed 10 Sunni Baluchi fuel smugglers (sookhtbars) in Sistan and Baluchistan Province at its border with Pakistan.  The shootings triggered demonstrations, during which security forces fired lethal ammunition at protesters and bystanders, killing at least two persons and seriously injuring others.  The death toll was difficult to verify, following the disruption of local mobile data networks from the 24th to the 27th of February.  Reuters reported the death toll in Saravan and other parts of Sistan and Baluchistan Province as “possibly up to 23.”

According to Amnesty International, authorities held Ahwazi Arab Falah Heidari incommunicado following his arrest on May 20.  A source told Amnesty International that security and intelligence agents interrogated Heidari and his son, Safa Heidari, for information about the political activities of Falah’s brother, Abdorrahman Heidari, who was based abroad and was the spokesperson for the political group Patriotic Arab Democratic Movement in Ahwaz.  According to Amnesty International, Ministry of Intelligence interrogators also questioned Falah Heidari about the religious beliefs and practices of his other son, Alaa Heidari, who had left Iran several years earlier, sought asylum abroad after converting from Shia to Sunni Islam and had since engaged in online proselytizing activities.  Authorities aimed to have Falah Heidari pressure his relatives to stop their activities or to relay authorities’ threats to kill or abduct and forcibly return Abdorrahman and Alaa to the country.  On May 30, an IRGC officer interrogated Falah Heidari’s 15-year-old daughter about her family’s contact with her paternal uncle and brother abroad, as well as her family’s political opinions and religious beliefs.

According to UNSR Rehman’s July report, the UN Secretary General’s August report, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), in January, authorities arrested and arbitrarily detained more than 100 Kurdish civil society activists and forcibly disappeared some of these individuals.  Observers stated that there was credible evidence to believe some of these activists were expressing their Sunni religious identity while standing up for Kurdish rights.  According to HRW, of the 89 individuals who remained detained at year’s end, authorities subjected at least 40 to enforced disappearance and refused to reveal any information about their whereabouts to their families.  While authorities did not provide information about the reasons for these arrests, according to IHR and HRW, the arrests were “due to the individuals’ peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression and association, including through involvement in peaceful civil society activism and/or perceived support for the political visions espoused by Kurdish opposition parties seeking respect for the human rights of Iran’s Kurdish minority.”

Human rights NGOs reported poor conditions and the mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons.  BIC reported Baha’is and other prisoners also faced a higher risk of exposure to COVID-19 due to overcrowding.

In February, IranWire and CHRI reported that Behnam Mahjoubi, a Gonabadi dervish, died after suffering seizures in Tehran’s Evin Prison.  Authorities had originally arrested Mahjoubi and several other Gonabadi dervishes for participating in street protests in 2018 following the death under police interrogation of a Gonabadi Sufi dervish.  Mahjoubi had been serving a two-year prison sentence since June 2020, despite the state medical examiner’s concluding he was not in sufficiently good health to withstand incarceration.  Amnesty International stated that during his incarceration, authorities injected Mahjoubi with unknown substances and subjected him to electric shocks on multiple occasions.

CHRI reported that in a letter from Rajaee-Shahr Prison in Karaj to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, dated February 3, former political prisoner Arash Sadeghi said authorities denied several fellow prisoners medical treatment, including Raheleh Ahmadi, who was serving a 31-month sentence in Evin Prison for opposing the country’s mandatory hijab law.  According to CHRI, Ahmadi suffered from mobility issues and her lawyer and medical specialists said there was a possibility she could become paralyzed.  In his letter, Sadeghi also wrote that Monireh Arabshahi, who was serving 5.5 years in Kachuei Prison in Karaj for peacefully protesting the mandatory hijab law, had developed a speech impairment due to an untreated inflamed thyroid gland.

On September 28, IranWire reported authorities continued to reserve the harshest treatment for prisoners who were religious minorities.  This mistreatment included beatings, harassment of family members, and forbidding visits and phone calls.  A former Yarsani inmate told IranWire that authorities shaved Yarsani prisoners’ traditional mustaches as a means of humiliating and degrading them.  In Dieselabad Prison in Kermanshah Province, to harass Sunni prisoners, the guards would play “music and eulogies that insulted the caliphs and their beliefs.”  One source told IranWire that authorities routinely tortured Sunnis in detention to obtain confessions.  “If you’re both a Sunni and a Kurd, these two characteristics are enough for you to be guilty.”

The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran stated that from January 1 to September 24, the government sentenced at least 77 individuals to flogging, based on its interpretation of sharia, and carried out these sentences in at least eight cases.

In October, media reported the government continued to practice qisas, including hand or finger amputations for theft.  According to these reports, in October, authorities sentenced one man to be blinded as punishment for having blinded his neighbor in one eye during a fight in 2018.

According to IranWire, on June 15, authorities transferred Amir Hossein Moradi to the Tehran Police Investigation Center, which, according to IranWire, suggested a new case was being prepared against him.  Authorities arrested Moradi following the November 2019 protests, charging him and two other defendants with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.”  Later in the month, the Twitter account 1,500 Images, run by activists in contact with the family members of individuals killed and arrested during the November 2019 protests, which initially began over a fuel price increase but quickly turned into antigovernment demonstrations, warned about Moradi’s deteriorating health, reporting, “He is sick whenever he eats and has been taken to the hospital several times on a stretcher” and that he “is in a critical condition.”

On September 23, HRW reported the judiciary had confirmed the September 21 death of Shahin Nasseri, a prisoner who said he had witnessed the torture and forced confession of fellow inmate Navid Afkari when they were both detained in Shiraz Prison.  The government arrested Afkari and his brothers Habib and Vahid in 2018 on charges that included “enmity against God.”  Authorities executed Afkari in 2020.  His brothers remained in solitary confinement at year’s end.  Nasseri’s former lawyer posted on Twitter that Nasseri had called him several times on September 20, the day before his death, to report that his interrogators had threatened him with physical violence.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion.  The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 67 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned as of November for “religious practice.”  Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 62 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or armed rebellion against Islamic rule/baghi, which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.”  Authorities sentenced at least 20 persons to prison for “insulting Islamic sanctities” and for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”  According to the NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers, there were 82 persons serving prison terms for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of November 1.

In the July report, UNSR Rehman again expressed concern at the reportedly high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azeri, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

According to the Kurdistan Human Rights Network, in March, authorities sentenced Kurdish Sunni imam Mamoutsa Rasoul Hamzehpour to three years in prison for “propaganda against the state” and “activities on the internet.”  According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested Hamzehpour in the city of Piranshahr in 2020 at his home, which they searched.  The news report stated Hamzehpour was regarded as a prominent cleric in West Azerbaijan Province and had been arrested several times in the past.

According to IranWire, security forces conducted multiple arrests of Baha’is in the last week of September without providing reasons or charges.  Authorities held four Baha’is from Shiraz City – Negar Ghaderi Sadi, Moin Misaghi, Hayedeh Forootan, and his son, Mehran Mosalanejad – in solitary confinement in Shiraz Police Detention Center 201 for at least one month following their arrests on September 22.  Sources said officers ransacked Misaghi’s house, spilling a bowl of soup on his one-and-a-half-year-old baby, causing the child to suffer burns.  At Negar Ghaderi’s house, officers confiscated mobile telephones, tablets, satellite dishes, and several prayer books.  Authorities previously raided these four individuals’ homes in April and confiscated personal items, including religious books and pictures.  IranWire reported that on September 23 in Ghaem Shahr, Mazandaran Province, Intelligence Ministry agents entered the home of Baha’i Sheida Taeed, confiscated her mobile phone, passport, computer, family photographs, and other personal items, and arrested her without a warrant.  BIC’s representative to the UN posted on Twitter that authorities appeared to be targeting young parents, and their children in particular, with arbitrary arrests.

IranWire reported that on September 23, Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Baha’i Sheida Taeed in Mazandaran Province.  A source told IranWire that eight agents of the Mazandaran Intelligence Bureau entered Taeed’s home, which they searched for two hours.  After confiscating personal items, including her mobile phone, laptop, computer, letters, family pictures, and passport, they arrested her without a warrant.  According to IranWire, this was the third time authorities had detained or arrested Taeed since 1989.

According to HRANA, Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi continued at year’s end to serve her sentence at Evin Prison, along with 19 other female prisoners of conscience.  Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the November 2019 antigovernment protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison.

According to widespread media reports and Amnesty International, security forces reacted violently to protests that began in Khuzestan Province in mid-July over water shortages.  As protests spread across the country, government forces fired on crowds with live ammunition, birdshot, and tear gas, killing at least nine protestors, including a 17-year-old boy.  Security and intelligence forces swept up dozens of protesters and activists, including many from the Sunni Ahwazi Arab minority, in mass arrests.

Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest.  At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

UNPO’s October joint report to the UNSR stated that in June, officials summoned at least 10 Baluchi citizens to court following a rally in the village of Ramin to prevent the destruction of the Eidgah (land reserved for Eid prayers for Sunnis).  The report also stated that since June, authorities had arrested or detained three Sunni clerics and religious activists without disclosing the charges, including Baluchi Sunni cleric Jafar Hanzarani from Iranshahr County, Sistan and Baluchestan Province, whom police arrested on August 21 without charge.  According to the same report, IRGC intelligence officers arrested Baluchi religious activist Khalilullah Zaeem on September 28, also without an official charge.

According to Article 19, a London-based international human rights organization, the new amendments to the penal code passed in January that criminalized insulting Iranian ethnicities or “divine religions or Islamic schools of thought” (Article 499) and committing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” (Article 500) put religious minorities such as Baha’is, Yarsanis, Mandaeans, Sufi dervishes, Christian converts, atheists, and followers of Erfan-e Halgheh (Inter-Universalism) at a higher risk of persecution.  In July, human rights advocate Ewelina Ochab wrote in Forbes magazine, “Such provisions are destined to be abused against religious minorities.”  In his July report, UNSR Rehman stated these two amendments would “further suppress freedom of religion and belief as well as freedom of expression, especially for religious minorities, and in particular, non-recognized minorities such as Baha’is, atheists, converts to Christianity and Gonabadi dervishes.”

In his July report, UNSR Rehman also noted other official policies targeting religious minorities, including documents published in March that indicated that the suppression of Baha’is and Gonabadi dervishes was “official policy in Sari, Mazandaran Province.”  The report stated the documents contained plans by local authorities to “rigorously control the movements” of Baha’i and Gonabadi dervish residents and to impose restrictions on Baha’is in education and commerce.  According to the UNSR’s report, authorities harassed, arrested, and forcibly disappeared dozens of Baha’is in April and June in incidents in Shiraz and Isfahan.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs.  Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with operating illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries.  Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property.  News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement.  According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to subject Christians who converted from Islam to arbitrary arrest, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment.  The NGO Article 18 reported that on April 19, intelligence agents in Dezful, Khuzestan Province, arrested four Christian converts – Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmail Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and Mohammad Ali (Davoud) Torabi – and in August charged them with “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” due to their membership in a house church.  Authorities arrested and interrogated four additional male Christian converts at the same time and ordered them to sign commitments to refrain from further Christian activities.  Authorities reportedly beat some of the Christians during their interrogations, including Narimanpour.

Article 18 reported that on January 18, the morality police rearrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi, saying her trousers were too tight, her headscarf was not correctly adjusted, and she should not be wearing an unbuttoned coat.  Mohammadi, who was released from prison in February 2020 after being incarcerated for participating in January 2020 prodemocracy protests, stated she had been unable to return to work as a gymnastics instructor because intelligence agents pressured her former employer not to rehire her.

According to Article 18 and HRANA, on August 22, the Albroz Court of Appeals sentenced three Christian converts – Milad Goodarzi, Amin Khaki, and Alireza Nourmohammadi – to three years each in prison.  In November 2020, authorities raided the men’s homes and confiscated personal items, including laptop computers, mobile phones and religious books.  At their first trial in June, the Revolutionary Court of Karaj sentenced the three men to five years’ imprisonment each and a 400 million rial ($9,500) fine for “spreading propaganda against the state” and “engaging in propaganda that educates in a deviant way contrary to the holy religion of Islam.”  The latter charge stemmed from an amendment to Article 500 penalizing “any deviant educational or proselytizing activity that contradicts or interferes with the sacred law of Islam” that went into effect on February 18.

Media reported that on 27 January, the 4th Branch of Bushehr Court of Appeal upheld the one-year prison sentences of three Christian converts – Sam Khosravi, Sasan Khosravi, and Habib Heydari – agreeing with the lower court that they were guilty of the “organization of house churches and promotion of Christianity, which are clear examples of propaganda against the state.”  Ministry of Intelligence agents arrested Sam and Sasan Khosravi, their wives Maryam Falahi and Marjan Falahi, Heydari, and Pooriya Peyma and his wife Fatemeh Talebi at their homes in Bushehr Province in July 2019.  In June 2020, authorities fined the women and gave the men prison terms of one year for Habib, Sam, and Sasan, and 91 days for Pooriya.  The court also sentenced Sam and Sasan Khosravi to two years of internal exile and a ban on working in their profession, the hospitality sector, while exiled.

According to IranWire, on March 14, authorities informed Christian converts Homayoun Zhaveh and Sara Ahmadi their case “had advanced” and they could receive a summons to prison at any moment.  Intelligence agents arrested the couple in June 2019 during a trip they took with several other Christian families to Amol in Mazandaran Province.  Authorities first held the couple in Amol before taking them to Evin Prison.  Authorities released Zhaveh after one month, but Ahmadi spent 67 days in detention, half of them in solitary confinement in the Ministry of Intelligence’s Ward 209.  On November 14, 2020, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Zhaveh and Ahmadi to two years and 11 years in prison, respectively, for “membership and leadership of [a] church.”  On appeal Ahmadi’s sentence was reduced to eight years in December 2020.

According to Article 18, on September 5, authorities arrested three Christian converts – Ahmad Sarparast, Morteza Mashoodkari, and Ayoob Poor-Rezazadeh – during raids on a house church and a private home in Rasht.  The officials held the three converts incommunicado at an unknown location, possibly an IRGC detention center, for nearly two weeks.  On September 18, authorities transferred Mashoodkari and Sarparast to Lakan Prison and released them on bail on September 21.  Authorities released Poor-Rezazadeh on bail on October 3.  Authorities did not file official charges, but during interrogations, they accused the men of “acting against national security.”

Article 18 reported that on April 21, authorities arrested four Christian converts – Hojjat Lotfi Khalaf, Esmaeil Narimanpour, Alireza Varak-Shah, and one other person – and detained them for two days.  Authorities released the four individuals on the condition they refrain from further Christian activities.  Government representatives subsequently summoned them to the 4th branch of the prosecutor’s office of the Civil and Revolutionary Court of Dezful, Khuzestan Province, to answer charges of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.”

According to human rights activists, Baluchis continued to face government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority.  Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists.  They stated authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.  According to the UN Secretary General’s August report, between January 1 and June 18, authorities executed at least 26 Baluchi individuals, the majority on narcotics charges.  The same report stated there were “a large number of executions of members of minorities” during the first half of the year, including from the Kurdish and Arab minorities.  The report also noted that from January 1 to June 15, at least 24 border couriers (kolbar) and fuel smugglers (sookhtbar), predominantly from the Kurdish and Baluch minorities, “were killed as a result of the government’s excessive use of force.”

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes (Majzooban Noor), reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions continuing inside Qarchak Women’s Prison, as well as reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

On June 16, HRANA reported that Hossein Sepanta continued to face medical neglect of long-term injuries in his eighth year inside Adelabad Prison in Shiraz, Kerman Province.  Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”  Authorities beat him during his incarceration, causing a spinal cord disorder.  United for Iran posted on Twitter on July 25 that authorities moved Sepanta to a Ministry of Intelligence cell inside the prison after he reportedly started a hunger strike, making it impossible for the NGO to obtain new information on his condition.

According to a January report by IranWire, in December 2020, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009.  He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.  According to his Instagram page, he continued to post messages in support of opposition figures like Mehdi Karroubi as of October.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late February, government security services arrested five Kurdish religious activists – Musa Brusan, Taha Karimi, and Saber Mohtadi from Brukan; Abdul Latif Mahmoudi Deli from Oshnaviyeh; and Naseh Sorkhabi from Piranshahar – in West Azerbaijan Province.  The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on February 27.  According to the NGO, authorities accused the five individuals of “collaborating with and joining Salafist groups.”  NGOs reported that the Kurds were denied access to a lawyer.

There continued to be reports that authorities harassed and arrested Sunni clerics and congregants.  According to a December report by Iran International, the Supreme Leader’s representative in Golestan Province, Kazem Nour-Mofidi, dismissed Mowlavi Hossein Gorgij, the Friday prayer imam in Azadshahr City and an outspoken and popular Sunni cleric, as punishment for his Friday prayer remarks that allegedly insulted Shia “sanctities.”  Nour-Mofidi appointed a new Sunni imam.  Gorgij’s followers protested in Azadshahr, and Gorgij issued a statement saying his remarks were misunderstood and that he meant no disrespect toward Shia.

HRANA reported in July that nine Sunni prisoners held in Vakilabad Prison in Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, since at least 2016 wrote a letter to UNSR Rehman requesting an investigation into their cases.  The prisoners – Eisa Eid-Mohammadi, Farhad Shakeri, Eid al-Hakim Azim Gargij, Abdolrahman Gargij, Habib Pir-Mohammadi, Abdolbaset Orsan, Mohammad Reza Sheikh Ahmadi, Morteza Fakuri, and Abdullah Hosseini – said authorities beat and tortured them into providing false confessions and threatened their family members.  HRANA said they received death sentences and long prison terms based on false charges of being members of dissident groups and groups the government labeled as “terrorist,” for example, Hizb al-Forghan, and of committing acts of “propaganda against the regime.”

BIC reported authorities arrested 64 Baha’is between January and December.  Prison officials kept many in solitary confinement for long periods and detained individuals for weeks or months before releasing them on bail.  BIC stated that authorities set bail at exorbitantly high levels, requiring families to hand over deeds to properties or business licenses.  In nearly all cases, authorities searched their homes and/or workplaces and confiscated personal belongings, particularly books, photographs, computers, copying machines, and other supplies, as well as items related to the Baha’i Faith.  Some victims reported officers beat them when taking them into custody.  According to BIC, during the year, authorities required 18 Baha’is to begin serving prison sentences or resume sentences following temporary release.

According to BIC, on June 8, Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Baha’i Shahrzad Nazifi, a women’s cross-country motorcycle racing trainer, to eight years in prison for “managing unlawful groups for the purpose of disturbing national security.”  On January 21, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Baha’is Sofia Mobini and Negin Tadrisi to five years each in prison on national security charges.  Subsequently, Judge Mohammad Moghiseh, from the same court, without arraignment, adjusted their sentences to 10 and five years’ imprisonment, respectively, for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization with intent to disturb national security,” under Article 499 of the penal code.  The Court of Appeals later restored their original five-year prison sentences.  Intelligence agents arrested Mobini and Tadrisi in 2017 in connection with celebrations of a Baha’i holy day.

In March, HRW reported that Baha’i historian and writer Touraj Amini had begun serving a six-year prison sentence in January.  Authorities first searched Amini’s house in 2019, confiscating numerous books and his laptop.  HRANA later reported that a court in Karaj sentenced Amini to one year’s imprisonment and two years in domestic exile in 2020.  An Alborz Province appeals court later reduced the sentence to six months in prison and rescinded the exile.  According to HRW, Amini is a historian specializing in the history of Iranian religious minorities prior to the 1979 revolution.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that in early October, the Revolutionary Court of Orumiyeh sentenced Sunni Kurds Anvar Chaleshi and Kamel Jabarvand (also known as Saydan Maskan) to seven years in prison for “acting against national security” through “membership in the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan.”  IRGC officers arrested the men in December 2020 and transferred them in a MOIS detention center in the al-Mahdi base in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province in January, following their interrogation.

Activists and NGOs reported that the government continued to detain or disappear Yarsani activists and community leaders for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.  According to NGO reports, on June 28, a district court in Kermanshah arrested Kheyrollah Haghjouyan of the Yarsan Civil Rights’ Activists Advisory Council for his remarks criticizing the government’s discriminatory practices against the Yarsani community and for commemorating the eight-year anniversary of the deaths of three Yarsani activists who self-immolated to protest the forced shaving of mustaches – considered an insult in the Yarsani religion – of Yarsani prisoners in Hamadan Prison.  The court accused Haghjouyan of “insulting the sanctities and officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

According to a March report by CHRI, judges continued to use internal exile as a form of punishment for political prisoners, including peaceful activists, religious minorities, and dissidents.  Exile could be ordered as the primary punishment, for example for those found guilty of moharebeh or “armed rebellion,” or as a supplemental punishment for various crimes, to be carried out after the completion of a prison sentence.  Judges chose exile locations from a list prepared by the Ministry of Interior; these were usually remote towns in regions with extreme poverty.  CHRI reported that during the year, judges also sent individuals into “prison exile” by transferring them in the middle of their prison terms to severely under-resourced prisons far from their families and friends.  According to CHRI, the concept of exile or banishment is rooted in Shia theology and is referred to as “denial of country” (nafiye balad).  CHRI stated that prison exile also harmed the detainee’s family by putting the individual in a location family members could not easily visit.

CHRI reported that on January 24, Golrokh Iraee Ebrahimi, a civil rights activist who protested against the practice of stoning women accused of adultery, was transferred from Gharchak Women’s Prison in Tehran to the central prison in Amol, Mazandaran Province, far from her parents.  Authorities originally arrested and charged Ebrahimi in 2014 with “insulting Islamic sanctities” and “spreading propaganda.”  According to her husband, prison officials held Ebrahimi in an unsanitary ward with approximately 50 other inmates, where the risks of infection from COVID-19 and other diseases were high.  Contrary to law, prisoners were not being separated by type of offense or duration of sentence, and many of the other inmates in Ebrahimi’s ward were serving narcotics-related sentences.  According to the NGO Humanists International, in April, Branch 26 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced Iraee in absentia to an additional one year in prison, banned her from membership in political organizations, and imposed a two-year travel ban on charges of “propaganda against the state.”  Iraee was denied legal representation during the trial.  She remained in Amol Prison at year’s end, unable to make telephone calls or contact her family.

Human rights NGOs reported that in February, authorities summoned Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert, to respond to allegations of “propaganda against the Islamic Republic in favor of hostile groups.”  He appeared in court on February 8.  Authorities arrested him and detained him in Chabahar Prison in Sistan and Baluchestan Province for 19 days, and then released him on bail.  Firouzi had been in internal exile as part of his 2015 sentence for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities.  After first serving six years in Rajai Shahr Prison, he was released in November 2019 and reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence.  Authorities later extended his exile by 11 months, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother.  The government informed him in November that he would not be required to serve the 11-month extension of his internal exile.

In the July report, UNSR Rehman stated there continued to be reports of forced evictions of the Sunni Baluch minority in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Citing a report by HRANA, HRW said a court in Borazjan, Bushehr Province, sentenced six Baha’is to lengthy prison terms on vaguely defined national security charges, including propaganda against the state “by spreading the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith.”  The six convicted Baha’is were Maryam Bashir, Mino Bashir, Hayedeh Ram, Frank Sheikhi, Borhan Ismaili, and Derna Ismaili.  Authorities charged Borhan Ismaili with “spreading” the beliefs of the Baha’i Faith and acting against national security interests and sentenced him to 11 years in prison.  The court sentenced the other individuals to 12 and a half years in prison for “assisting” in this propaganda, the evidence of which included social media posts on Facebook.  At year’s end, the case remained subject to appeal.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to exercise what sources stated was perhaps the greatest degree of religious freedom among religious minorities in the country.  It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

In November, Humanists International stated in its Freedom of Thought Report 2021 that although “‘enmity against God’ is framed as a religious offense and may be used against humanists and other religious dissenters, it [was] most often used as a punishment for political acts that challenge[d] the regime (on the basis that to oppose the theocratic regime is to oppose Allah).”

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Khamenei’s views.  According to international media, authorities continued to target these Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property.

Critics stated the government continued to use extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas or participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab or, alternatively, a chador (full body-length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes).  Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment.  The government continued to crack down on public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.

According to media reports, on August 9, authorities in Orumiyeh, West Azerbaijan Province arrested a man for running over two women with his vehicle for “bad hijab” and not heeding the Islamic dress code.  The two women, one of whom was reportedly seriously injured, were taken to the hospital.  Chief Justice Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejei ordered an investigation into the attack.  Meeting with officials on August 9, he stressed the judicial duty of “supporting those who enjoin good and forbid wrong and defend Islamic values.”

The NGO Frontline Defenders reported that on March 9, the Tehran Appeals Court reduced Saba Kord-Afshari’s prison sentence, which she received in 2019 on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab, from 24 years to seven years and six months in prison.  According to the NGO, on January 26, guards physically assaulted Kord-Afshari and forcibly transferred her from one ward of Qarchak Women’s Prison to another.  Kord-Afshari undertook a hunger strike from May 8 to 18 to protest the continued incarceration of her mother, women’s rights defender Raheleh Ahmadi, in Evin Prison, despite Ahmadi’s deteriorating physical and mental health.

On June 21, UN human rights experts condemned the continued imprisonment of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights work, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.”  On July 21, authorities released her from Qarchak Women’s Prison on temporary leave to receive treatment after she contract COVID-19 there.  Her husband told media that conditions in Qarchak Women’s Prison were “catastrophic.”  Authorities summoned Sotoudeh back to prison one month after her release.  The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender.  A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019.  According to HRW, in 2020, authorities arrested and then gave conditional release to Sotoudeh’s attorney, Payam Derafshan, whom the NGO described as “a respected human rights attorney.”  According to the HRW report, the IRGC committed “revolting abuse and medical negligence” on Derafshan during his detention in Evin Prison, including injecting him with a substance that resulted in physical and psychological damage.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers.  It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition.  According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery.  Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites.  IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires that the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours.  According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

Citing a report by the Baha’i National Center, in April, HRW reported that authorities instituted a prohibition on the Tehran Baha’i community from burying their dead in a section of a cemetery, Golestan Javid, near Tehran that previously was allocated for their use.  In an April 23 statement, the Baha’i National Center said the office overseeing the cemetery threatened Baha’is trying to use the designated part of the cemetery.  HRW stated that the new policy was part of “a broader, decades-long government repression” of the Baha’i community.  The NGO reported that the Baha’i representative to the UN in Geneva stated that the prohibition was intended to coerce the Baha’i community into burying the dead in areas of the nearby Khavaran cemetery, believed to be the site of a mass grave for political prisoners killed by the government in 1988.  NGOs and the media identified Ebrahim Raisi, the country’s newly elected President, as being heavily involved in those killings.  In April, Amnesty International stated that the mass grave was bulldozed multiple times and had become a symbol of the struggle for truth and justice.  The Amnesty report said, “As well as causing further pain and anguish to the already persecuted Baha’i minority by depriving them of their rights to give their loved ones a dignified burial in line with their religious beliefs, Iran’s authorities are willfully destroying a crime scene.”

In his July report, UNSR Rehman expressed “alarm” at the government’s order denying the Baha’i community access to that part of the Khavaran cemetery assigned for their use, saying, “This order violates the Baha’i community’s right to freedom of religion and belief.”  He said that the order was “one of the many occasions where Baha’i cemeteries have been desecrated or where burial rituals have been restricted.”

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsani religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.

MOIS and law enforcement officials reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders.  Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s late leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available.  Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations.  Books about the Yarsani religion remained banned.  Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.  Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year.  NGOs also reported the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

UNSR Rehman’s July report stated authorities continued to confiscate Baha’i properties they characterized as “illegitimate wealth.”

BIC reported that in August, judicial authorities issued court orders informing six Baha’i property owners of the imminent seizure of their properties in Semnan Province.  These court orders followed raids security forces carried out on hundreds of Baha’i-owned properties in November 2020, including these properties in Semnan, during which they confiscated ownership deeds.  According to BIC, the judiciary ruled these properties belonged to Baha’i institutions rather than to the individuals.  However, the institutions in question were banned by the government in 1979 and formally dissolved in 1983, with the government confiscating all connected properties.  According to BIC and other NGOs, the confiscations were part of an ongoing state-led campaign of economic persecution against Baha’is.  In a 2020 decision upholding the government’s 2019 confiscations of Baha’i property in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, a court ruled that Baha’is had “a perverse ideology,” which was “heretical and ritually unclean,” and therefore had no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

In February, HRANA reported tax authorities in Bandar Lengeh city, Hormozgan Province, acting on a court order, confiscated the business, homes, and bank accounts of two Baha’is – Mohabatullah Thaabet and Erfaan Noahnezhaad.  According to HRANA, they had operated a workshop making composite beams, paid taxes, and kept accounts as required for five years prior to authorities forcing them to close in 2019 “because of their Baha’i beliefs.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country.  Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces.  International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented construction of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran.  Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population.  Three news sources opposed to the government previously stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion.  Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices.  Official reports and media continued to characterize private Christian churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.”  Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches.  NGOs reported that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012.  Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages.  Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services.  In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced in secret.  Other unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals to be Muslim.  The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.

In February, the ADL published a report entitled, Incitement:  Antisemitism and Violence in Iran’s Current State Textbooks.  The report stated that “incitement to hatred against Jews and Israel are extensively interspersed throughout multiple fields of the curriculum such as history, religion, and social studies” at all grade levels in the academic year 2020-2021.  According to the report, school textbooks “overwhelmingly teach hateful messages about Jewish people across both ancient and modern history” in furtherance of a narrative pitting Islamic leaders against the enemies of Islam.  Children were also taught that Jews were untrustworthy, Zionism was “racist,” and the state of Israel must be destroyed.

The ADL report stated a 10th grade textbook on “defense preparation” claimed Zionism and global arrogance had used “religious tools with new definitions of Islam and sect and the creation of takfiri [extremist] groups” to undermine Islam, including ISIS.  An 11th grade sociology textbook asserted, “The gathering of media power in the hand of wealth owners and Zionist associations…makes the cultural identity of non-Western societies vulnerable[.]”

The ADL report stated that state school textbooks depicted Baha’is as “a conspiratorial creation of the West rather than adherents to a legitimate faith” who, along with Buddhists and Wahhabi Muslims, were “physically unclean.”  An 11th grade history textbook stated the Baha’i “sect” was “deviant” and a “trick of colonialism to destroy the religious and cultural foundations of Islamic countries.”

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas.  Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses.  Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content.  Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known.  According to HRW, Iranian authorities systematically refuse to allow Baha’is to register at public universities because of their faith.  As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants.  IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980.

The July UNSR report stated documents published in March indicated it was official policy to impose restrictions on Baha’i education and commerce in Sari, Mazandaran Province.  In 2020, UNSR Rehman reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

According to BIC, on March 17, authorities expelled two Baha’i students – Hananeh Afshar and Sana Fakhri Tazangi – mid-semester from the University of Applied Science and Technology in Shiraz, Fars Province.  The Baha’i women learned via a text message that the university had changed their student status to “registration cancelled” and had voided their credits from prior semesters.  The president of the university showed them a letter from a Ministry of Education official that requested the expulsion of nine Baha’i students from the Universities of Applied Science and Technology across the country.  Authorities expelled three other Baha’i students – Sina Shakib, Shima Fattahi Mirshekarlu, and Mahsa Forouhari – from their universities mid-semester under similar circumstances.

In January 2020, the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions changed to allow only citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions.  The Atlantic Council stated in September 2021, “Baha’i families, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans, and other religious minorities or atheists must either lie to receive a national identification card or be denied access to services, such as insurance, education, banking, and, most recently, public transportation.”  Previously, application forms for an ID card had an option for “other religions.”

The Atlantic Council reported in September that Sabean-Mandaeans experienced hate speech and discrimination.  One member of the community told a researcher, that “we cannot even choose and officially register a Mandaean name for our children because the state has always instilled a great fear of being interrogated in us.”  According to the individual, Sabean-Mandaeans were often called “infidels and impure Muslims in the mosques.”  They did not have the right to work in governmental agencies.  Authorities denied self-employment permits “under various pretexts” and, in some cases, shut down their businesses.

According to an October 29 report by CHRI, the state-run Headquarters for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced plans to launch university-level religion courses dedicated to the “promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” that conformed to the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems.  They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names.  According to a 2020 article in the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish.  Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

In January, IranWire reported that the Yarsani Consultative Assembly of Civil Activists issued a statement calling on the government to stop discriminating against Yarsanis, including depriving of them of government employment, the right to hold public office, the right to post-graduate education, and the right to serve as directors of companies.  The assembly protested the compulsory teaching of Islamic sharia to Yarsani children.  The assembly also called for amending the constitution to include the Yarsan religion as a recognized minority religion.

According to the U.S.-based think-tank Middle East Institute, under the Ebrahim Raisi administration, which assumed power in August, not a single mid-ranking position was held by a Sunni Muslim or a woman during the year.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions.  Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic year), the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 throughout the country.  Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.  In March, a local Jewish community source told the Times of Israel the government permitted the Jewish community to maintain youth organizations, kosher facilities, and four Jewish schools.  In November, Voice of America reported the law barred Jews, in addition to other recognized minorities, from serving in the judiciary and security services, and it further prohibited Jews from holding authority over Muslims in the armed forces.  Media reported local sources were careful to avoid publicly discussing politics or the State of Israel.

According to BIC, during the year, the government campaign of hate speech and propaganda against Baha’is “reached new levels, increasing in both sophistication and scale.”  BIC stated there was a growing and coordinated network of hundreds of websites, Instagram accounts, Telegram channels, and Clubhouse chat rooms containing content such as “Baha’is are unclean and enemies of your religion,” “Associating with Baha’is is banned,” and “Purchasing any goods from a Baha’i store is forbidden.”  BIC stated discriminatory online material existed alongside videos, print newspaper articles, books, seminars, exhibitions, graffiti, and fatwas “from both official outlets and others sponsored by the government but purporting to be independent.”

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity.  According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.  In December, Article 18 stated that although government officials issued Christmas greetings on social media as a propaganda tool, government persecution of Christians increased around the holiday.  One academic told Article 18 the regime feared that an interest in Christmas and other elements of Western culture would lead Muslims, especially youth, to convert to Christianity.  The academic said the government was “more afraid of the religious significance and consequences of these behaviors than of fearing a celebration that belongs to other countries.  Negative reactions to the celebration of Christmas, or open repression of Christian converts, are signs of this fear.”

In its annual report on the year 2020 published in April, Amnesty International stated, “Freedom of religion and belief was systematically violated in law and practice.  The authorities continued to impose on people of all faiths, as well as atheists, codes of public conduct rooted in a strict interpretation of Shia Islam.  The authorities refused to recognize the right of those born to Muslim parents to convert to other religions or become atheists, with individuals seeking to exercise this right risking arbitrary detention, torture and the death penalty for ‘apostasy.’  Only Shia Muslims were allowed to hold key political positions.  Members of religious minorities, including Baha’is, Christians, Gonabadi Dervishes, Yarsan (Ahl-e Haq), and converts from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam or Christianity faced discrimination, including in education and employment, as well as arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, torture and other ill-treatment for practicing their faith.”  The report added, “The authorities continued to commit widespread and systematic human rights violations against members of the Baha’i minority, including forcible closure of businesses, confiscation of property, bans on employment in the public sector, denial of access to higher education and hate speech campaigns on state media.  Raids on house churches persisted.  Sunni Muslims continued to face restrictions on establishing their own mosques.”

In its annual report on the year 2021, HRW noted the country’s “law denies freedom of religion to Baha’is and discriminates against them.  Authorities continue to arrest and prosecute members of the Baha’i faith on vague national security charges and to close businesses owned by them.  The government also discriminates against other religious minorities, including Sunni Muslims….  Minority activists are regularly arrested and prosecuted on vaguely defined national security charges in trials that grossly fall short of international standards.”

In July, Article 18 reported that in a video published by Roshangar Media, senior Armenian and Assyrian representatives distanced themselves from the house church movement of evangelical Christian converts.  Iranian-Armenian Catholic archbishop Sarkis Davidian reportedly said in the video, “We do not encourage people to change their religion.  People must remain in their religion.”  Iranian-Assyrian parliamentary representative Shaarli Anouyeh Tekyeh, in the same video, said evangelical churches were “repugnant to us.”  In an August 2020 Article 18 report, an Armenian journalist said despite harassment of minorities being “institutionalized in the very fabric of the Islamic Republic… representatives of religious minorities find themselves almost forced to defend the interests and discourse of a government that has deprived them of many of their rights, in an attempt perhaps to regain those lost rights or to prevent their further deterioration.”

Government officials continued to employ antisemitic rhetoric in official statements and to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books.  On February 22, Supreme Leader Khamenei posted a message on Twitter saying, “That international Zionist clown [the UN] has said they won’t allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons.  First of all, if we had any such intention, even those more powerful than him [sic] wouldn’t be able to stop us.”  On June 27, ADL CEO and national director Jonathan Greenblatt wrote in Newsweek, “that [President] Raisi was responsible for systematically propagating The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the most dangerous tracts in history, provides an unsettling reminder of just how engaged Iran’s government and leaders have been in inciting antisemitism.”  According to the ADL, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In May, the government-controlled arts promotion organization Hozeh Honari hosted an exhibition of submissions to its third Holocaust-denial cartoon contest and offered cash awards to several of the participating artists.  The state-run Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting Corporation reportedly broadcast the exhibition’s closing ceremony live.  Many of the cartoons at the exhibition, also published in a book produced by Hozeh Honari, featured antisemitic imagery and stereotypical caricatures of Jews.  The contest had financial sponsorship from the partly state-owned Telecommunication Company of Iran through its subsidiary and the largest mobile operator in Iran, Hamrahe Aval.  In an interview on state-run Channel 4 on September 9, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the visual arts director of Hozeh Honari and director of, who also organized these exhibitions 2020, 2016, and 2006, said the Holocaust was the “Achilles heel” of the Zionists, that Israelis had “benefited” from the Holocaust, and that the figure of six million Jewish victims was “very exaggerated.”

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts.  According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities.  Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption.  Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.  The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 78 states in favor, 31 against, and 69 abstentions.  The resolution, introduced by Canada with 47 cosponsors, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….”  These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i Faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences during the COVID-19 pandemic….”  The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights….”  The resolution also called upon the government “to eliminate, in law and in practice, all forms of discrimination on the basis of thought, conscience, religion or belief, including restrictions contained in newly enacted provisions Article 499bis and Article 500bis of the Islamic Penal Code, as well as economic restrictions, such as the closure, destruction or confiscation of businesses and properties, the cancellation of licenses and the denial of employment in certain public and private sectors, including government or military positions and elected office, the denial of and restrictions on access to education, including for members of the Baha’i Faith, and other human rights violations against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities….”  The resolution condemned “without any reservation any denial of the Holocaust,” and called upon the government “to end impunity for those who commit crimes against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued.  They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities.  Yarsani men continued to face employment discrimination.  According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to a media reporting, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.

Violence and social stigma continued to target Baha’i individuals, according to Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights, and perpetrators reportedly continued to act with impunity.  There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is.  BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith.

Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.  IranWire reported that in September, HRANA released a video showing the partial destruction of a Baha’i cemetery in the village of Kata, Dena County, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad Province.  According to HRANA, the attack occurred on September 8.  In a manner that would have been difficult without machinery, much of the cemetery’s exterior wall and bathroom had been knocked to the ground and stone shrines were smashed.

In July, IranWire reported an Assyrian Christian nicknamed “Farough” suffered employment discrimination following a workplace injury at an industrial factory in 2016 in which he lost three fingers on his right hand.  Farough said that when he returned to the factory after his recovery, “They were supposed to do an expert examination and pay me blood money, but when I was paid, I realized that the amount I received was much lower based on the fact that I was a religious minority.”  Farough said a Muslim colleague with similar academic credentials was promoted and given a raise.  “I meanwhile have all the right conditions for employment and career advancement but, just because I am a Christian, I am deprived of any promotion.”

According to human rights NGOs, including CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

Sunni students reported that professors continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

IranWire reported that according to a survey released by Iran Open Data in October, 48 percent of 2,000 adult respondents said they drank alcohol.  When asked about drinking frequency, 24 percent of respondents reported that they “sometimes” drank, while 9 percent said they drank “weekly,” and 6 percent said they drank “daily.”  Fifty-two percent of participants said they did not drink alcohol.


Read A Section: Macau

ChinaTibet | XinjiangHONG KONG

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education.  These rights may be limited in extraordinary situations for national security reasons.  The law protects the right of religious assembly and stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.  Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.  In June, a group of 25 representatives from various religious groups, accompanied by officials from Beijing’s Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, visited Zhejiang Province in mainland China.  The office said the visit was designed to maintain good relations between the PRC government and Macau’s religious communities.  Some religious activists in the diaspora called on the PRC government to allow for greater religious expression in Macau, as provided for by the Basic Law.  Some activists on social media criticized the meeting as insincere, stating the PRC has frequently cracked down on religious expression.

In May, a video showing more than 100 primary school students from a prominent Macau Catholic school singing “We Are the Successors of Communism” in front of a Catholic site sparked discussion online on the ability of religious schools to preserve their religious values and implement their educational mission while conforming to government ideology.  Falun Gong practitioners reported they continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In virtual meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious diversity and religious freedom and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 630,000 (midyear 2021).  According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious.  The SAR Government Information Bureau 2021 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions.  The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions.  The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population is Protestant.  Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches.  Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present.  Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000.  Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities.  These rights may be limited in extraordinary situations for national security reasons.  The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau.  It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

PRC State Administration for Religious Affairs regulations entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” which came into force on the mainland May 1, requiring clergy to pledge allegiance to the CCP and promote the “Sinicization of religion,” do not apply to Macau.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law.  The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education.  In 2020, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 NSL allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches:  the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division, with investigative authority over religious groups and personnel, among others.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status.  Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and receiving financial assistance from the government.  Religious groups are required to register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter.  Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups.  Religious groups need to be registered separately as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools.  A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

In June, a group of 25 representatives from various religious groups, accompanied by officials from Beijing’s Central Government Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Macau, visited Zhejiang Province in mainland China.  The delegation included representatives of Buddhism, Christianity, Catholicism, Taoism, and the Baha’i Faith.  The office stated the goal of the visit was to maintain good relations between the PRC government and Macau’s religious communities.  Some religious activists in the diaspora community called on the PRC government to allow for greater religious expression in Macau, as provided for by the Basic Law.  Some activists on social media criticized the meeting as insincere, stating the PRC has frequently cracked down on religious expression.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers.  The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May, a video went viral on social media showing more than 100 primary school students from the Catholic Pui Ching Middle School singing “We Are the Successors of Communism” in front of the Ruins of St. Paul’s, the site of a former Catholic Church, as part of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.  The event sparked discussion online among Macau residents about whether religious schools could preserve their religious values and implement their educational mission while conforming to government ideology.  Some educators stated they believed that politics should not be brought onto campus, and that patriotism did not equate to loving the Communist Party.

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head.  The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

Falun Gong practitioners reported they continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.


Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship; and states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.”  According to media reports, the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and progovernment groups on several occasions harassed Catholic worshippers and impeded masses held in commemoration of individuals killed during 2018 prodemocracy protests.  Government authorities disrupted religious services by staging vendor fairs and playing loud music outside churches during Sunday services.  Throughout the year, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo verbally harassed priests and bishops, labelled them “terrorists in cassocks” and “coup-plotters,” and accused them of committing crimes.  In August, a journalist of independent daily newspaper La Prensa said the Ortega-Murillo government had engaged in “open war” against the Catholic Church since April 2018.  According to media, starting on October 26, the NNP surrounded the home of Cardinal Leopoldo Jose Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua; in September, police started monitoring Brenes’ home and photographed all individuals who entered, including priests.  During the year, there were frequent reports that the NNP – along with progovernment groups (commonly known as parapolice), ruling party (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) members, and individuals associated with Ortega and Murillo – conducted widespread, systematic harassment of religious leaders and worshippers.  Catholic leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance to peaceful protesters in 2018 continued to experience government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies, charges they said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, and denial of religious services for political prisoners, according to Catholic clergy.  After the government broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan on December 9 and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan donated its former embassy building to the Archdiocese of Managua.  On December 26, however, the Ortega administration blocked Taiwan’s donation and gave the property to the PRC, stating it supported a one-China policy.  The government also seized the passport of a Nicaraguan priest, revoked the visas of at least two foreign priests after they criticized the government, and drastically reduced public funding to a university run by a Catholic bishop critical of the government.  The government revoked the broadcasting licenses of an evangelical Protestant television and radio station after the station owner, also a presidential candidate, denounced election irregularities in November.

Reported antichurch activities included verbal insults, death threats, burglary of Catholic religious items, and unlawful entry into Catholic churches.  In January, media reported that a woman stole the keys of the Santissima of the Calvario Church in Masaya, verbally harassed parish priest Alexander Ruiz and threw soda in his face.  In May, the Diocese of Esteli reported that unidentified vandals had beheaded the statue of Monsignor Jose del Carmen Suazo, a well-known priest who died in 2015, on the road connecting the Shrine of Our Lady of Cacauli and Somoto.

On November 16, the President of the United States proclaimed, “Members of the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP), along with violent mobs of pro-government supporters also controlled by government actors, have attacked religious institutions in retaliation for their support for political and religious leaders.”  On October 7, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs tweeted, “Ortega’s dangerous criticism of Catholic bishops shows his fear of independent Nicaraguan voices and willingness to attack all dissent.  We stand for religious freedom and free expression everywhere and we stand with civil society in Nicaragua.”  Early in the year, the U.S. embassy requested meetings with government officials but received no response.  The Ambassador and embassy officials met regularly with a wide variety of religious leaders of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, Muslim groups, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and the Jewish community to discuss restrictions on religious freedom and to foster religious tolerance.

On November 15, 2021 in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Nicaragua 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 6.2 million (midyear 2021).  According to the 2005 census (the most recent available), conducted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census, 59 percent of the population is Catholic and 22 percent evangelical Protestant, including Pentecostals, Mennonites, Moravian Lutherans, and Baptists.  According to a survey conducted in July 2019 by Borge and Associates, the percentage of evangelical Protestants is increasing, and the percentage of Catholics is decreasing.  Borge and Associates found Catholics make up 43 percent of the population, evangelical Protestants 41 percent, and religious believers without affiliation 14 percent.  According to the Borge survey, groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ, Moravian Lutheran Church, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers.

The Moravian Lutheran Church is largely concentrated in the country’s North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions.  Most of its members are of indigenous or Afro-Caribbean descent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion.  It provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship, and it states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.”  The constitution states there is no official religion; however, the law entrusts government-controlled, community-level action groups, known as Family Committees, with the responsibility for promoting “Christian values” at the community level.

The requirements for registration of religious groups – except for the Catholic Church, which has a concordat with the government – are similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  Registration requires an application, articles of association, and designation of officers.  The National Assembly must approve a group’s application for registration or legal standing.  Following approval, the group must register with the Ministry of Interior as an association or NGO, which allows it to incur legal obligations, enter into contracts, and benefit from tax and customs exemptions.  Following registration, religious groups are subject to the same regulations as other NGOs or associations, regardless of their religious nature.  The Catholic Church is not required to register as a religious group because its presence in the country predates the legislation; however, the government requires organizations dedicated to charity or other social work affiliated with the Catholic Church to register.

According to a 2020 law, organizations and persons receiving resources of foreign origin must not participate in internal politics.  If the government finds any person or entity in violation of the law, the person or entity could be fined, imprisoned, or have their assets frozen or confiscated.  The law excludes accredited religious organizations from the requirement to register with the Ministry of Interior.  By law, those receiving exemptions may not participate in activities that would interfere in the country’s affairs.

Ministry of Education regulations for primary school education establish that the educational goals and curriculum for elementary grade students and teachers follow the government’s “Christian, Socialist, and Solidarity” principles.  The government’s 2021-26 human development policy recognizes the practice of religious activities as part of the country’s cultural traditions.  The law establishes education in the country as secular but recognizes the right of private schools to be religiously oriented.

Mssionaries must obtain religious worker visas and provide information regarding the nature of their missionary work before the Ministry of Interior will authorize entry into the country.  A locally based religious organization must provide documentation and request travel authorization from the Ministry of Interior seven days prior to the arrival of the visiting person or religious group.  The process generally takes several weeks to complete.

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

Government Practices

In November, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted Bishop Abelardo Mata (who retired in July) precautionary (protective) measures – in which the IACHR requests that a state serve a protective function and protect a person from irreparable harm – after it received reports from human rights organizations that Mata was a victim of constant harassment and had received death threats.  Mata had been an outspoken critic of government violations of human rights, including religious freedom, since before 2018.  The commission stated in its decision that “the information presented demonstrates prima facie that the persons identified are in a serious and urgent situation, since their rights to life and personal integrity are at risk of irreparable harm.”

According to media reports, Father Edwing Roman, a Catholic priest granted precautionary (protective) measures by the IACHR since 2018, continued to be a victim of harassment and received multiple death threats during the year.  According to media, during the voter registration process in July ahead of the November election, a government supporter verbally harassed Father Roman in Masaya at his local voting center.  The man shouted at Father Roman, “You are a criminal, a murderer!”  On August 3, Roman traveled to Miami and said he had initially planned to return within 15 days.  He delayed his return, however, after Vice President Murillo made statements to local media on August 6 calling him “that priest from Masaya” and a “criminal.”  By year’s end, Roman had not returned to the country.

In April, the Church of Saint Michael in Masaya celebrated Mass in memory of Alvaro Gomez, a prodemocracy protester killed by an unidentified shooter in 2018.  Reports stated that dozens of police stationed in front of the church intimidated worshippers as they entered the service to dissuade them from attending Mass.  In the same month in Esteli, Catholic clergy closed the cathedral after parapolice harassed and intimidated worshippers attempting to hold Mass in commemoration of Franco Valdivia, reportedly killed by an unidentified sniper during the 2018 civic protests.  Police prevented worshippers from entering the church and took Valdivia’s relatives to the police station, where reportedly police detained them for a few hours, beat them, ordered them to strip, and verbally threatened them.  Also in April, a group of government supporters interrupted Mass in Our Lady of Rosary Church in Chinandega chanting, “Long Live Daniel!” in reference to President Ortega.

According to press and social media reports, Catholic Church leaders throughout the country continued to experience harassment from government supporters, who often acted in tandem with police.  Other Catholic leaders privately said they felt fear and intimidation when celebrating Mass.  Clergy reported police and parapolice forces congregated at the entrance of churches and took pictures to intimidate priests and churchgoers in several cities throughout the country, including Managua, Masaya, Matagalpa, and Esteli.  Clergy also reported drones flying over churches and adjacent parking lots.  In October, Father Vicente Martinez told media that the Matagalpa police chief visited him the day after a video of his Sunday homily went viral.  In his homily, Martinez criticized the electoral process.  Martinez said that, although the police chief called it a “courtesy visit,” “the message [threat] was clear.”

In September, local media reported a large vendor fair appeared on the main public road in front of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Matagalpa.  Such fairs require authorization from the FSLN-controlled Matagalpa City Hall and police.  The vendors installed tents in front of and around the cathedral, making access to the church difficult.  Music played loudly over speakers and interrupted the regularly scheduled church services.

Catholic clergy continued to report that the government denied access to prisons following the 2018 prodemocracy uprising.  Reportedly only one priest was allowed access to prisons during the year.  Prior to April 2018, clergy said they regularly entered prisons to celebrate Mass and provide communion and confession to detainees.  According to human rights organizations, from May to October, police imprisoned 39 citizens, including opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders.  Human rights organizations described their detention as arbitrary and categorized them as political prisoners.  Several of these prisoners requested Bibles through family visits, but prison authorities denied these requests.

Through clergy homilies and pastoral letters, the Catholic Church, including priests throughout the country, continued to speak out against violence on the part of the government and progovernment groups, also denouncing the lack of democratic institutions.  On October 15, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua issued a written statement that said, “A valuable opportunity to correct the country’s course was missed,” referencing the November 7 general election.  On August 10, the commission said the Catholic Church had been subject to threats in previous months as well as “insults to priests and bishops, limitations on visas or residence permits of foreign priests, harassment of the lay faithful, and other illegal and intimidating actions.”  The commission’s statement said the difficulties faced by the Catholic Church took place amid a lack of conditions for a free and fair election in November.  La Prensa in August said that the harassment and threats made against the Catholic Church came from FSLN political operatives affiliated with the Ortega-Murillo government.  On June 8, the commission wrote that “no one has the authority to deprive individuals of their rights,” referring to the arbitrary arrests of presidential hopefuls, opposition leaders, businesspersons, students, and civil society leaders beginning in May.

According to media, the NNP on October 26 began surrounding the home of Cardinal Brenes, a tactic observers said the government often used to intimidate opposition leaders.  In September, police began monitoring Brenes’ home and photographing all individuals who entered, including priests.

According to La Prensa on August 11, “The Ortega regime has engaged in an open war against the Catholic Church since April 2018.”  In February, a priest quoted in local media said the Ortega administration had increased its persecution of the population and the Catholic Church.  He said, “We have our hands up, we are unarmed against these people [the government].”

In multiple speeches during the year, President Ortega and Vice President Murillo criticized Catholic clergy and accused the Catholic Church of having backed an alleged “coup” against the Ortega-Murillo government in 2018.  On October 5, Ortega called Catholic bishops “terrorists” during his campaign launch speech ahead of the November general election.  On September 6, Ortega again referred to Catholic priests as “terrorists in cassocks.”  In a July 30 speech, Ortega spoke of colonization, stating, “Along with the cross, the sword; along with the cross, robbery; along with the cross, the most brutal crimes against our ancestors.”  He added, “Pharisees have not disappeared, they are still there and go around talking as if they were saints, and all you have to do is look and what you find is filth, where there is no respect for God.”  Local media interpreted Ortega’s remarks as a clear attack on Catholic clergy.

On June 10, Murillo said during a radio address that Catholic clergy spread “death” and approved of “robbery and theft.”  In August, radio commentator William Grigsby, commonly considered an unofficial spokesperson for the government, accused Catholic bishops of conspiring with the U.S. and Spanish ambassadors in Nicaragua to overthrow the Ortega-Murillo government.  On June 9, Grigsby said during his radio program that “cassock wearers were next,” alluding to the government’s wave of arbitrary detentions of opposition leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders that began in late May.

In June, Edwin Suarez, a well-known progovernment social media activist with 16,000 Twitter followers, tweeted, “In Nicaragua the Catholic hierarchy is not only a participant in the attempted coup, it is also an actor and director of events of serious violations of the rights of the people since 2015, blackmailing Ortega so that he would hand over power to them.”

On August 11, FSLN National Assembly member Wilfredo Navarro gave an extensive interview to a local televised program in which he singled out Cardinal Brenes and several bishops, calling them “servants of the devil.”  Navarro also indirectly accused Father Roman (calling him “that priest from Masaya”) of covering up the alleged killing of a policeman in 2018 by prodemocracy protesters.  During the same interview, Navarro said he believed the Catholic Church could face criminal charges for a statement the Archdiocese of Managua Peace and Justice Commission issued on August 10.  Navarro said he believed the commission had committed an electoral crime by encouraging voter abstention in the November national election.  Catholic leaders stated that the government denied citizens their right to choose their leader because potential opposition candidates had been disqualified or imprisoned.

According to news reports, when the government broke diplomatic ties with Taiwan on December 9 and recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Taiwan attempted to donate its former embassy building to the Managua Archdiocese.  On December 26, however, the Ortega administration blocked Taiwan’s donation and gave the property to the PRC, stating it supported a one-China policy.  The Attorney General’s Office issued a statement saying all of Taiwan’s properties belonged to the PRC and invalidated the donation to the Managua Archdiocese.  Taiwan’s Foreign Relations Ministry condemned the confiscation of the property and the “arbitrary obstruction by the Nicaraguan government of the symbolic sale of its property to the Nicaraguan Catholic Church.”

On November 17, the government abolished the position of the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, designated exclusively to the Holy See representative by presidential decree since 2000.  The government said the decision to remove this position would foster equal treatment among chiefs of mission.  Some international relations experts said they believed the change was a political move reflecting the growing tension between the Catholic Church and the government.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Catholic Church continued to suspend all religious activities that traditionally generated large crowds such as the celebration of Saint Dominic in Managua and the pilgrimage to Rivas.  Notwithstanding the pandemic, the government once again organized and sponsored local religious activities through FSLN-controlled municipal governments, including an August festival in Managua honoring Saint Dominic, the annual pilgrimage to Rivas, the annual celebration of Saint Lazarus in Masaya in March, and the Stations of the Cross in Granada, all of which reportedly garnered hundreds of participants.  Vice President Murillo promoted the large gatherings in her daily radio remarks.  During the Saint Dominic celebration, the government used a replica image of the statue of Saint Dominic normally carried in a Catholic procession, and the individuals carrying the replica image wore the official colors of the ruling Sandinista party.  Catholic clergy said the government manipulated religious traditions and symbols to coopt powerful religious imagery and portray normalcy in a country ravaged by COVID-19 and sociopolitical upheaval.  According to a clerical source, the government sought to confuse a segment of the Catholic population and dilute the Catholic Church’s authority by ignoring the Catholic leadership’s recommendations to suspend large activities and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

According to press reports, on November 9, the government cancelled the operating license of evangelical Protestant television Channel 21, the only channel in the country that since 1991 exclusively broadcast local and foreign evangelical programs.  Telecommunications regulator TELCOR cited alleged irregularities in Channel 21’s operations after TELCOR officials made an unannounced visit to the television station.  TELCOR revoked Channel 21’s broadcasting license and took the channel off the air the same day.  Channel 21 denounced what it called the government’s arbitrary decision to revoke its license.  TELCOR also revoked the operating license of evangelical Protestant radio station Nexo 89.5 FM the same day.  Channel 21 and Nexo 89.5 FM were owned by family members of evangelical pastor Guillermo Osorno, who ran as presidential candidate in the November election.  The closure of the channel and radio station occurred the day after Osorno gave a press conference in which he denounced irregularities in the electoral process.

The government continued to restrict travel selectively for some visa applicants intending to visit the country for religious purposes based on the perceived political affiliation of the applicant’s local sponsor.  According to Catholic clergy, a 2016 regulation instructing all churches to request entry authorization for their missionaries or religious authorities continued in effect.

On March 8, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua issued a statement expressing concern regarding new government limitations on residence permits for missionaries.  Local media reported that immigration authorities denied entry to two Franciscan friars, Santos Fabian Mejia Sagastume and Javier Lemus, who had resided in the country as missionaries for many years and were citizens of El Salvador.  Immigration authorities denied entry to Mejia Sagastume on January 31.  They notified him that he was “not eligible for entry” and suspended his residency.  On February 16, immigration authorities also denied Lemus entry into the country.

On April 30, immigration authorities notified Friar Damian de Cosme Muratori, originally from Italy and who had lived and served in Nicaragua for 45 years, that his residence permit would not be renewed and that he was only authorized a 90-day stay in the country.  Muratori told media he had renewed his residence permit on an annual basis without problems since 1976.  Muratori received two 90-day extensions to stay in the country.  In both instances, his resident status remained uncertain until the day before his extensions expired, at which point immigration authorities would inform him of a decision to renew his residency, grant an extended 90-day stay, or deport him from the country.  He remained in the country at year’s end.

In November, local media reported that immigration authorities at Managua International Airport had seized Monsignor Silvio Fonseca’s passport and did not allow him to leave the country.  Immigration authorities reportedly told Fonseca that his passport failed to scan properly, but Fonseca said he had used the same passport without any problems when he traveled to the United States four months prior.

Religiously affiliated NGOs continued to face operational limitations.  The Interior Ministry continued to deny or delay legally required annual operations permits and tax exemption approvals.  Sources reported that the Interior Ministry continued to deny Caritas, an international Catholic NGO accredited to the country since 1965, its legally entitled tax exemptions, a practice since 2018.  Since 2019, Caritas informed donors to stop sending donations because it was unable to retrieve them from Customs.  Caritas continued to report that since 2018, it had not received its annually renewable certificate from the Ministry of Interior, which technically authorized it to operate in the country.  Caritas sources continued to say the failure to renew the certificate impeded it from receiving tax exemptions, prohibited the importation of materials, and hindered its ability to bring in medical missions as part of its social services.  Caritas further reduced its social services because of harassment from government supporters in the communities where it worked.

Bishop Mata told press in January that the government had reduced by 20 million cordobas ($563,000) the allocated budget for the Universidad Catolica del Tropico Seco, a private university run by Mata.  Mata stated that the government had reduced the funds, representing more than a 50 percent decrease, in retaliation for his public criticism of the Ortega-Murillo administration.  Mata said the stark reduction in funds left the university unable to grant new scholarships for the academic year, and it was struggling to maintain existing scholarships.

Catholic clergy continued to say they believed the government directed or encouraged vandalism and desecration of churches by individuals not directly affiliated with it.  According to local media, on May 25, unidentified individuals broke into a Catholic church in the community of San Andres in Boaco and destroyed sacred images.  Media reported that on April 11, unidentified individuals broke into Our Lady of Candelaria Church in Chinandega, broke sacred images, and stole money designated for the construction of church buildings.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January, media reported that a woman stole the keys of the Santissima of the Calvario Church in Masaya, verbally harassed parish priest Alexander Ruiz, and threw soda in his face.  In May, the Diocese of Esteli reported that unidentified vandals had beheaded the statue of Monsignor Jose del Carmen Suazo, a well-known priest who died in 2015, on the road connecting the Shrine of Our Lady of Cacauli and Somoto.  In October, Catholic priest Father Bismarck Conde told local media that a thief broke into Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Masaya and stole money from it.

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, with the stipulation that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.”  In July, the UN Secretary-General reported to the UN General Assembly that there was a “growing body of information confirming consistent patterns of human rights violations” carried out in places of detention.  He cited a report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the government was systematically attacking persons it considered a threat, including persons who practice religion, imprisoning individuals without due process, and subjecting them to “physical and mental suffering amounting to torture.”  The Secretary General also stated COVID-19 restrictions in the country further limited freedoms, including of thought, conscience, and religion.  In October, the UN special rapporteur on human rights stated that exercise of freedom of religion in the country was “nearly impossible.”  Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since publication of the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK.  The COI found the government almost completely denied the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion.  In many instances, the COI determined that the government committed violations of human rights that constituted crimes against humanity.  The government reportedly continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities.  The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to limit the availability of details related to individual cases of abuse and made estimates of the number and composition of religious groups difficult to verify.  United Kingdom-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Korea Future stated the government’s denial of religious freedom was absolute and cited multiple incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and inhuman treatment, and executions directed against individuals because of their religious belief; officials principally targeted Christians and followers of Shamanism.  The NGO Open Doors USA (ODUSA) estimated authorities held 50,000 to 70,000 citizens in prison for being Christian.  For the 20th year in a row, it ranked the country number one on its list of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution” and said “[b]eing discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea.”  The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a Republic of Korea (ROK)-based NGO, citing defectors who arrived in the ROK from 2007 until July 2020 and other sources, reported 1,411 cases of religious persecution by DPRK authorities, including 126 killings and 94 disappearances.  In October, Korea Future released a report on religious freedom violators in the country.  Of the victims interviewed for the report, 150 adhered to Shamanism, 91 adhered to Christianity, one to Cheondogyo, and one to other beliefs.  The report described violations against these victims including arrest, detention, forced labor, torture, denial of fair trial, deportation, denial of right to life, and sexual violence.  NGOs and defectors said the government often arrested or otherwise punished family members of Christians.  According to NGOs, the government used religious organizations and facilities for external propaganda and political purposes.

The government encouraged all citizens to report anyone engaged in religious activity or in possession of religious material.  There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify.  Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from family members, neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities.  Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely.  According to the UN special rapporteur, for the second year in a row the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF) again did not participate in the annual “inter-Korean prayer for Korean Peninsula peace and reunification” held every year since 1989 ahead of National Liberation Day on August 15, stating that “a joint prayer between the two Koreas would be meaningless at this point.”

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK.  The United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that again condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights” and expressed very serious concern about abuses, including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience and religion or belief.  The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country.

Since 2001, the DPRK has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.8 million (midyear 2021).  The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002 and estimates of the number of total adherents of different religious groups vary.  In 2002, the government reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, also known as Cheondogyo, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement.  ROK and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities.  According to the Religious Characteristics of States Dataset Project, in 2015 the population was 70.9 percent atheist, 11 percent Buddhist, 1.7 percent followers of other religions, and 16.5 percent unknown.  UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000.  The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians, and ODUSA estimates the country has 400,000 Christians.  In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 57 percent of the population is agnostic; 16 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); and 1.5 percent Buddhists.  Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists make up less than 0.5 percent of the population collectively.  The NKDB reported that among defectors practicing a religion, the majority were Protestant, with a smaller number of Catholics, Buddhists, and others.  The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002.  Consulting shamans and fortune tellers and engaging in Shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify.  According to Korea Future, Shamanism is the most widespread religious practice in the country, is practiced in every province, and includes adherents from all levels of social strata.  In his report issued in October, the UN special rapporteur on human rights cited an estimate by a civil society organization, which he did not identify, that there were 300 Protestant pastors, no Catholic priests, 250 Cheondoist leaders, 300 Buddhist monks, and five Russian Orthodox priests in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that citizens have freedom of religious belief and that this right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies.  It further states, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state or social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes, or illegally keeps drawings, photographs, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.”  The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.”  According to local sources, this prohibition includes fortune telling.  According to the NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities.  The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make individual arrests and punishments difficult to verify.  The July 28 UN Secretary-General’s report Situation of Human Rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, covering the period August 2020 to July 2021, stated that interviews with escapees from the country added to “the growing body of information confirming consistent patterns of human rights violations” carried out in places of detention.  It cited the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Human Rights Council that the government was systematically attacking persons it considered a threat, including persons who practice religion, imprisoning individuals without due process and subjecting them to “physical and mental suffering amounting to torture,” as well as providing detainees, including those forced to engage in hard labor, with inadequate food.  According to the report, there was a widespread fear among the population that acts deemed “disloyal,” including engaging in religious activities, would cause them to be sent to a political prison camp.  The report also stated, “COVID-19 restrictions in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea further limited people’s rights to freedom of expression, including access to information, to freedom of association and of peaceful assembly, and to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”

In his October 8 report to the General Assembly, titled Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the UN special rapporteur stated that exercise of freedom of religion in the country was “nearly impossible,” citing “a lack of access to information related to religion and religious activities, criminalization of imported items without authorization, absence of religious facilities except in Pyongyang, and surveillance by neighbors and authorities.”  The report stated that Christians are categorized as a “hostile class” in the country’s songbun system of social classification and are targeted as a “serious threat to loyalty to the state.”  Escapees who are repatriated to the country from China are interrogated about any contacts with Christian groups there.  According to civil society organizations cited in the report, government surveillance and penalties against Shamanism, and especially influential shamans, have increased since the government issued an edict in 2017 to root out “superstitious” acts, and anyone violating the law against “superstitious” behavior is subject to seven years’ imprisonment and correctional labor.

Multiple sources indicated the situation in the country had not changed since publication of the 2014 COI final report, which concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association.  It further concluded that in many instances, the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable.

The government maintained national emergency quarantine measures first implemented in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and again ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites.

In October, Korea Future released a report entitled Persecuting Faith:  Documenting Religious Freedom Violations in North Korea, Volume 2.  The report was based on interviews with 244 victims of religious freedom violations.  Of these, 150 adhered to Shamanism, 91 adhered to Christianity, one to Cheondogyo, and one to other beliefs.  The victims ranged in age from two to more than 80 years old.  Women and girls accounted for more than 70 percent of documented victims.  According to the report, the government charged individuals with engaging in religious practices, conducting religious activities in China, possessing religious items, having contact with religious persons, and sharing religious beliefs.  Individuals were subject to arrest, detention, forced labor, torture, denial of fair trial, deportation, denial of right to life, and sexual violence.

In the report, several victims who were imprisoned for practicing Shamanism described conditions in prison camps.  One victim said, “[Officials] worked us hard without feeding us properly… I suffered from malnutrition and was sure I would not survive.  I kept having diarrhea, even when I only drank water, and I weighed just 35 kilograms [77 pounds].  Today I weigh 60 kilograms [132 pounds], so I was like a skeleton back then.  I had to wear children’s clothes, as nothing else fit me.”  Others described or showed signs of being beaten, ingesting contaminated food, being forced into uncomfortable positions for long periods of time, and receiving verbal abuse.  The report also described religious freedom violations against Christians.  One case involved the 2009 arrest of a family based on their religious practices and possession of a Bible.  The entire family, including a two-year-old child, were given life sentences in political prison camps.  Christians also described horrible conditions in prison camps and various forms of torture.  The report stated that the Ministry of State Security was responsible for 90 percent of documented human rights violations against both Shamanic adherents and Christians.

In January, ODUSA published a report entitled North Korea:  Country Dossier.  The report identified the country as the one where Christians faced the “most extreme persecution.”  It identified Communist doctrine and the cult of personality surrounding leader Kim Jong Un as the main drivers of religious persecution.  According to the report, Christians were regarded as enemies of the government’s ideology.

The NKDB, relying on reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,411 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to July 2020.  Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners.  Of the 1,411 cases, authorities reportedly killed 126 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 94 (6.7 percent), physically injured 79 (5.6 percent), deported or forcibly relocated 53 (3.8 percent), detained 826 (58.5 percent), restricted movement of 147 (10.4 percent), and persecuted 86 (6.1 percent) using other methods of punishment.

The NGO NK Watch estimated that 135,000 political prisoners continued to be held in four political prison camps between September 2019 and July 2020.  According to an ROK government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2020 white paper on human rights, the government operated five political prison camps.  ODUSA estimated that at the end of 2020, the government held 50,000 to 70,000 citizens in prison for being Christians, and it said that Kim Jong Un has expanded the system of prison camps.  ODUSA continued to state the government maintained a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing relatives of Christians, meaning officials could detain them regardless of their beliefs.

In its 2020 report, NKDB stated that 35.4 percent of individuals who defected from the country in 2019 said authorities punished those caught practicing religion by sending them to political prison camps, 18.4 percent said authorities sent them to regular prisons, and 15 percent said authorities sent them to labor training camps.

In its annual World Watch List report, ODUSA for the 20th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians.  The NGO stated in its dossier, “Being discovered as a Christian is a death sentence in North Korea.  If you aren’t killed instantly, you will be taken to a labor camp as a political criminal.  These inhumane prisons have horrific conditions, and few believers make it out alive.  Everyone in your family will share the same punishment,” and, “Most Christians are unable to meet with other believers, and have to keep their faith entirely hidden.”  The ODUSA dossier stated increased diplomatic activity starting with and following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in the ROK in February 2018 did not improve religious freedom for Christians in the country.  According to the dossier, police raids aimed at identifying and punishing citizens with “deviating thoughts,” including Christians, reportedly increased.

In an August report, Korea Future identified 68 cases of government prosecution of individuals for religion or belief or their association with religious persons, based on interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators, most of whom had fled the country in 2019.  Of the 68 cases, 43 involved adherents of Shamanism, 24 involved Christians, and one Cheondogyo.  Punishments included arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, and denial of life.  The report said it found active mobilization of organs of the government enforced the absolute denial of religious freedom.  Officials surveilled persons’ activities, indoctrinated them in mandatory lectures against engaging in religious crimes or practicing “superstition,” and warned them of the penalties for violators.  The report concluded, “The campaign to exterminate all Christian adherents and institutions in North Korea has been brutally effective…”  It added that under Kim Jong Un, persecution of followers of Shamanism had increased and “many forms of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment have been experienced by Shamanic and Christian adherents alike.”

According to the report, there are two systems of sentencing those accused of crimes related to religious beliefs.  One is a public prosecution involving the Ministry of People’s Security and the Prosecutor’s office.  Sentences, which apply almost exclusively to followers of Shamanism, range from six months in a forced labor camp to three or more years in a reeducation facility.  However, the report said there had been cases where followers of Shamanism had been executed.  The other system is a secret prosecution handled by the Ministry of State Security, exclusively for cases involving Christians, with typical sentences ranging from 15 years in a prison camp to life in a prison camp, imposed on up to three generations of the immediate family of the person found guilty.  The report said it had received credible reports from former security officials of the execution of Christians.  Examples included a firing squad execution of a Christian woman and her grandchild in North Hamgyong Province in 2011 and another of six Christians in South Hwanghae Province in 2015.  Public trials outside of the courtroom or public criticism also served as extrajudicial punishments for religious followers.  Mandatory participation of children in these trials or sessions was common.

The report documented multiple cases of torture or other cruel treatment, including beatings, forcing prisoners to adopt fixed positions for prolonged periods, deprivation of food, water, and sleep, contaminated food, body cavity searches, hanging torture (known as “pigeon torture”), and exposure to extreme violence inflicted on fellow prisoners.  One interviewee said, “They hit you less for superstition, as it is not an enemy-related offense like religion.”  Another man said guards beat a Christian man who had been praying to the brink of death, leaving him bleeding on the ground.  The man, however, continued to pray daily, even as guards would beat him with a club and kick him with their boots on.  Authorities also frequently beat followers of Shamanism.  A man accused of aiding a shaman said, “They threw me into a cell and broke my legs before anything else.”  Officials placed a man who smuggled a Bible into the country in solitary confinement, where authorities beat him with a metal rod and gave him one meal a day of boiled corn kernels.  Another detainee said, “They [guards] would dash my head against the wall and people downstairs would hear the sound.”

Religious organizations and human rights groups outside the country continued to report that government officials had arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed members of underground churches because of their religious beliefs.  One defector told Korea Future that authorities beat Christian and Shamanic adherents in custody, gave them contaminated food, and arbitrarily executed them.  One prisoner who was released in October 2020 told Radio Free Asia (RFA) that prison authorities treated Christians especially harshly, and subjected them to beating, sleep deprivation, positional torture, and execution.  She recounted that after authorities forced them to stand up for 40 days, tortured inmates lost the capacity to sit down and collapsed.  Another defector told the NKDB in 2020 that in 2002, officials denied a Christian man food, causing his death in three days.  Another defector told the NKDB in 2020 that in 2013 or 2014, the government executed a Christian man under detention for expressing his belief in God.  Another defector told the NKDB in 2020 that prison officials consistently denied a Christian woman under solitary confinement the ability to sleep, leading her to commit suicide in the bathroom.

According to Korea Future, the government persecuted members of religious groups on such charges as engaging in religious practice, engaging in religious activities in China, possessing Bibles or other religious items, having contact with religious persons, attending religious services, and sharing religious beliefs.  It added that the government subjected religious believers to arbitrary surveillance, interrogation, arrest, detention, imprisonment, punishment of family members, forced labor, sexual violence, torture, and execution.  Korea Future cited Christian reports of torture that included, “being forced to hang on steel bars while being beaten with a wooden club; being hung by their legs; having their body tightly bound with sticks; being forced to perform ‘squat-jumps’ and to sit and stand hundreds or thousands of times each day; having a liquid made with red pepper powder forcibly poured into their nostrils; being forced to kneel with a wooden bar inserted between their knee hollows; strangulation; being forced to witness the execution or torture of other prisoners; starvation; being forced to ingest polluted food; being forced into solitary confinement; being deprived of sleep; and being forced to remain seated and still for up to and beyond 12 hours a day.”  Korea Future reported that Protestants were most vulnerable to persecution, followed by adherents of Shamanism, whom government officials subjected to torture and physical assault.

Korea Future reported that officials repeatedly warned citizens in lectures and “people’s unit meetings” not to read Bibles and to report anyone who owned a Bible.  The report documented multiple instances in which authorities found an individual in possession of a Bible and sent the person and other household members to prison.  In one case, officials arrested a Korean Workers’ Party member for possessing a Bible and executed the individual at Hyesan airfield in front of 3,000 residents.  Another respondent told investigators that authorities arrested a relative for possessing a cross and a Bible after the relative’s partner reported the individual to authorities.

In 2019, the Christian advocacy group Voice of the Martyrs USA (VOM) posted to YouTube what it described as a “government training video.”  In the video, the narrator tells the story of a Christian named Cha Deoksun from Sariwon City who crossed the border illegally into China, where she converted to Christianity.  The narrator said the pastors of the church were disguised members of the ROK secret service and converts were “spies.”  Upon returning to North Korea, Cha traveled around the country preaching and organizing an underground church.  The narrator described Cha as a “religious fanatic” and “good-for-nothing.”  According to the video, she converted her family and other “worthless people.”  At some point, “one of our conscientious citizens” reported Cha to authorities and she was arrested.  VOM stated, “It is unclear how Deoksun died, but it is possible that she was executed.”

According to the NKDB, in 2016, there were forced disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities.  One defector told the NKDB in 2020 that in 2005, a Christian man in custody who sang a hymn had been forcibly removed that night.

International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report that any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.  According KINU’s 2020 white paper on human rights, authorities punished both “superstitious activities” including fortune telling and religious activities, but the latter more severely.  KINU stated that in general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors had studied or possessed a Bible or were involved with Christian missionaries, and that authorities frequently punished those involved in “superstitious activity” with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

Korea Future documented cases in which the government targeted family members of persons who had been charged with crimes associated with religion.  In certain incidents, this led to the arrests of children as young as three.  In other incidents, officials arrested entire families.  Investigators also documented incidents in which officials forced the spouses of persons sentenced for religious crimes to divorce them.

In December, Korea Future published a report entitled Religious Women as Beacons of Resistance in North Korea.  The report was based on 237 interviews with survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief.  Of a sample size of 151, the report found violations experienced by Christian women included 140 cases of arbitrary deprivation of liberty; five cases of forced labor; 33 cases of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; one case of sexual violence including rape, and 11 cases of refoulement.  Of a sample size of 180, the report found violations experienced by Shamanic women included 157 cases of arbitrary deprivation of liberty; 53 cases of forced labor; 26 cases of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and one case of sexual violence including rape.  Perpetrators of violations included officials from the Ministry of People’s Security, Ministry of State Security, PRC Ministry of Public Security, and other DPRK organizations.  For religious women ages 40 to 60, the reasons cited for violations included being engaged in religious practice in the country, engaging in religious practice in China, attending a place of worship, possessing religious items, having contact with religious persons, being arrested based on an informant, and sharing religious belief.  Korea Future concluded religious women in the country “experience discrimination twofold based on their gender and religious or belief identities.”  The organization also stated, “Established patterns of conduct endanger women and contribute to their brutalisation and harassment in the penal system, their trafficking and prostitution across North Korea and China, their marginalisation in economic life, and their denial of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.”

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019.  There were no recent reports saying whether the crackdown was ongoing.

There was no further information on foreigners accused of being engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders:  Kim Jung-wook, detained in October 2013; Kim Guk-gi, detained in October 2014; or Choi Chun-gil, detained in December 2014 – three ROK missionaries detained in the country and sentenced to life in prison for “spying and scheming.”  In December 2018, The Korea Times reported the ROK government tried to negotiate their release.

In 2020, VOM undertook a letter writing campaign to urge the government to release Jang Moon Seok (aka Zhang Wen Shi), an ethnic-Korean Chinese national living in Changbai, China, on the border with North Korea.  VOM stated that “Deacon Jang” assisted North Koreans who crossed the border and shared his faith with them.  According to VOM, in November 2014, North Korean authorities kidnapped Jang from China, imprisoned him, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

In 2019, the HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes.  The government provided neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as current leader Kim Jong Un.  According to the KINU’s 2019 white paper, the DPRK did not allow any ideology or religion other than its Juche ideology.  The government regarded refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority as opposition to the national interest, and this reportedly resulted in severe punishment.  Numerous scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology.  Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country.  KINU’s 2019 white paper reported one defector as saying, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The 2014 COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government.  The report concluded that the government persecuted, imposed violence, and heavily punished Christians if they practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches.  The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

As it had in years past, KINU stated in its 2020 annual white paper on human rights that it was “practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.”  According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters, and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool.  A survey of 14,832 refugees between 2007 and February 2020 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said that religious activities were not tolerated in the country.  Only 2.0 percent of interviewees said they had visited religious facilities, compared with 2.5 percent cited in the NKDB’s 2019 report.

According to the NKDB, the ROK government estimated that as of 2018, there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church, all mostly under state control.

In its 2020 report, KINU stated the government continued to use religious organizations as authorized by the government for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering approved facilities for use as places of worship.  Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.”  KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.  In its 2020 annual report, the NKDB stated, “Although there are several churches and other religious facilities in North Korea, such as Chilgol and Bongsu Church, as well as Jangchung Cathedral, they are sponsored entirely by the state, and therefore access to the facilities for the sake of genuine religious activity, especially for regular citizens, is heavily restricted.”  The 2014 COI report concluded that authorities systematically sought to hide from the international community the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang include three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.  The Chilgol Church was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess.  The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations.  Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches.  In KINU’s 2019 report, one defector said that when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals, whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held, on suspicion of being secret Christians.  This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, and therefore authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome.  Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches.  According to KINU, in years past, foreign Christians who visited the country stated they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged.  In its 2020 dossier on North Korea, ODUSA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children.  Some foreigners noted officials did not permit them to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them.  Foreign observers said they had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.  KINU’s 2020 white paper described as an example the Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, which was built in September 1988.  Defectors reported that only the building guard and the guard’s family lived there, but when foreign guests came to visit, officials carefully selected and gathered several hundred citizens between the ages of 40 and 50 to participate in fake church services.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.”  According to the 2019 KINU report, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.”  According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed.  Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report cited the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists.  There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The Korean Catholic Council held masses at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church.  There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.  In July, the Vatican Secretary of State reportedly informed ROK National Assembly Speaker Park Byeong-seug of the Pope’s willingness to visit the DPRK and “his interest in peace on the Korean Peninsula.”  During an October visit to the Vatican, ROK President Moon Jae-in requested Pope Francis visit the DPRK.  The Pope expressed his willingness to visit the country if he received a formal invitation.  Archbishop Lazarus You Heung-sik, prefect for the Vatican Congregation for Clergy who is originally from Daejeon, ROK, told reporters, “As with the [ROK] government, the Vatican also makes efforts to foster conditions for the Pope to visit North Korea through various channels.”

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country in previous years, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were citizens or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country.  The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom had reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

In 2019, United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday Mass at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral.  According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items, as well as other items the government deemed objectionable.  ODUSA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

According to Korea Future, beginning in kindergarten, officials taught children antireligious views, with a particular focus against Christianity.  Its 2020 report stated, “While Buddhism and Cheondogyo were explained as matters of historical interest, rather than as religions, it was Christianity that was singled out for attention within the public-school system.”  Multiple respondents spoke of textbooks containing sections on Christian missionaries that listed their “evil deeds,” which included rape, blood sucking, organ harvesting, murder, and espionage.  One defector told Korea Future that the government published graphic novels in which Christians coaxed children into churches and then took them to the basement to draw their blood.

In June 2020, the government demolished the joint liaison office, a building in the city of Kaesong near the border with the ROK.  Some media reported that the demolition occurred in retaliation after defector groups in the ROK sent anti-DPRK government leaflets and other materials over the border.  Christian media reported that items sent over the border also often contained Christian materials, including tracts and testimonies written by North Korean Christian refugees, physical Bibles, and digital copies of the Bible on flash drives.  Kim Yo Jong, then first deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the sister of Kim Jong Un, denounced those who sent the material as “betrayers” and “human scum.”

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies persons based on social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime.  The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence.  KINU continued to report that the government perceived religious persons and their families to be “antirevolutionary elements.”

According to KINU’s 2020 report, the government continued to view religion as a means of foreign encroachment.  In the report, KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s Dictionary on Philosophy as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.”  KINU reported authorities continued to provide education to citizens at least twice a year that emphasized ways to detect individuals who engaged in spreading Christianity.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that ROK Christian relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and to allege that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering.  The government maintained tight border controls that became even stricter in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hindering relief and assistance activities.

In 2019, the Asia Times reported that ROK-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons and that in some cases, the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

In December, the UN General Assembly again passed by consensus a resolution that condemned “in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity[.]”  The General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association[.]”  The UN General Assembly also noted “the exacerbation of the existing humanitarian situation and the adverse impact on the human rights situation in the DPRK, following the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic[.]”  The annual resolution encouraged the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing religion.  Travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated this inaccessibility.

The 2014 COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities.  According to ODUSA, due to the constant indoctrination permeating the country, Christians were seen as hostile elements in society, and family members and neighbors were expected to report suspicious activities to the authorities, including through the network of neighborhood informers.  It stated, “[C]hildren are encouraged to tell their teachers about any sign of faith in their parents’ home.  A Christian is never safe.”

ODUSA reported that many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks to which individuals had access dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II.  These were kept hidden and passed among believers.  One man said persons remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported.  According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible, and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

While some NGOs and academics estimated that up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of any large-scale underground churches or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers.  Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes.  Korea Future reported that in one case, an individual formed an underground church with a family to meet for prayer.  Each founding member had been deported back to the country from China and received funding from donations outside the country.  The number of members was unclear but was at least 16 in 2019.  Most were women, and all had been introduced to Christianity in China.  In the “government training” video released by VOM in September 2019, the narrator said Cha Deoksun and other believers met in the woods.  Some defectors and NGOs said unapproved religious materials were available and that secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China.  NKDB stated that of the 147 interviewees who had defected in 2019, three, or 2.0 percent (1.2 percent in 2018), had practiced religion in secret, and nine, or 6.1 percent (1.8 percent in 2018), had witnessed others secretly practicing religion.  NKDB also stated that 7.6 percent of defectors in 2019 said they had “seen a Bible” before fleeing the country.  The report concluded from these data that although the government continued to severely restrict religion, exposure to religion appeared to be gradually increasing.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented individuals from attending weddings and funerals, KINU reported that in prior years, religious ceremonies accompanying these events were almost unknown.

According to Korea Future, persons who practiced Shamanism were often subject to arrest.  The government hung posters and issued directives warning citizens against engaging in “superstitious acts.”  These directives were posted in apartment blocks.  Korea Future stated that both ordinary citizens and officials illicitly practiced Shamanism.  Investigators documented many persons engaging both publicly and privately in Shamanistic practices, including traditional rituals, fortune telling, physiognomy (reading the fate of an individual based on facial features), exorcism, use of talismans, use of birth charts, and tarot cards.  One source told RFA it was common for individuals to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, handling health matters, or considering other important decisions.  One source told Asia Press that government officials also consulted fortune tellers about their health and careers.  NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of Shamanism.  According to the source, however, fortune tellers who faced punishment were those “who [made] a lot of wrong predictions” and therefore did not receive the protection of officials.  The source said, “The good fortune tellers are paid by officials and therefore do not get caught.”  One defector who escaped in 2019 told Korea Future investigators, “People who practice Shamanism will be sentenced to a maximum of five years in a reeducation camp if the penalty is harsh.  They used to be sentenced to a labor training camp for three or six months, but the sentence has been made stricter.”

According to the UN special rapporteur’s October report, the KCF again did not participate in the annual “inter-Korean prayer for Korean Peninsula peace and reunification” held every year ahead of National Liberation Day on August 15, stating that “a joint prayer between the two Koreas would be meaningless at this point.”  2020 was the first year since 1989, according to the rapporteur, that the KCF did not join the National Council of Churches of the Republic of Korea in issuing this joint inter-Korean prayer.  The rapporteur said he had been in communication with “relevant actors” to seek their views on how freedom of religion in the DPRK could contribute to peace on the Korean peninsula and that the Korea Peace Prayer Pastors living in the inter-Korean border area had shared their ideas on promoting peace.


Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam.  The constitution states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.”  It also states, “A person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis) is a non-Muslim.”  According to NGOs, police failed to protect religious minorities and those accused of blasphemy.  The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranged up to the death penalty, although the government has never executed anyone for blasphemy.  According to the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), a national nongovernmental organization (NGO), 84 persons were accused of blasphemy in 2021, a significant decrease from the 199 individuals accused in 2020.  Other NGOs also assessed 2021 had seen a decrease in blasphemy cases compared with the previous year, but they could not verify actual case numbers.  According to civil society reports, at least 16 of those charged with blasphemy during the year received death sentences.  The Ahmadiyya community reported that two of the blasphemy cases registered against Ahmadis during the year could result in the death penalty.  They reported that the cumulative number of Ahmadis charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 2019 was 61.  Ahmadiyya community leaders continued to report they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including issuance of national identification cards, driver’s licenses, and passports.  Ahmadi Muslims also remained barred from representation on the National Commission for Minorities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs.  The Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial governments passed a series of laws targeting Ahmadi Muslim beliefs.  The Ahmadiyya community reported that police registered 49 cases against Ahmadi Muslims under these laws during the year.  Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians around the country engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community.  NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy.  NGOs reported perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases.  The government took some measures to protect religious minorities, including establishing a special police unit in all provinces to protect religious minorities and their places of worship.  Police and security forces enhanced security measures during religious holidays in consultation with religious leaders.

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals and mobs targeted and killed Christians, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims in attacks believed to be motivated by religion or accusations of blasphemy.  On December 3, several hundred Muslim workers from a factory in Sialkot, Punjab, attacked Priantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan Christian manager of the factory, for allegedly committing blasphemy by removing far-right extremist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) political party posters that included Islamic prayers.  Attackers beat, kicked, and stoned him to death and set his corpse on fire, according to media reports.  Prime Minister Imran Khan said the attack was “horrific” and ordered a high-level inquiry.  Media reported that authorities arrested more than 100 individuals after the attack.  On March 25, six Sunni Muslims died and seven were injured in a Shia-majority area when assailants opened fire on a passenger van traveling from Gilgit to Naltar.  On February 11, a teenager shot and killed an Ahmadi homeopathic doctor, Abdul Qadir, in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  On September 2, unidentified assailants shot and killed Maqsood Ahmad, a dual British-Pakistani citizen and Ahmadi Muslim in Nankana Sahib, Punjab.  On August 19, three persons died, and 59 others were injured in a grenade attack on a Shia procession in Bahawalnagar, Punjab.  It was the third sectarian attack in the area in two months.  Armed sectarian groups, including factions of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia ethnic Hazara community.  According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups increased compared with 2020, reversing the overall decline in terrorist attacks reported in previous years.  Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities.  Sunni groups held large sectarian rallies in Peshawar and Karachi in September and October, with speakers warning religious minorities, including Shia and Ahmadi Muslims, of dire consequences if anything they said was deemed blasphemous against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions.  NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was the increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women and girls from religious minority communities, especially Hindus and Christians.  The Center for Social Justice recorded 41 cases of forced conversions through October 31.  There continued to be reports of attacks on Ahmadi, Hindu, and Christian holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols.  The government continued to implement its National Action Plan against terrorism, by countering sectarian hate speech and extremism and by conducting military and law enforcement operations against violent groups.  According to Ahmadi civil society organizations, however, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, as provided for in the National Action Plan.  Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.  Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship.

Senior Department of State officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State, the Charge d’Affaires, and Consuls General, as well as other embassy officers, met with government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss religious freedom issues.  These included blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect all religious minorities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.  Embassy officers continued to engage civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority group representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom.  Visiting U.S. government officials met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion.  The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms and organized several outreach events throughout the year.

On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation in the national interests of the United States.  Pakistan was first designated as a CPC in 2018.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 238.2 million (midyear 2021).  According to the results of the most recent national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim.  According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims; Hindus; Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and Protestants, among others; Parsis/Zoroastrians; Baha’is; Sikhs; Buddhists; Kalash; Kihals; and Jains.

Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims.  Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population, and Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent.  Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups.  Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.

According to the 2017 census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Christian, 0.2 percent Ahmadi Muslim, and 0.3 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians.  Taking into account the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000 to 600,000.  Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals.  Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the results of the 2017 census and say the numbers underrepresent their true population and their political influence, because minority seat allocation in the national and provincial parliaments is based on census figures.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework


The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states, “Subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.”  According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code.  According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 10 years of imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.”  Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years of imprisonment.  Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority for possible removal or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution.

The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed… the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Mohammed.”  It also states that “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”

According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam.  The penal code bans them from “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, carrying out Islamic customs, preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.”  The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine, the amount of which is at the discretion of the sentencing judge.

The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which may carry the death penalty.

The government may use the antiterrorism courts, established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Antiterrorism Act, to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.

The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.

The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.”  It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions.  The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own.  The government collects a mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks.  It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government.  Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.  Shia and Ahmadi Muslim communities run their own charity programs.

The constitution mandates that the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards.  It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages.  Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education.  The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.

The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam or its prophets or insults to others’ religious beliefs.  The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.

The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.

The constitution states that no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own.  It also states that no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.

The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools.  Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs.  In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics.  Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense.  In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.

By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence.  Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees.  The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in the country:  Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is considered ultraconservative.  The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government.  The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of the five wafaqs.

The constitution states, “All existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].”  It further states no law shall be enacted that is “repugnant” to Islam.  The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens.  Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition British legislation.

The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”  The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen.  The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court.  The constitution also grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) over criminal cases in the lower courts relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling.  The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases.  The FSC’s review power applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims.  Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC.  If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters, such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice that affect them or violate their rights.  By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench.  A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.

The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.”  The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”

There is no specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage; religious authorities sign marriage certificates, which are registered with the local marriage registrar.  The provincial-level Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the national-level Hindu Marriage Act (applying to federal territory and all other provinces) codify legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages.  In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the Hindu Marriage Acts allow marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.”  The acts allow for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism.  The Sindh provincial government has legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death.  The Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages.  The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials in that province to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

Some court judgments have considered the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized.

The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices.  It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions.  The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights abuses.  The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights laws and review and propose legislation.  It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority.  A constitutional amendment devolves responsibility for minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.

According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified.  There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities (primarily Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Kalash, and Parsis but excluding Shia and Ahmadi Muslims) at the federal and provincial levels of government.

The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution.  According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces, although students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms.  This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities.  Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe Mohammed is the final prophet.  Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation.  There is no provision in the law for atheists.

The National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information on national identity card and passport applications.  Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe Mohammed is the final prophet and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim.  There is no option to state “no religion.”  National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18.  Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs, and other services.

The constitution requires the President and Prime Minister to be Muslim.  All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity.  The law requires elected Muslim officials to swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam.  This requirement prohibits Ahmadi Muslims from holding elected office, as they recognize a prophet subsequent to the Prophet Mohammed.

The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in the national and provincial assemblies.  The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims.  The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, one from each province.  In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan.  Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations:  first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service, would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the President and Prime Minister be Muslims.

Government Practices

According to NGOs, police failed to protect religious minorities and those accused of blasphemy, including a member of the Hindu religious minority, Dodo Bheel, who was physically abused and killed on June 30 by security guards at the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company where he worked.  Authorities arrested the two guards involved, who were not Hindu, on July 14 and charged them with murder.  Dodo Bheel’s family filed murder charges against the mining firm’s security contractor.  In August, a fact-finding mission led by the Ministry of Human Rights recommended charges against police in Sindh Province for mismanaging the case, according to media reports.  A Sindh High Court judge directed district authorities to produce a report on the incident and members of the ministry’s fact-finding mission said Dodo Bheel’s postmortem report showed 19 injuries inflicted with a blunt object.  The investigation also revealed that security guards kept some of his Hindu coworkers in illegal detention for 14 days and physically abused them prior to handing them over to police.  The police allegedly asked their families not to disclose what had happened to the injured men.  On July 1, members of the local Hindu community blocked the mine access road and carried Bheel’s body in protest.  Protests spread to other cities in Sindh after authorities arrested 150 members of the Hindu community on terrorism charges for protesting, although the protests were reportedly peaceful.  On November 22, media reported Bheel’s brother appeared in court to withdraw murder charges against the mining firm’s security company.  Media reported that his family sought to reach an out of court settlement with the mining company.  At year’s end, the government had brought no charges against police, despite the recommendations of the fact-finding mission.

The NGO Center for Social Justice (CSJ) reported authorities charged and imprisoned 84 individuals in 2021 for blasphemy, compared with the 199 CSJ reported in 2020, when NGOs reported an uptick in blasphemy cases lodged against Shia Muslims due to heightened Sunni-Shia tension.  Of these 84 individuals, Sunni and Shia Muslims made up 54 percent (CSJ did not include separate Sunni and Shia figures), Ahmadi Muslims 30 percent, Hindus 8 percent, and Christians 8 percent.  At least 16 persons accused of blasphemy around the country during the year received death sentences, but none were carried out.  The Ahmadiyya community reported that two of the blasphemy cases against Ahmadis in 2021 were registered under section 295-C of the penal code, which carries the death penalty.  They reported that the cumulative number of Ahmadis charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws since 2019 was 61.  Leaders from other NGOs agreed the actual number of blasphemy cases involving Ahmadis was likely higher, but uneven reporting and lack of media coverage in many areas made it difficult to identify an exact number.  The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy.  According to civil society reports, 81 percent of cases registered during the year against individuals accused of blasphemy were in Punjab.

In January, media reported that the Anti-Terrorism Court in Islamabad sentenced three men to death for sharing “blasphemous content on social media,” and a fourth man to 10 year’s imprisonment in a case that began in 2017.  According to security officials, two of the men – Rana Nouman Rafaqat and Abdul Waheed – operated fake profiles and disseminated blasphemous material on social media, while a third man – Nasir Ahmad – uploaded blasphemous videos to a YouTube channel.  The fourth man – Professor Anwaar Ahmed – was charged with voicing blasphemous views during a lecture at the Islamabad Model College where he was an Urdu teacher.  Police took Ahmed into custody and fined him 100,000 rupees ($560), but the other three were in hiding at year’s end.

Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution.  Several individuals were accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA.  In November, a group of Ahmadi Muslim citizens charged under PECA and facing blasphemy charges in 2019 for publishing copies of the Quran appeared before the Lahore High Court.  The petition against them was filed by Muhammad Hassan Muawiyah, brother of Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Religious Affairs and the Middle East Tahir Ashrafi.  Muawiyah said that the Ahmadi community and non-Muslims were not authorized to publish copies of the Quran.  The judge ordered police authorities to submit a report stating why they had not implemented the 2019 verdict to ensure that only “authorized entities” published the Quran and acted against the accused and those publishing “unauthentic” copies of the Quran.  The hearing was postponed on November 30, the case remained ongoing at year’s end with the accused free on bail.

The trial of the killers of Tahir Naseem, a U.S. citizen Ahmadi Muslim killed in a courtroom in August 2020 while on trial for blasphemy, was ongoing before the Anti-Terrorism Court in Peshawar at year’s end.

On September 27, a court in Lahore fined and sentenced Ahmadi Salma Tanveer, a former school principal, to death for blasphemy under section 295-C of the penal code for distributing writings denying the “finality of the Prophet” in 2013.  The court said, “It is proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused Salma Tanveer wrote and distributed the writings which are derogatory in respect of Holy Prophet Mohammed.”  Police registered a blasphemy case against Tanveer for allegedly using derogatory remarks against Islam, based on the complaint of Qari Iftikhar Ahmad Raza, a prayer leader of a local mosque.  Tanveer remained in prison in Lahore at year’s end, where she had been since 2013.

According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Junaid Hafeez; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; and Stephen Masih – remained in prison awaiting action on their appeals.  In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches.  Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution.

In February, the courts granted Ahmadi Muslim Ramzan Bibi bail on her charge of blasphemy, 10 months after her arrest.  In April 2020, Bibi donated money for a ceremony being held in a Sunni mosque in her village in Punjab, but the mosque returned the money because Ahmadis are barred by law from “engaging in Moslem practices” such as giving to mosques.  She asked a non-Ahmadi relative why the money was returned, but the conversation turned into a dispute resulting in a verbal and physical altercation.  Clerics of the village informed the District Police Officer that Bibi had committed blasphemy.  Police arrested and charged her under Section 295-C of the penal code, which carries the death penalty.  Her trial remained pending at year’s end.

In March, a prominent Sufi cleric from rural Sindh and his followers threatened the life of Sindhi fiction writer Amar Jaleel, accusing him of committing blasphemy during a 2017 literature festival after a video clip of Jaleel reading one of his short stories during that festival appeared on social media on March 28.  Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and Jamiat-e-Ulema-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) political party figures led the public campaign against Jaleel, supported by right-wing newspaper Daily Ummat.  On April 3, Sufi cleric Pir Umar Jan Sarhandi called for Jaleel’s death and offered money to anyone who carried out an assassination.  Social media users demanded Sindh authorities arrest Sarhandi, but they took no action.  The Sindh government promised that provincial authorities would not file blasphemy charges against Jaleel.  National media reported, however, that the FIA launched an investigation of Jaleel using cybercrime laws at the request of the TLP.

On April 9, police filed blasphemy cases against two Christian nurses of the District Headquarters Hospital.  Protesting hospital employees alleged that the two committed blasphemy by removing a sticker with a sacred Islamic inscription from a cupboard in the hospital.  According to media reports, the police locked one of the nurses inside a police van to keep her safe from the protesters.  In a similar incident, on January 28, police filed a blasphemy case against another Christian nurse, Tabitha Gill, at a maternity hospital in Karachi for “defiling the Prophet Mohammed” after she reportedly said she would pray for someone in the hospital.  Coworkers at the hospital accused Gill of blasphemy after an argument and were seen slapping and beating her in a video that went viral on social media, but none of those seen in the video striking her were arrested or charged.  An initial police investigation cleared Gill of any wrongdoing, but authorities subsequently registered a blasphemy case against her when a mob gathered outside the local police station demanding that she be recharged under blasphemy laws.

On August 7, police arrested Qaiser Zada, a transgender person, and her two brothers on charges of desecrating the Quran in Havelian, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.  Media reports say a witness saw Zada refuse sexual advances from a local Islamic scholar and was arrested along with her brothers after local residents accused them of burning a copy of the Quran.  According to media reports, the residents beat Zada before handing her over to police.  She and her brothers remained in custody at year’s end.

NGOs, legal observers, and religious minority representatives continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.  They also raised concerns about the slow pace of adjudicating these cases, which led to some suspects remaining in detention for years as they waited for their initial trial or appeals, and some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence.  According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings with spectators from groups supportive of harsh punishment for blasphemy, such as the TLP, who often threatened the defendants’ attorneys, family members, and supporters.  At other times, advocacy groups reported that for security reasons, blasphemy trials were held inside jails, resulting in a loss of transparency.  These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused of blasphemy persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism.  Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.

NGOs and legal observers continued to say that the law requiring a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint may be filed contributed to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases.  Some NGOs noted, however, that police did not uniformly follow this procedure.  In some cases, the court remanded the accused to police custody for 14 days before they had been charged formally so a senior officer might carry out an investigation.  In other cases, lower ranking police filed blasphemy charges without waiting for the required investigation by a senior police official.  NGOs and legal observers again stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.

During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others after the accused had spent years in prison.  On June 3, the Lahore High Court (LHC) acquitted and released a Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Masih, from Punjab’s Toba Tek Singh District.  Authorities arrested them in 2013 for sending text messages to the complainants that the complainants said were blasphemous.  In April 2014, a lower court had sentenced the couple to death and fined them 100,000 rupees ($560) each.

There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion.  Enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare, however.  Multiple cases of forced marriage and conversion of Christian women and girls were reported in Punjab.  On February 16, a court in Faisalabad ordered the release of a 13-year-old Christian girl who, according to media reports, had been abducted at the age of 12, forcibly converted to Islam, and married against her will to a 45-year-old Muslim man in June 2020.  Police rescued her in December 2020 and later moved her to a government-run shelter.  A court in Faisalabad later allowed her to rejoin her family.  Media reported that police dropped the investigation of the three Muslim men accused of abducting her and keeping her in chains for five months in 2020.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) reported forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower-caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh, continued to occur along with multiple cases of forced marriages, child marriages, and forced conversions.  In March, the Hindu community in Tangwani protested what they said was the abduction and forced conversion to Islam of a 13-year-old girl.  A video of the girl went viral on social media in which she was seen sitting among men, who were shooting videos and taking photographs of her with their mobile phones.  The girl’s father filed a case with local police and reported that her abductors and their influential supporters from a local mosque had set his house on fire after he refused to withdraw the case against them.  On March 16, police rescued the girl and presented her before a court, which ordered that she be placed in a shelter.  Police issued no charges on the arson allegation.

On July 26, a court in Badin, Sindh ordered police to reunite a young Hindu girl with her parents after her abduction, forced marriage, and forced conversion to Islam.  Police had earlier rescued the girl from the illegal custody of a Muslim man after she posted a video widely seen on social media in which she was crying and pleading to be reunited with her parents.  Following the court’s order, police arrested her purported husband, Qasim Khaskheli, and his two brothers, and charged them for their alleged aiding and abetting the rape, kidnapping, torture, and intimidation of the girl.  She also declared that she had not converted to Islam and stated false documents were prepared by her purported husband.  Police returned the girl to her parents in July and later released those arrested in the case.

Religious minorities and several organizations protested the government’s response to alleged cases of forced marriage and forced conversion, noting such incidents continue to happen regularly in all provinces.  On May 21, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Religious Affairs and the Middle East Tahir Ashrafi stated that incidents of forced conversions and marriages had been rarely reported during the previous seven months.  Several NGOs tracking forced conversions criticized Ashrafi’s statement, noting that forced conversions and marriages remained prevalent and demanded the government do more to protect victims of forced marriage and conversion.

On October 13, a parliamentary committee to protect religious minorities from forced conversions rejected a draft bill proposing an anti-forced conversion law after the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Inter-faith Harmony opposed it.  Lawmakers from religious minority communities protested the decision and requested the government review it.  During a meeting of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul-Haq Qadri said the “environment is unfavorable” for formulating a law against forced conversions and warned that approval of the draft could disrupt peace in the country and “make minorities more vulnerable.”  Qadri also urged the Prime Minister to “take other steps” to stop the conversions but did not suggest what those steps should be.  Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan said setting a minimum age for marriage in the forced conversion bill “goes against Islam and the Constitution of Pakistan.”

The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4).  On August 11, the Sindh provincial government barred 309 “firebrand” speakers and religious scholars from leaving their home districts for 60 days to avoid violent disturbances during Shia commemorations in the month of Muharram, more than double the number barred in 2020.  These 309 individuals included both Shia and Sunni clerics who in the past had made controversial statements that the ministry said led to sectarian tensions.  The Rawalpindi district administration banned 39 Islamic Ulema religious figures belonging to different sects from entering the district during Muharram, stating this was in order to maintain peace and interfaith harmony during the commemorations and related processions held there during Muharram.

According to media reports and law enforcement sources, in the weeks leading up to and during Muharram, authorities at the federal level also restricted the movement and activities of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing to keep the peace.  Shia community representatives, however, accused authorities of bias by restricting their religious ceremonies and arresting community members.  In October, Shia leaders said Karachi police beat and harassed mourners participating in a religious procession during the Shia Chehlum holiday.

According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes.  Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Mohammed.  Ahmadi leaders said that during elections, their community members were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, because authorities maintained the names of voters who registered as Ahmadi on separate voter lists.  Many Ahmadis therefore continued their longstanding practice of boycotting elections, according to the leaders.  Ahmadiyya community representatives continued to say that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they were non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card.

Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives continued to state that Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, since those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961.

On October 26, the Punjab Assembly passed a resolution requiring a declaration that Mohammed was the final prophet of Islam, which runs counter to Ahmadi beliefs, be included on government documents to register an Islamic marriage with the state.

In June, according to reports from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, police who arrived at the scene of a fight between Sunnis and Ahmadis in Sheikupura District, Punjab, took no action to break it up.  The fight erupted when a group of Sunni Muslims attacked and blocked the funeral procession of an Ahmadi woman on its way to the cemetery.  The attackers, comprised of local villagers and led by clerics, opposed the woman’s burial, arguing the cemetery belonged to “Muslims” only.  According to bystanders, many suffered injuries in the fight.  Eventually, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community was able to bury the woman in that cemetery.

Community representatives reported Christians continued to face difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars (usually church authorities).  Members of parliament, church leaders, and advocates continued to debate the text of a 2019 draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, because the existing regulation dated from 1872.  Members of parliament and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice continued to consult with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but the denominations, church leaders, and NGO representatives had not agreed on elements of the draft law pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage by year’s end.

Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages in that province, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered as Hindus for the purposes of the law.  In 2020, the Sindh provincial government began to implement the act, and NADRA began registering Hindu marriages in Sindh, according to Hindu community activists.  Some Hindu activists reported implementation of the law remained slow and officials who could solemnize Hindu marriages were not being registered with the government.

The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel by marking Pakistani passports as “valid in all countries, except for Israel.”  Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – is in Haifa, Israel.  Christian advocates also called on the government to allow Christians to travel to Israel.

In March, hundreds of pilgrims clashed with police while trying to enter a shrine closed by the Sindh provincial government due to COVID-19 restrictions.  Police said the pilgrims broke open the main gate of the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a 13th-century mystic Sufi saint, located in the town of Sehwan, Sindh.  The crowds attacked police and threw stones, police officer Mohammad Mushtaq said.  Several police suffered minor injuries.  Investigations were ongoing at year’s end.

Some religious minority leaders continued to state the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities.  Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.  Women from religious minority communities criticized political parties for only nominating men to seats reserved for religious minorities in all legislative bodies and demanded amendments to the Election Act to make mandatory the appointment of religious minority women to these seats.

The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to preach as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim.  According to the government’s immigration website, the Ministry of Interior could grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country.  The visas were valid for one year and allowed one reentry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time.  The website further stated the government could grant extensions for two years with two reentries per year, excluding applicants from India.

The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA).  The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal.”  Users were advised to report such content to a government website for action under PECA 16 (the 2016 PECA act).

In June, the PTA reported that uploading of content related to blasphemy and hate speech continued on social networking sites.  A report prepared by the FIA’s cybercrime wing revealed that in 2020, the state blocked 111 accounts for containing blasphemous material, 47 for featuring hate speech, and nine for spreading sectarian hatred.  From January through June 2021, the FIA cybercrime wing and the PTA removed 110 accounts, blocked 86 accounts for containing blasphemous content, 15 for hate speech, and nine for uploading sectarian material.

In November, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) reprimanded an FIA official for failing to identify and arrest individuals who allegedly uploaded blasphemous content on social media.  The FIA informed the court it blocked some of those links, and the IHC directed it to strictly enforce regulations mandating the removal of blasphemous content.

In early January, the PTA asked social media platforms to take down the trailer of the movie, “Lady of Heaven” for sacrilegious content.  In late January, the PTA told the IHC that it blocked 452 links that month to the trailer of a movie on the video-streaming platform Netflix on grounds that it contained sacrilegious material.

On January 22, the PTA blocked a U.S.-based website, “,” administrated by members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community-USA, from being viewed in Pakistan on charges that the website propagated blasphemous content.

On June 28, the Sindh High Court ordered the nationwide suspension of access to the video-sharing social media platform TikTok until July 8.  The court issued the order in response to a petition filed by a citizen aggrieved by the “immorality and obscenity” spread by content on the platform.  On July 20, the PTA again blocked access to TikTok “due to the continuous presence of inappropriate content on the platform and its failure to take such content down.”  Reactions to the PTA’s measure were mixed, with many social media users praising the decision, but others expressing concerns that the government could similarly ban religious minorities.  In November, the PTA lifted the ban on TikTok and released a statement saying it “will continue to monitor the platform in order to ensure that unlawful content contrary to Pakistan’s law and societal values is not disseminated.”

In April, a lawmaker from the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party introduced a resolution in parliament calling for expulsion of the French Ambassador over the republication of caricatures depicting Islam in a French magazine in 2020, which PTI said were blasphemous.  On April 21, the Sindh Provincial Assembly passed a unanimous resolution to condemn the publication of these sketches in France and demanded a federal movement against practices which “harm religious harmony throughout the world.”  Lawmakers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly passed a resolution on September 17 requiring official documents to include the Khatan-un-Nabiyeen, or “finality of the Prophet” along with the Prophet Mohammed’s name.

According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy.  The government also announced that a collaboration between the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB), provincial governments, and Sikh and Hindu community members would renovate several Hindu temples and Sikh gurdwaras during the year.  As of September, the government’s Survey of Pakistan mapping agency had surveyed, geotagged, and digitized 93 percent of the properties to be renovated.

Media reported that in November, the Islamabad Capital Development Authority gave permission for construction to resume on a boundary wall at the site of the first Hindu temple to be built in the capital.  In 2020, Islamist political parties opposed to the project filed a petition in the IHC to stop construction, and vandals destroyed part of the wall.

On February 5, a judicial commission led by police and justice sector reform specialist Dr. Shoaib Suddle submitted a report to the Supreme Court attesting that the ETPB failed to maintain most of the ancient and holy sites of the country’s Hindu minority community.  According to the report, out of 365 Hindu temples, only 13 were being managed by the ETPB, leaving caretaking responsibilities of 65 temples with the Hindu community, with 287 left untended.  In January (latest figures available), out of a total of 1,830 temples and gurdwaras across the country, only 31 were operating.

On June 11, the Supreme Court blocked plans to demolish the historic 716-square-yard Dharam Shala, a Hindu community center in Karachi, and ordered the Karachi commissioner to take possession of its land to protect the center from demolition.  The court issued the verdict after Hindu community representatives told the court that the ETPB had leased the property to private individuals who started demolishing the Dharam Shala to construct a new building.

Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders stated local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and forbid Ahmadis from calling them mosques.

Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year, including around particular religious holidays or in response to specific threats.  In July, a judicial commission on religious minorities established a special national police unit to protect religious minorities and their places of worship, a move welcomed by most religious minority communities.  In mid-November, police in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province reported the government there had established a new special security unit to protect religious sites and religious minority communities throughout the province.  Ahmadiyya community representatives, however, noted their religious sites and cemeteries continued to lack police protection nationwide.  In April, Lahore police provided security to the Christian community for Easter celebrations.  The provincial government increased the number of police personnel and security forces near churches.  The district police also directed its response units and special forces teams to patrol throughout the city.  In August and September, the state provided increased security throughout the country for the Shia community’s Muharram processions.  Police authorities said 19,000 police and paramilitary force personnel deployed in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi to secure the processions.  Ahead of Christmas, police deployed officers to protect churches nationwide.  Police also deployed snipers and used closed-circuit television cameras and metal detectors to ensure the security of churches and Christmas markets.  In Sindh, police provided enhanced security at churches and Hindu temples, especially in Karachi, on the eves of festivals such as Christmas and Diwali.

In July, the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) demanded that the federal interior ministry prevent the Ahmadi community from sacrificing animals on Eid al-Adha.  In a letter written to the Chief Secretary of the government of Punjab, the LHCBA urged police to enforce blasphemy laws against Ahmadi community members taking part in religious rites during the holiday.  Anti-Ahmadi groups used extensive online social media campaigns urging other non-Muslims to deny Ahmadis’ right to sacrifice animals during Eid al-Adha.  The government reported no investigations or arrests.

The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year to review textbooks for derogatory material.

On August 16, Prime Minister Khan launched a new nationwide Single National Curriculum (SNC) for grades 1-5 that standardized primary school instruction across the country’s three types of educational institutions – private, public, and religious.  Religious minority groups criticized the SNC’s emphasis on Islamic teachings across educational subjects and argued it violated constitutional restrictions on “compulsory religious instruction” as well as the constitution’s 18th amendment, which delegates most authority for education to provincial governments.

In July, a judicial commission for the protection of religious minorities led by Dr. Suddle expressed concern to the Supreme Court that Islamic religious content was included in compulsory education courses under the SNC, including in Urdu and English language courses, thereby compelling religious minority students to receive Islamic religious instruction.  The commission recommended all Islamic content from the SNC be placed in Islamic studies textbooks, because that subject was compulsory only for Muslim students.  Islamist groups opposed this suggestion.

While the law requires schools to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources continued to report many non-Muslim students had to participate in these courses because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics.  The government did not permit Ahmadi Muslims to teach Islamic studies in public schools.

Civil society groups continued to report that some madrassahs, particularly those that were unregistered, taught doctrine they considered to promote violent extremism and intolerance toward religious minorities.  These groups also noted the government sought to curb this practice through madrassah registration and curriculum reform.

Legal experts and NGOs reported that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear.  While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for protecting the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities.  The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests for information and recommendations.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Interior, and the Ministry of Human Rights.  Religious minority community members also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.

As of year’s end, the National Commission for Minorities continued to function without legislative authority and without power to resolve problems.  In September, the commission requested the President approve a draft bill to empower it under a legal framework, and recommended the chairperson be a member of a religious minority group; the government took no action on the request by year’s end.  Religious freedom activists and civil society groups raised concerns regarding the limited powers of the commission and the decision to exclude Ahmadi Muslims from being represented on the commission when it was first formed.  Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they had never been approached about participating in the commission and would not join a body that required them to identify as non-Muslims.

Minority religious leaders said members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities.  For example, Christians reported incidents of what they perceived as discrimination in which otherwise qualified Christian students were passed over for scholarships solely because they were Christian.  In another instance, a university admitted an Ahmadi Muslim student in Multan as part of a quota set aside for religious minorities.  The university later cancelled the student’s admission without disclosing the reason.  The Lahore High Court ordered the university to reverse its decision and uphold its original offer of admission to the Ahmadi student.  Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the government-required declaration students had to sign on their applications for admission to universities continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims.  Students’ refusal to sign the statement automatically disqualified them from fulfilling admissions requirements.  The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission if they did not claim to be Muslims.

In July, some students and religious groups protested the inclusion of a question related to the founder of the Ahmadiyya community in the test for doctorate admissions at the University of Sindh in Jamshoro.  The protestors threatened to file a blasphemy case against administrators of the university.  After negotiations, the university agreed to remove Ahmadi-related content from the admissions test.

Members of religious minorities, particularly lower-caste Hindus and Christians, reported cases of forceful evictions from their homes and villages by government officials assisting individuals desiring their land.  On September 20, Christians living in the Landi Kotal area of the Khyber tribal district held a press conference to protest government orders to demolish their houses located adjacent to the town.  They said local authorities ordered them to vacate their homes to expand a nearby jail.  The affected families reported their ancestors had lived in the area since 1914 and they had no other place to live.  On August 24, as part of an infrastructure project to improve the city’s stormwater drains, the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC) demolished a small church along a major stream and forcibly evicted some church members who lived nearby.  KMC and the Sindh government took the action in spite of activists protesting on-site a day earlier and organizing a nationwide online campaign against the demolition using the #SaveStJosephChurch hashtag.

Residents of some lower-class Muslim communities also complained of discrimination by upper-class Muslims.  On September 9, gravediggers unearthed the remains of 13 members of the Mallah community originally buried in Sann, Sindh and dumped them outside the graveyard.  They said that Syed Zafar Hyder Shah, an influential person from an upper caste family ordered them to remove the graves.  The incident sparked criticism from civil society representatives who termed the act “a notorious caste-based prejudice” that did not allow lower-caste individuals to be buried in the graveyard of Muslims.  Police filed an investigation into the case against Syed Zafar and those who assisted him but made no arrests by year’s end.

Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring.  The Punjab government, under pressure from a group of Sunni clerics, transferred two Ahmadi local government officials out of Chakwal District on September 3.  Dr. Waseem, a health department official, and Ayesha Kanwal, a shelter home official, were given three days to transfer and find work in other districts.  According to religious minority activists, provincial governments also often failed to meet quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.  On September 28, the Supreme Court expressed concern regarding the government’s failure to implement a 5 percent job quota for religious minorities at both the provincial and federal levels.  In September, media reported that more than 30,000 government jobs reserved for minorities were vacant across the country.

Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff continued to list being non-Muslim as a requirement.  Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting.  For example, the Lahore Waste Management Company continued to employ mainly street sweepers who were Christians, which HRCP criticized as the result of employment advertisements continuing to specify that religious minorities should apply.  HRCP stated such advertisements infringed on human dignity and violated the constitutional guarantee of equality of all citizens.

In July, the Punjab Public Service Commission published an advertisement for 12 vacant positions in different departments.  The advertisement stated, “According to clause (5) of the Punjab Waqf Properties Ordinance 1979, no person may be appointed an officer unless he is a Muslim.”  Religious minority groups said the advertisement was discriminatory because it singled out Muslims as the only persons eligible to be appointed to positions of leadership at the commission.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities compared to the majority religious community, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions.  There were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, and an NGO said a few Christian officers had become generals.  Ahmadiyya officers, however, rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

On September 7, all daily Urdu-language newspapers again published reports and articles to mark the 1974 amendment to the constitution that declared Ahmadis as non-Muslim, and to pay homage to the politicians and clerics who helped enact the amendment.

Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country.  The groups that organized the conferences stated they were defending the teaching that Prophet Mohammed is the final prophet.  Both secular and Ahmadi critics said the conferences were venues for hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims.

On September 7, the Jamiat-Ulema-I-Islami-Fazl (JUI-F) party held a large Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar, with party leaders and national and provincial parliamentarians in attendance.  On October 14, Sufi Barelvi Mufti Muneeb ur Rehman hosted a larger conference in Peshawar that included political party leaders, national parliamentarians, and provincial lawmakers from multiple political parties.  At the conference, JUI-F national leader Fazl ur Rehman and other JUI-F members attacked Pakistan’s national leaders for what they said was un-Islamic legislation on issues such as protecting Ahmadis and preventing forced conversion, and they vowed to resist international pressure to abolish blasphemy laws.

Human rights advocates and Ahmadiyya Muslim community members reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set fire to Ahmadi mosques.  In several instances, they said police participated in the attacks.  Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years.

On January 15, police in Nankana, Punjab Province constructed a boundary wall abutting the minarets of an Ahmadi mosque, damaging them in the process.  Police then blocked access to part of the mosque, informing Ahmadi officials they were acting at the request of several local officials.  On January 26, in Toba Tek Sing, Punjab, two police officers, including the local commanding officer and several local citizens, broke multiple gravestones in an Ahmadiyya cemetery.  The group then moved to the mosque, where they ordered the Ahmadis present to remove the name of Allah from public display.  When the Ahmadis refused, one of the local citizens forcibly removed the plaques featuring Allah’s name.  On April 11, in Muzaffargarh District, Punjab, police officers and local citizens toppled the minarets of an Ahmadiyya mosque and removed Islamic scriptures from Ahmadi tombstones.  The same police officers arrested five Ahmadis at the mosque on blasphemy charges.  They were later released, but their cases remained pending at year’s end.  Also in April, the Ahmadiyya community noted that unknown assailants removed sacred religious words posted on the outside of nine Ahmadi homes in a district in Punjab.  On July 31, the Ahmadiyya community reported local police desecrated and demolished the minarets of an Ahmadi place of worship in a rural settlement near Faisalabad, Punjab.  It was the third such incident in the district; Ahmadi places of worship were also vandalized on June 17 and 24.  The Ahmadiyya Muslim community also reported the desecration of 15 Ahmadiyya places of worship and 100 graves during the year in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

In April, the Ahmadiyya community and witnesses at the scene reported a group of individuals aided by police destroyed the minarets and dome of an Ahmadi mosque located in Muzaffargarh District, Punjab because by law, members of the Ahmadiyya community may not call their houses of worship mosques or have identifying features of mosques on their houses of worship.  Police did not arrest members of the crowd for damaging the building, but instead arrested two Ahmadi men who were worshipers at the mosque.  The police did not register cases against the two men and released them shortly after.  There was no further information available on this case at year’s end.

Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, such as Christian and Hindu Dalits, from bonded labor practices.  Hindu Dalits remained vulnerable to human rights violations and pressure by perpetrators to withdraw police cases.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Christians, Ahmadis, Sikhs, Sunnis, Shia, and Hindus in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated.  The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unknown.

In an incident that drew significant international outcry, a mob of several hundred Muslim workers from a sportswear factory in Sialkot, Punjab attacked Priantha Kumara, a Sri Lankan and Christian manager of the factory on December 3.  Media reported that the mob beat, stoned, and kicked him to death, then dragged his corpse to the street and set it on fire.  In widely seen videos on social media, Kumara was seen pleading for his life before he was killed.  Witnesses reported that while the mob’s actions were fueled by accusations of blasphemy, the incident began because of personal animosity between some factory employees and Kumara.  The aggrieved factory workers allegedly incited the mob by accusing him of desecrating posters that contained written Islamic prayers.  Police were called during the incident, but the small number who responded were far outnumbered by the crowd and media reported that police did not intervene.  Punjab Inspector General of Police Rao Sardar Ali Khan told reporters a case would be submitted to an anti-terrorism court as soon as possible to bring the killers to justice.  Prime Minister Khan said the attack was “horrific” and ordered a high-level inquiry.  Media reported that police arrested more than 100 individuals after the attack.  There were no further developments on this case before year’s end.

On February 11, a teenager shot and killed an Ahmadi homeopathic doctor, Abdul Qadir, in his clinic in Peshawar.  Ahmadiyya community members stated Qadir was killed because of his faith.  According to media reports, local residents overpowered the assailant at the scene and handed him over to the police, who opened an investigation.  At year’s end, he remained in detention and his trial was underway in a court in Peshawar.

On September 2, four unidentified assailants shot and killed a British-Pakistani man retired from the Pakistani army, Maqsood Ahmad, who was an Ahmadiyya community member in Nankana Sahib, Punjab.  Family members said he was shot as he was irrigating his farmland in Dharowal.  The police launched a murder investigation, but as of year’s end, the victim’s killers had not been found.

On September 30, unknown attackers gunned down a Sikh man, Satnam Singh, in Peshawar.  The police said the attackers escaped from the scene but lodged a case against the “unknown assailants.”  ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack.

On March 25, six Sunni Muslims died and seven were injured when assailants opened fire on a passenger vehicle traveling from Gilgit to Naltar.  The vehicle was traveling through a Shia-majority area.  Police said the attack on the passenger van was retaliation for an earlier incident when Shia youth passing through Naltar Bala were ambushed and killed 18 months prior.

On August 19, three persons died, and 59 others were injured in a grenade attack on a Shia procession in Bahawalnagar, Punjab.  It was the third sectarian strike in the area to occur in two months, including an attack on August 6 against a Shia worship site.

On March 24, media reported an unknown man attacked and killed Taqi Shah, a religious scholar from the Shia community in Jhang, Punjab over blasphemy allegations.  The scholar had faced similar blasphemy charges in 2019.  In March, police arrested a suspect, who subsequently confessed to killing Shah.  There was no further information available on this case at year’s end.

On January 3, ISIS-K militants claimed responsibility for killing 11 coal miners belonging to the Hazara Shia community in Mach, Balochistan.  Members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta staged a protest against the government’s failure to protect the community in Balochistan.  Human rights organizations criticized the Prime Minister for saying the Hazara protestors were “blackmailing” him by demanding he visit them in Balochistan to ensure justice for the victims.  On January 6, Prime Minister Khan released a statement on social media against sectarian violence, stating the government was “taking steps to prevent such attacks in the future,” and traveled to Machh on January 9 to meet with families who lost loved ones in the attack.

The Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan remained vulnerable to targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom.  On May 31, unidentified assailants killed Ashok Kumar, a Hindu trader in Khuzdar, Balochistan after he reportedly refused to pay extortion money to criminals.  This was the second Hindu trader since July 2020 to have been killed in Wadh for the same reason.  Following the killing of Ashok Kumar, Baloch social media users urged the government to take steps to ensure security of religious minorities in Balochistan.  In June, unidentified individuals distributed intimidating pamphlets outside of shops owned by Hindu traders in Khuzdar telling them not to allow female customers into their shops, or face consequences.

On February 25, unknown assailants killed Mahesh Kumar, a Hindu youth, and set his corpse on fire in Jacobabad, Sindh.  The Hindu community protested and demanded police arrest the suspects.  They reported police were slow to respond to the killing, while media failed to give appropriate coverage to the incident.

Civil society organizations and media said that armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including the TTP, and the once-banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, continued to perpetrate violence and other abuses against religious minorities.  Groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS, also committed violent acts.  Among the targets of these attacks were Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community.

According to the SATP, there were five sectarian attacks by armed groups during 2021, compared with 10 sectarian attacks reported in 2020.  Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations.  According to journalists, when reporting on attacks with a suspected sectarian motive, media often refrained from reporting the victim’s sectarian identity in an effort to avoid stoking tension among sectarian groups.

Sunni Muslim citizens levied multiple charges of blasphemy against members of the Shia community throughout the year.  On August 19, police fired teargas shells and live rounds into the air in Hyderabad, Sindh to disperse a mob protesting because they believed a Shia man had committed blasphemy.  The community pressured police to file a blasphemy case against the man.  In another instance, on May 6, a group of Sunni religious leaders filed a blasphemy case against Shia scholar Allama Amjad Jauhari in Karachi for remarks they said insulted the companions of the Prophet Mohammed.  The complainants said that Jauhari used derogatory language during one of his sermons at a Shia gathering; they requested the police take action against him.  The next day police opened an investigation into Jauhari for alleged blasphemy.  The investigation was ongoing at year’s end.

In its 2022 World Watch List report, which covered events in 2021, the international NGO Open Doors said that “Christians are considered second-class citizens and are discriminated against in every aspect of life” in the country.  The report highlighted allegations that COVID-19 assistance was leveraged to try and get Christians to convert to Islam, that blasphemy laws continued to be used to target Christians with false allegations, and that Christian women and girls were targeted for kidnapping, forced marriage, and conversion to Islam.

Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men.  Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity.  According to the NGOs Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) and the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked by men.

Christian activists stated young women from their communities were also vulnerable to forced conversions.  According to online Christian media sources, in June, a 30-year-old man was accused of kidnapping, forcibly converting to Islam, and forcibly marrying a Christian girl in Gujranwala District, Punjab.  The media reports stated that while the girl’s parents told police and the courts that she was 13 years old, the girl herself told the court that she was 19.  According to the police, two of the suspects were taken into custody, but the girl later appeared before a local court where she said that she left her house, converted to Islam, and married her husband willingly.  Consequently, the court allowed the girl to go with her husband and ordered the police to drop the case.  The girl’s father protested, stating his daughter was a minor, and that the court should not have accepted her statement declaring she willingly converted and married.  On July 1, the Lahore High Court upheld the lower court’s ruling, allowing the girl to remain with her husband.

In September, media reported that a Muslim man kidnapped, raped, and attempted to kill an eight-year-old Christian girl by hitting her with a stone, and leaving her unconscious on the ground.  Police later arrested the accused under anti-rape and domestic violence laws.  There was no additional information available on this case at year’s end.

Members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.

Representatives of the Kalash, an indigenous group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim schoolteachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with various political affiliations held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat.  English and local-language media often covered the events that featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric which Ahmadiyya community representatives said could incite violence against Ahmadis.  In addition to the large JUI-F conference and rallies, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami held a large event in September in Peshawar; both parties criticized the national government for failing to enforce Islamic law.  The TLP, banned under the National Counterterrorism Authority’s Schedule-I list until it was removed in November, also held smaller rallies.

On September 8, Aalmi Majlis Tahaffuz Khatm Nabuwwat, a Muslim missionary organization, organized a conference at Minar-e-Pakistan, Lahore where speakers urged the government to “check un-Islamic and unconstitutional” activities of Ahmadis, ban them from proselytizing, and remove them from key official posts.

On October 8, JUI-F held Khatm-e-Nabuwat conferences in Multan where speakers, including JUI-F party chief Moulana Fazl ur Rehman, vowed to stop Ahmadis’ entry into high government posts.

Members of religious minority communities continued to report cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment, and illegal confinement due to their faith.  In September, media reported a group of Muslim landlords physically abused and held hostage a family from a Hindu community in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab for obtaining water from a mosque tap and therefore “violating the sanctity” of the place of worship.  According to media reports, Alam Ram Bheel, a farm worker, and his family were fetching drinking water after work when a group of local landlords and accomplices beat them and held them until Muslim neighbors negotiated their release.

On July 26, a video went viral showing a Muslim man forcing a Hindu laborer to mock Hindu deities in Mithi, Sindh.  In the video, the individual was seen swearing at the Hindu man and forcing him to say “Allahu Akbar.”  Police arrested the Muslim man and registered a blasphemy case against him on behalf of the state.  The Hindu man and his family pardoned the Muslim man, and the case was dropped.  The Muslim man publicly apologized for his act.  Religious minority activists criticized this case, stating that persons charged with blasphemy were rarely pardoned.

In September, several religious groups from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam organized a series of rallies in Karachi to denounce Shia “defamation” of revered Sunni religious figures.

Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns.

There were also media reports of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols.  On August 17, police in Lahore arrested a member of the TLP for vandalizing a statue of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the Sikh warrior who ruled over Punjab in the 19th century; the statute had been vandalized numerous times since its unveiling in 2019.  In a video of the incident posted on social media, the TLP member shouted party slogans while pulling the statue apart, and onlookers immediately detained him.  Both the Lahore police and Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar called for the individual to be prosecuted.  Following the TLP member’s arrest, a magisterial court in Lahore granted him bail, and his case was pending at year’s end.

During a January 5 Supreme Court hearing, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa officials reported the suspension of more than 90 police officers from duty and more than 109 arrests related to a December 2020 incident in which a group of villagers destroyed a historic Hindu temple.  The court directed a local cleric responsible for inciting the protestors and those who assisted him to contribute money to assist in the temple’s restoration.  The temple was rebuilt and on November 8, Supreme Court Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed inaugurated it during the Hindu community’s Diwali celebration.

On July 24, a Muslim cleric in the village of Bhong, Punjab, filed blasphemy charges against an eight-year-old Hindu boy, claiming the boy had involuntarily urinated in a local mosque.  In response, on August 4, hundreds of protestors vandalized a local Hindu temple, partially burning the building, destroying Hindu idols, and blocking a nearby highway for three hours.  On August 7, Chief Justice Ahmed directed the Punjab police to arrest all involved in vandalizing and looting the temple.  Police arrested 95 individuals, later freeing 10 while holding 85 in custody to face trial in anti-terrorism courts.  The 85 were in custody at year’s end.

In May, a group of 200 Muslims attacked a Catholic church and 15 houses belonging to Christians in the village of Chak 5 in Punjab Province after a Muslim man accused boys cleaning the church of throwing dust on him.  At least eight Christian community members suffered serious injury.

Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment.  They said Christians continued to have difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor, with some advertisements for menial jobs specifying they were open only to Christian applicants.

Observers reported that English-language media continued to cover issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but vernacular print and broadcast media outlets continued to publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.  Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and editorials, some of which could be considered as inciting anti-Ahmadi violence.  Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media and was at times spread by senior members of mainstream political parties.  Community members stated clerics routinely delivered anti-Ahmadi sermons in mosques.

On September 7, all daily Urdu newspapers again published reports and articles to mark the 1974 amendment to the constitution which declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims.  Leading Urdu newspapers also published editorials and articles paying homage to the politicians and clerics who helped enact the amendment.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear.  Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.


Executive Summary

The constitution declares the state is secular and guarantees freedom of religion, equal rights irrespective of religious belief, and the right to worship and profess one’s religion.  The law states government officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association for violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law allows the government to criminalize a broad spectrum of activities as extremist but does not precisely define extremism.  The law identifies Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions and recognizes the special role of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).  A constitutional amendment cites the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by the country’s ancestors.  Religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, imprison, torture, physically abuse persons, and/or seize their property because of their religious belief or affiliation or membership in groups designated “extremist,” “terrorist,” or “undesirable,” including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jamaat, followers of Muslim theologian Said Nursi, Church of Scientology, Falun Gong, and multiple evangelical Protestant groups.  For example, an NGO reported that in September, while searching houses of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Irkutsk, security forces stabbed a man and beat him unconscious and beat another Jehovah’s Witness and sodomized him with a glass bottle.  According to the NGO, officers also beat the two men’s wives while they were in various stages of undress.  The human rights NGO Memorial identified 340 persons it said were persecuted for their religious beliefs or affiliation as of November, compared with 228 in all of 2020.  Memorial said the actual total was likely three to four times higher.  Memorial did not report the number of persecuted persons for all of the year because the Supreme Court ordered the closure of the NGO on December 28.  In July, the Court of Kemerovo upheld the designation of the Falun Gong branch in the Khakassia Region as an extremist organization and ordered its dissolution there.  During the year, the government declared four Pentecostal and two Scientology groups undesirable, effectively banning them from the country, and banned and dissolved an Orthodox Church unaffiliated with the ROC.  The government criminally prosecuted 13 cases of offending the feelings of believers compared with two such cases in 2020, and prosecuted cases against members of smaller religious groups for what it called illegal missionary work.  The government continued to grant privileges to the ROC not accorded to other religious groups.

In December, a court sentenced a member of the “Citizens of the USSR” movement to six years in prison for attempting to organize a contract killing of the head of the Jewish Community of Krasnodar.  The SOVA Center, a Moscow-based NGO, stated antisemitism was a part of the movement’s ideology.  In the first six months of the year, the SOVA Center reported seven incidents of vandalism at religious sites – two Orthodox, two Jewish, two pagan, and one Protestant – as well as other incidents of religiously motivated vandalism.  In February, two persons shot an air gun at a grocery store containing a halal market in St. Petersburg.  Police opened a criminal case against the two individuals.  Authorities reportedly investigated antisemitic social media posts.  A survey by the polling firm Levada Center found that 22 percent of respondents professed a negative attitude towards Jews, compared with 34 percent in 2010.  Local residents opposed the construction of churches, mosques, and other places of worship in Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk, Stupino, and Irkutsk.

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy representatives advocated greater religious freedom in the country, highlighting the government’s misuse of the law on extremism to restrict the peaceful activities of religious minorities.  The embassy also made extensive use of its social media platforms to disseminate messages advocating religious freedom.  Embassy representatives met with representatives of religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country, though these meetings were fewer than in previous years due to intimidation of religious groups by Russian authorities.  In August, the government prohibited the United States from retaining, hiring, or contracting Russian or third-country staff at its diplomatic facilities in the country, further constraining embassy outreach efforts to religious and civil society groups.  Department of State officials continued to monitor the situation of U.S. citizens working with religious institutions and organizations in the country to determine whether authorities targeted them for their faith or religious work.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Russia a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing sanctions issued for individuals identified pursuant to section 404(a)(2) of the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012 and section 11 of the Support for the Sovereignty, Integrity, Democracy, and Economic Stability of Ukraine Act of 2014, as amended by Section 228 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 142.3 million (midyear 2021).  A poll conducted in 2020 by the independent Levada Center found that 63 percent of the population identified as Orthodox Christian and 7 percent as Muslim, while 26 percent reported having no religious faith.  Religious groups each constituting approximately 1 percent or less of the population include Buddhists, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Baha’is, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), pagans, Tengrists, members of the Church of Scientology, and Falun Gong practitioners.  The 2010 census, the most recent for which data is available, estimates the number of Jews at 150,000.  The Russian Jewish Congress (RJC) estimates the Jewish population is 172,500.  According to Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, chairman of the Religious Board of Muslims of the Russian Federation, there were 25 million Muslims in 2018, approximately 18 percent of the population.  Immigrants and migrant workers from Central Asia, which experts estimate at six to seven million, are mostly Muslim.  Most Muslims live in the Volga-Ural Region and the North Caucasus.  Moscow, St. Petersburg, and parts of Siberia also have sizable Muslim populations.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates the state is secular and provides for religious freedom, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religious worship, including the right to “profess, individually or jointly with others, any religion, or to profess no religion.”  It provides for the right of citizens “to freely choose, possess, and disseminate religious or other beliefs, and to act in conformity with them,” and it provides for equality of rights and liberties regardless of attitude toward religion.  The constitution bans any limitation of human rights on religious grounds and prohibits actions inciting religious hatred and strife.  It states all religious associations are equal and separate from the state.  The law acknowledges Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as the country’s four “traditional” religions, constituting an inseparable part of the country’s historical heritage.  The law recognizes the “special role” of Russian Orthodox Christianity in the country’s “history and the formation and development of its spirituality and culture.”

A 2020 constitutional amendment cites the ancestral history of the country and the “ideals and faith in God” passed on by those ancestors.  The language is the only explicit reference to God in the constitution.  According to a Constitutional Court ruling, the amendment’s reference to God does not contravene the secular nature of the government or undermine freedom of religion but only emphasizes the significant sociocultural role of religion in the formation and development of the nation.

The law states the government may restrict religious rights only to the degree necessary to protect the constitutional structure and security of the government; the morality, health, rights, and legal interests of persons; or the defense of the country.  It is a violation of the law to force another person to disclose his or her opinion of a religion or to force them to participate or not participate in worship, other religious ceremonies, the activities of a religious association, or religious instruction.

The law states those who violate the law on freedom of conscience, religion, and religious associations will be “held liable under criminal, administrative, and other legislation.”  The administrative code and the criminal code both punish obstruction of the right to freedom of conscience and belief with imprisonment of up to three years and/or fines of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) or 1,000,000 rubles ($13,300), depending upon which code governs the offense.

By law, officials may prohibit the activity of a religious association on grounds such as violating public order or engaging in “extremist activity.”  The law criminalizes a broad spectrum of activities as extremist, including “assistance to extremism,” but it does not precisely define extremism or require that an activity include an element of violence or hatred to be classified as extremist.

Anti-extremism laws stipulate that speech or actions aimed at “inciting hatred or enmity” based on group affiliation (including religion) are punishable by administrative penalties for first-time offenses if the actions do not contain a criminal offense.  These penalties include administrative arrests of up to 15 days or administrative fines of up to 20,000 rubles ($270) for individuals and up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700) for legal entities.  Individuals are held criminally liable if they commit multiple offenses within a one-year period or for the first offense if they threaten to use violence or use their official position to incite hatred.  The criminal penalties include fines up to 600,000 rubles ($8,000), compulsory labor for up to five years, or imprisonment for up to six years.

Participating in or organizing the activity of a banned religious organization designated as extremist is punishable by a fine of up to 800,000 rubles ($10,700) or imprisonment for a term of six to 10 years, with deprivation of the right to hold “certain positions” or engage in “certain activities” (not well specified but including a prohibition on running for public office) for up to 10 years and restrictions on freedom for a period of one to two years.  These restrictions may include house arrest or constraints on travel within the country.  For persons with “official status,” a term which applies to anyone working for the government or state-owned entities as well as to persons in management roles at commercial entities or NGOs, the prescribed prison term is seven to 12 years or a fine of up to 700,000 rubles ($9,300).  First-time offenders who willingly forsake their membership in banned religious organizations are exempt from criminal liability if they committed no other crimes as defined by the law.

Antiterrorism laws authorize law enforcement agencies to regulate evangelism, requiring permits and restricting the locations in which faith-related information may be shared with others.  These laws also allow security agencies to access private communications, which requires telecommunications companies to store all telephone conversations, text messages, videos, and picture messages for six months and make this data available to authorities.

The Supreme Court has banned the activities of several religious organizations on the grounds of “extremism” and “terrorism,” including a regional branch of Falun Gong, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mejlis of the Crimean Tatars, Hizb ut-Tahrir; Nurdzhular (a Russification of the Turkish for “followers of Said Nursi”); Tablighi Jamaat; and the Fayzrakhmani Islamic community.  These organizations are on the Federal List of Extremist Organizations and/or the Federal List of Terrorist Organizations.  Designations as extremist or terrorist organizations may be appealed in court.

Local laws in several administrative regions, including the republics of Kabardino-Balkaria and Dagestan, ban “extremist Islamic Wahhabism” but do not define the term.  Authorities impose administrative or criminal penalties (the former entail a maximum sentence of 15 days in prison, while sentences for the latter can be much longer) for violating these laws, in accordance with federal legislation.

By law, the government may designate an international religious-affiliated organization or foreign religious group “undesirable.”  The designation allows the closure of foreign and international organizations on the grounds of “presenting a threat to the foundation of the constitutional order of the Russian Federation, the defense capability of the country or the security of the state.”  The designation may also lead to fines or jail time for organization members.  Religious organizations designated undesirable include seven Falun Gong-associated organizations (World Organization to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong; Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong in China; Global Mission to Rescue Persecuted Falun Gong Practitioners; Friends of Falun Gong; Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting; Dragon Springs Buddhist; and The European Falun Dafa Organization), World Institute of Scientology Enterprises International and the Church of Spiritual Technology (from the United States), the New Generation International Christian Movement and the New Generation Evangelical Christian Church (from Latvia), and the New Generation Spiritual Directorate of the Evangelist Christians and the New Generation International Biblical College (from Ukraine).

The law criminalizes “offending the feelings of religious believers,” including atheists and followers of “non-traditional religions.”  Actions “in public demonstrating clear disrespect for society and committed with the intent to insult the feelings of religious believers” are subject to fines of up to 300,000 rubles ($4,000), compulsory labor for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to one year.  If these actions are committed in places of worship, the punishment is a fine of up to 500,000 rubles ($6,700), compulsory labor for up to three years, or a prison sentence of up to three years.

The law creates three categories of religious associations, with different levels of legal status and privileges:  “religious groups,” “local religious organizations” (LROs), and “centralized religious organizations” (CROs).  Religious groups or organizations may be subject to legal dissolution or deprivation of legal status by a court decision on grounds including violations of standards set forth in the constitution or protection of public security.

A “religious group” is the most basic unit and does not require registration with the government.  When a group first begins its activities, however, it must notify authorities, typically the regional Ministry of Justice (MOJ), of the location of its activity, its rites and ceremonies, and its leader(s) and members.  A religious group may conduct worship services and rituals and teach religion to its members with requisite notification to authorities.  It does not have legal status to open a bank account, own property, issue invitations to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, or conduct worship services in prisons, state-owned hospitals, or the armed forces.  To hold services, a religious group may use property bought by its members for the group’s use, residential property owned or rented by its members, or public spaces rented by its members.

An LRO may register with the MOJ if it has at least 10 citizen members who are 18 or older and are permanently residing in the region where the LRO applies to register.  LROs have legal status and may open bank accounts, own property, issue invitation letters to foreign guests, publish literature, receive tax benefits, and conduct worship services in prisons, hospitals, and the armed forces.  CROs may register with the MOJ at the regional or federal level by combining at least three LROs of the same denomination.

To register as an LRO or CRO, an association must provide the following:  a list of the organization’s founders and governing body with addresses and “internal passport” data (the mandatory identity document for all citizens older than the age of 14 residing in the country); the organization’s charter; the minutes of the founding meeting; certification from the CRO (in the case of LROs); a description of the organization’s doctrine, practices, history, and attitudes toward family, marriage, and education; the organization’s legal address; a certificate of payment of government dues; and the charter or registration papers of the governing body in the case of organizations whose main offices are located abroad.  Authorities may deny registration for reasons including incorrect paperwork, failure to meet different administrative requirements, national security reasons, or placement on the list of extremist or terrorist organizations.  Denial of registration may be appealed in court.  By law, CROs and LROs receiving funding from abroad must report an account of their activities, a list of leaders, the source of foreign funding, and plans for how the organization intends to use the foreign funds or property obtained through foreign funding.  Reports are annual by default, but the MOJ may require additional ad hoc reports.  LROs and CROs may invite foreign citizens to carry out professional religious activities.  LROs and CROs may produce, acquire, export, import, and distribute religious literature in printed, audio, or video format, and “other religious items.”

The Expert Religious Studies Council, a committee established by the MOJ to advise it on religious groups, has wide powers to investigate religious organizations.  Some of the council’s powers include reviewing organizations’ activities and literature and determining whether an organization is “extremist.”  The law provides several examples of extremist activities, such as “incitement to violence,” but does not precisely define how organizations or religious materials may be classified as “extremist.”  The council also advises the MOJ on the issue of granting religious organization status to a religious group.

Foreign religious organizations (those created outside of the country under foreign laws) have the right to open offices for representational purposes, either independently or as part of religious organizations previously established in the country, but they may not form or found their own religious organizations in the country and may not operate houses of worship.

The government (the MOJ or the Prosecutor General’s Office) oversees a religious organization’s compliance with the law and may review its financial and registration-related documents when conducting an inspection or investigation.  With advance notice, the government may send representatives to attend a religious association’s events, conduct an annual review of compliance with the association’s mission statement on file with the government, and review its religious literature to decide whether the literature is extremist.  The law contains ongoing reporting requirements on financial and economic activity, funding sources, and compliance with antiterrorist and anti-extremist legislation.  The government may obtain a court order to close those associations that do not comply with reporting or other legal requirements.

The law allows the government to limit the places where prayer and public religious observance may be conducted without prior approval.  LROs and CROs may conduct religious services and ceremonies without prior approval in buildings and facilities or on lands owned or rented by these associations, as well as in cemeteries, crematoria, places of pilgrimage, and living quarters.  Baptism ceremonies in rivers and lakes, as well as services conducted in parks, open spaces, or courtyards, do not fall under this exemption.  In these cases, LROs and CROs must seek government approval at least one week in advance and provide the government with the names of organizers and participants, as well as copies of any written materials to be used at the event.

A prime ministerial decree requires religious organizations to conform to specific counterterrorism measures to qualify for safety permits for their real property.  Among other requirements, all facilities must be guarded during services by members of public organizations.  Facilities with maximum building occupancy limits between 500 and 1,000 must have “panic buttons” and video surveillance systems.  Buildings with occupancy limits of more than 1,000 must be guarded by private security guards or National Guard personnel.  Religious groups are responsible for defraying the costs of these measures.  The penalty for noncompliance is a fine of up to 100,000 rubles ($1,300).

The Ministry of Defense chaplaincy program only allows for chaplains representing the four traditional religions, and the program requires members of a religious group to comprise at least 10 percent of a military unit before an official chaplain of that group is appointed.  Chaplains are neither enlisted nor commissioned but are classified as assistants to the commander.  Chaplains are full-time employees of the Ministry of Defense, paid from the defense budget.  There are more than 120 chaplains in the program.

Federal law defines “missionary activity” as the sharing of one’s beliefs with persons of another faith or nonbelievers with the aim of involving these individuals in the “structure” of the religious association.  According to the law, to share beliefs outside of officially sanctioned sites (which include buildings owned by a religious organization, buildings whose owners have given permission for activities to take place, pilgrimage destinations, cemeteries and crematoria, and indoor spaces of educational organizations historically used for religious ceremonies), an individual must have a document from a religious group or registered organization authorizing him or her to share beliefs.  The law explicitly prohibits any beliefs being shared on another organization’s property without permission from that organization.  It also prohibits missionary activity in residential buildings and the rezoning of any building from residential to nonresidential for the purpose of conducting religious activities.  Materials disseminated by missionaries must be marked with the name of the religious association providing the authorization.

Violations of the law regulating missionary activity may be punished by a fine of 5,000 to 50,000 rubles ($67-$670) for individuals and 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300-$13,000) for legal entities, which includes LROs and CROs.  Foreign citizens or stateless persons who violate restrictions on missionary activities may be fined 30,000 to 50,000 rubles ($400-$670) and are subject to deportation.

Within the MOJ, the Scientific Advisory Board reviews religious materials for extremism.  Composed of academics and representatives of the four traditional religions, the board reviews materials referred to it by judicial or law enforcement authorities, private citizens, or organizations.  If the board identifies material as extremist, it issues a nonbinding advisory opinion, which is then published on the MOJ website and forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for further investigation.  In addition to the Scientific Advisory Board, regional board experts also may review religious materials for extremist content.

Prosecutors may take material to a court and ask the court to declare it extremist, but a court may declare extremist, on its own accord, materials introduced during the consideration of administrative, civil, or criminal cases.  By law, publications declared extremist by a federal court are automatically added to the federal list of extremist materials.  Courts may order internet service providers to block access to websites containing materials included on the federal list of extremist materials.  Courts review and reissue lists on a regular basis.  If the courts determine the material is no longer “extremist,” the MOJ is required to remove the material from the lists within 30 days.  Very rarely, in response to a legal challenge, courts may also reverse a decision to list a material as extremist.  The law makes it illegal to declare the key texts (holy books) of the four traditional religions in their “original languages” – Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Quran, and Tibetan Buddhist Kangyur (Kanjur) – to be extremist.  The law does not define what constitutes an original language nor does it specify that foreign-language translations of these texts may not be declared extremist.

According to the administrative code, mass distribution, production, and possession with the aim of mass distribution of extremist materials by private individuals may result in 15 days’ imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 to 3,000 rubles ($13-$40), or 2,000 to 5,000 rubles ($27-$67) for public officials, as well as confiscation of these materials.  Courts may suspend for 90 days the operations of legal entities found to be in possession of extremist materials and fine them 100,000 to 1,000,000 rubles ($1,300-$13,300).  Individuals who produce materials later deemed extremist may not be punished retroactively but must cease production and distribution of those materials.

On October 3, amendments to the law came into force formally prohibiting certain individuals from leading or participating in a group of believers.  The law prohibits individuals suspected of financing terrorism, or whose actions have been deemed extremist by a court, to lead or take part in religious groups.  The amendments also impose extra training and recertification requirements on clergy, religious teachers, and missionaries who have been trained abroad.  Such personnel must take part in a course in “state-confessional relations in the Russian Federation” and be recertified by a CRO.

The law allows the transfer of state and municipal property of religious significance to religious organizations, including land, buildings, and movable property.  The law grants religious organizations using state historical property for religious purposes the right to use such property indefinitely.  The law prohibits the transfer of living quarters for religious use and the use of living quarters for missionary activity, unless the activity is a part of a “religious service, rite, or ceremony.”

The law allows religious organizations to use buildings that were not originally authorized for religious purposes if they are part of a property that serves a religious purpose.  The law allows, for example, a group to establish a Sunday school in a warehouse on the property of a church.  If such a structure does not meet legal requirements or is not brought into legal compliance by submitting proper paperwork by 2030, it will be demolished.

Religious education or civil ethics classes are compulsory in all public and private secondary schools.  Students may choose to take a course on one of the four traditional religions, a general world religions course, or a secular ethics course.  Regional and municipal departments of education oversee this curriculum at the local level in accordance with their capacity to offer the courses and according to the religious makeup of the given location.  There is no requirement for representatives of religious organizations to be licensed to conduct religious education in schools affiliated with a religious organization or in-home schools.  Religious instructors in any other state or private school must be licensed to teach religious courses.

The Office of the Director of Religious Issues within the Office of the Federal Human Rights Ombudsman handles complaints about the government’s actions on religious freedom.  The ombudsman may intercede on behalf of those who submit complaints; however, the ombudsman may not compel other government bodies to act or intervene in complaints not addressed to the government.

The law entitles individuals and organizations to take religious freedom cases to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France.  The state must pay compensation to a person whose rights were violated as determined by the ECHR and ensure his or her rights are restored to the extent possible.  The Constitutional Court determines whether judgments by international and regional courts, including the ECHR, are consistent with the constitution.

Military service for men between the ages of 18 and 27 is compulsory, but the constitution provides for alternative service for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience, including religious belief.  The standard military service period is 12 months, while alternative service is 18 months in a Ministry of Defense agency or 21 months in a nondefense agency.  Failure to perform alternative service is punishable under the criminal code, with penalties ranging from a fine of 80,000 rubles ($1,100) to six months in prison.

By law, LROs and CROs may not participate in political campaigns or the activities of political parties or movements or provide material or other aid to political groups.  This restriction applies to religious organizations but not to their individual members.

Both the ROC and all members of the Civic Chamber, a state institution composed of representatives of public associations, are granted the opportunity to review draft legislation pending before the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, on a case-by-case basis.  No formal mechanism exists for permanent representation of religious organizations in the Civic Chamber, as the chamber convenes for three-year terms.  Individuals from traditional religions and other religious groups may be selected to serve in the chamber for a term, either in the initial selection of 40 representatives by the President of the Russian Federation or in one of the subsequent rounds of selection, where existing chamber members choose an additional 128 representatives representing national and regional civil society groups.  By law, a member of an organization that had been accused of extremism may not serve in the Civic Chamber.

The law states foreigners or stateless individuals whose presence in the country the government deems “undesirable” are forbidden from becoming founders, members, or active participants in the activities of religious organizations.  The same is true for individuals whose activities are deemed extremist by the courts or who are subject to prosecution under the law on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism.  The law restricts any foreign national or stateless person from entering the country if he or she “participates in the activities of the organizations included in the list of organizations and individuals in respect of whom there is information about their involvement in extremist activities or terrorism.”

Foreigners engaging in religious work require a contract with a legally registered religious organization and a work visa.  Religious work is not permitted on “humanities visas,” which allow foreigners to enter the country to strengthen academic or cultural ties or take part in charitable work.  There are no missionary visas.

The law grants religious organizations the exclusive right to manage pilgrimage activities.

Under the criminal code, an individual convicted of committing an act of vandalism motivated by religious hatred or enmity may be sentenced to up to three years of compulsory labor or prison.

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

Government Practices

Religious groups and human rights NGOs reported authorities continued to investigate, detain, arrest, imprison, torture, and/or physically abuse persons on account of their religious belief or affiliation.  Authorities continued to accuse religious minority groups of extremism and terrorism.

According to international religious freedom NGO Forum 18, the government used increasingly strict legislation on “foreign agents” and “undesirable organizations” to curtail, complicate, or prohibit the activities of organizations that promote human rights, including freedom of religion and belief, and to monitor their violation.  In December, the Supreme Court ordered the closure of Memorial, one of the country’s best-known NGOs.

As of November 9, Memorial identified 340 persons persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation whom it considered to be political prisoners, meaning they were either already imprisoned or were in custody or under house arrest awaiting a formal sentence to begin.  Memorial stated that the actual number of cases of persecution was likely three to four times higher, given the number of cases the organization identified as similar to those designated as political prisoners; however, the organization said it lacked the supporting evidence to make designations in those instances.  Memorial’s list of political prisoners included 206 persons (45 percent more than in 2020) accused of involvement with the banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organization that Memorial characterized as a “nonviolent international Islamic organization,” and 104 Jehovah’s Witnesses (70 percent more than in 2020).  According to Memorial, none of the political prisoners being persecuted for their religious belief or affiliation called for violence or planned violent acts.

In August, Forum 18 reported Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims who had been convicted of “extremism” might suffer post-sentence consequences through sudimost (being a convicted person with an active criminal record).  The report stated that after their release, these individuals risked harsher punishment if prosecuted again and might experience more limited formal employment opportunities.  The courts might also impose restrictions on freedom and administrative supervision, including curfews, restrictions on movement, and an obligation to register with police or probation authorities at specified intervals.  These individuals might also be subject to bans on leadership of, or participation in, religious organizations.

Jehovah’s Witnesses and NGOs stated Federal Security Service (FSB) agents, officers of the Interior Ministry’s Center for Countering Extremism, police officers, and riot police continued to monitor, detain, search, and carry out raids in the homes and places of worship of Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers stated authorities had raided more than 1,594 homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the country between early 2017 and November 2021.  Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 382 searches of homes during the year, compared with 477 in 2020.  They said that during these raids, authorities entered homes, often in the early morning, conducted unauthorized, illegal searches, tortured, and verbally and physically abused members.  Authorities often entered residences by forcing open the door.  They held individuals at gunpoint, including children and the elderly, and seized personal belongings, including religious materials, personal correspondence, money, mobile phones, and other electronic devices.

In January, authorities dropped charges against Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities detained Kutsenko in 2020, subjecting him to electric shocks and forcing him to confess that he had organized activities of a religious organization banned by the court, before placing him under house arrest and eventually releasing him on his own recognizance.

On September 4, Russian human rights NGO OVD-info reported searches of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ homes in Irkutsk by the Russian National Guard and the Ministry of Interior’s Grom special forces.  OVD-info said during the searches special forces beat and then detained Jehovah’s Witnesses Anatoly Razdabarov and Nikolai Merinov.  Officers stabbed Merinov, beat him unconscious, and broke his front teeth.  Officers interrogated Razdabarov for eight hours and demanded access to his telephone.  They beat Razdabrov, handcuffed him so his shoulders hyperextended, and sodomized him with a glass bottle.  According to the NGO, officers also beat the two men’s wives while they were in various stages of undress.  On October 12, a court in Irkutsk refused to recognize the searches of these homes as an illegal action by the security forces, though the security forces did not show search warrants during the raids.

The SOVA Center reported that on December 15, authorities searched 10 homes and interrogated 16 Jehovah’s Witnesses in Samara.  The authorities forced Nikolai Vasilyev and another unnamed Jehovah’s Witness to hold a heated kettle and poured boiling water on him after he refused to provide the authorities access to a laptop.  Vasilyev and two others were arrested and sentenced to two months in jail; the case continued at year’s end.

In January, authorities dropped charges against Jehovah’s Witness Vadim Kutsenko.  Jehovah’s Witnesses stated authorities detained Kutsenko in 2020, subjecting him to electric shocks and forcing him to confess that he had organized activities of a religious organization banned by the court, before placing him under house arrest and eventually releasing him on his own recognizance.

In April, authorities conducted mass searches in Yaroslavl, searching 31 premises and detaining at least two men.  In July, officials conducted mass searches in Kurgan, Shadrinsk, and other cities in Kurgan Region.  The European Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that authorities detained at least 13 persons.  Authorities said the detainees held meetings for more than 130 individuals.

On May 12, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported that FSB operatives installed hidden cameras in a Perm bathhouse to monitor possible baptisms.  The recording captured 27 Jehovah’s Witnesses participating in a baptism ceremony, leading five members to be charged.  The Industrial District Court of Perm sentenced one participant in the ceremony to seven years’ probation, and each of the other four to two and a half years’ probation.  Authorities charged each defendant with participating in illegal religious activities as well as organizing, funding, and participating in the extremist community.

Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said group members continued to flee the country as a result of what they described as increasing government persecution since a 2017 Supreme Court ruling banned the organization.  In March, Foreign Policy magazine estimated more than 175,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses remained in Russia.

The SOVA Center reported authorities had initiated criminal cases against at least 142 Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year; in 2020, the number was at least 146.  Since 2017, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses cited in the SOVA Center report, authorities had initiated 597 criminal cases against adherents in 70 regions of the country.  The NGO Memorial reported 104 imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses as of November 9 (35 serving sentences, 69 in custody or under house arrest pending sentencing), with 86 others receiving suspended sentences during the year.  In addition, according to the SOVA Center, during the year at least 68 convictions were handed down against 105 Jehovah’s Witnesses, compared with 25 sentences in 2020.

On January 19, the Kemerovo Regional Court rejected an appeal by Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Britvin and Vadim Levchuk, who had both been sentenced to four years’ imprisonment at a labor camp for organizing the activities of a banned extremist organization.  On December 30, both men were released, having served their sentences.

In February, the Abinsk District Court of Krasnodar sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Alexander Ivshin to seven and a half years in a penal colony for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.

On February 10, the Kursk Regional Court upheld a 2020 decision by the Lgov District Court denying Jehovah’s Witness and Danish citizen Dennis Christensen’s appeal for early release.  Detained since 2017, Christensen received a six-year prison sentence in 2019.  He remained in prison at year’s end.

On February 24, the Abakan City Court in the Republic of Khakassia sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Valentina Baranovskaya to two years, and her son, Roman Baranovskiy, to six years in a penal colony based on the government’s designation of the group as extremist.

The Central District Court of Chita began proceedings against four Jehovah’s Witnesses charged with organizing the activities of a banned organization:  Vladimir Ermolaev, Sergey Kirilyuk, Igor Mamalimov, and Aleksandr Putintsev.  The four were detained in mass raids in 2020; the case remained pending at year’s end.

In April, the Investigative Committee for the Krasnodar Territory announced that Abinsk District had opened criminal cases against four Jehovah’s Witnesses for participating in the activities of an extremist organization:  Anna Yermak, Olga Pnonmareva, Alexander Nikolaev, and an unnamed individual.

On May 28, authorities opened a criminal case against Anna Safronova, accusing her of participating in worship services of Jehovah’s Witnesses and financing extremist activities.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

On June 30, the Blagoveshchensk City Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Dmitriy Golik and Aleksey Berchuk to seven and eight years in prison, respectively, for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.  The Amur Regional Court denied their appeal on September 2; the two were transferred from pretrial detention to prison.

On July 29, the Leninsky District Court of Rostov-on-Don sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Arsen Avanesov, Vilen Avanesov, and Alexander Parkov to terms of between six and six and a half years in prison for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.  The defendants had been arrested in 2019 and remained in jail pending trial.  On December 6, the Rostov Regional Court upheld the verdict on appeal.

On September 23, the Traktorozavodsky District Court of Volgograd sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergey Melnik and Igor Egozaryan to six years in prison for organizing the activities of an extremist organization.  Valery Rogozin, Vyacheslav Osipov, and Denis Peresunko were also found guilty of financing extremist activities.  Rogzin received a sentence of six and a half years; Peresunko and Osipov were each sentenced to six years and three months.

In October, after a year-long case, the Trusovsky District Court of Astrakhan sentenced Jehovah’s Witnesses Sergei Klikunov, Rustam Diarov, and Yevgeny Ivanov to eight years in prison – the longest sentences yet issued to Jehovah’s Witnesses – and Ivanov’s wife, Olga, to three and a half years in prison.  The three men had been in jail since June and charged with organizing and financing extremist activities; Olga had been under house arrest and charged with participation in extremist activities.  The court also cited “the commission of a crime as part of a group, by prior conspiracy” as an aggravating circumstance for all four sentences.

On October 28, the Supreme Court decreed that “the actions of persons not related to the continuation or resumption of the activities of an organization recognized by the court as extremist and consisting solely in the exercise of their right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion … do not constitute an offense.”  On October 28, the SOVA Center stated the wording of the decision of the Supreme Court was not ideal and “unlikely to completely eliminate the numerous cases of persecution for essentially noncriminal activities.”  The SOVA Center reported that at the end of 2021, Jehovah’s Witness Dmitry Barmakin was acquitted by the Supreme Court and several other cases of Jehovah’s Witnesses were slated for review.

In the month following the Supreme Court’s October 28 ruling, authorities raided the homes of 25 Jehovah’s Witnesses across 10 different regions, and courts convicted or upheld the convictions of at least seven members of the group on charges of extremist activity, including an 80-year-old woman who was fined 500,000 rubles ($6,700).  In November, the Pervorechka District Court of Vladivostock acquitted a Jehovah’s Witness, Dmitry Barmakin, who had been accused of extremist activity – reportedly the first acquittal based on the October Supreme Court decision.

In November, authorities announced completion of the investigation of the 10 Jehovah’s Witnesses detained during raids in Voronezh in 2020 who were accused of organizing a banned community and preaching and recruiting new members between 2018 and 2020.  The case was pending in the Levoberezhny District Court of Voronezh at year’s end.

Felix Makhammadiev, a Jehovah’s Witness who was stripped of his citizenship following his 2019 conviction for organizing extremist activities, was deported to Uzbekistan on January 21.  Makhammadiev had moved to the country from Uzbekistan with his mother as a minor and subsequently became a Russian citizen.  Konstantin Bazhenov, who was convicted in the same case as Makhammadiev, was also stripped of his Russian citizenship; he was deported to Ukraine on May 19.

According to the NGO Memorial, between January and November, authorities convicted, investigated, or charged 18 persons for alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, nine of whom were from Crimea.  Since the Supreme Court first labeled the group a terrorist organization and banned it in 2003, Memorial reported that authorities had investigated or charged 331 persons for involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir and tried and convicted 258.  Since 2003, courts had sentenced 70 persons to between 10 and 15 years in prison, and 87 to 15 years or more.  The SOVA Center reported that at least 35 defendants in new cases were arrested during the year.  Human Rights Watch characterized Hizb ut-Tahrir as a group that aimed to establish an Islamic caliphate, but which renounced violence.

The SOVA Center reported that on February 18, the FSB conducted a special operation against Hizb u-Tahrir across 10 regions of the country.  The FSB detained alleged members, and authorities opened criminal cases against seven of them.  Individuals continued to receive long prison sentences for their alleged involvement with Hizb-ut-Tahrir.

In April, the Central District Military Court in Yekaterinburg sentenced Rais Mavlyutov to 23 years in a maximum security penal colony after convicting him of recruiting for a terrorist organization, using the internet to incite terrorism, and organizing and participating in meetings where the literature of a terrorist organization, Hizb ut-Tahrir, was read and discussed.  Memorial classified Mavlyutov as a political prisoner and stated there was no evidence that he represented a public danger or was involved in terrorist activities.

On September 6, the Oktyabrsky District Court of Ufa sentenced Ilmira Bikbaeva to three years’ probation for transferring money to the mother of Ayrat Dilmukhametov, a prisoner accused of supporting Hizb ut-Tahrir.  The prosecution said the transfer was proof that Bikbaeva was financing extremism.  Bikbaeva said she simply wanted to help the mother who lacked the means to support herself.

On December 24, the Second Western District Military Court of Moscow sentenced Marifjon Mamadaliyev and Ikboljon Sultonov to terms of between 16 and 18 years in a penal colony for allegedly creating a Hizb ut-Tahrir cell.  The court convicted six additional defendants of participating in the activities of the cell and sentenced them to imprisonment for terms of 11 to 12 years.  The SOVA Center stated the case was based on testimony by a secret witness.

In July, the Court of Kemerovo upheld the designation of the Falun Gong branch in the Khakassia Region as an extremist organization and ordered its dissolution there.

The government prosecuted 13 cases under the law prohibiting offending the feelings of believers, two more than in 2020.  According to Memorial, investigating authorities increased activity during the year, including internet monitoring.  For example, on October 29, Moscow’s Tverskoy District Court sentenced blogger Ruslan Bobiev and his girlfriend, Anastasia Chistova, to 10 months in a penal colony for violating the law.  The teens posted a photograph with St. Basil’s Cathedral in the background depicting Chistova wearing a jacket with the inscription “Police” while simulating a sex act, with Bobiev standing behind her.  The Interior Ministry described the photos as “provocative,” and the court stated the couple “committed public acts expressing clear disrespect for society and committed with the aim of insulting the religious feelings of believers.”  On October 30, police detained and charged Irina Volkova for posting a photo exposing her underwear in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.  On November 19, authorities in St. Petersburg opened a criminal case against two teenagers in response to a photo circulating on social media, in which the two defendants posed with their pants down in front of the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood.

In October, the authorities initiated a criminal case against Lolita Bogdanova for insulting the feelings of believers after she bared her chest in front of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

On October 25, the SOVA Center and human rights activists reported that staff at correctional colony No.2 in Kurgan Region mocked Muslim prisoners and threw the Quran on the ground, “trampling” it.  Media reported that investigators said they found no evidence of the action as video from the surveillance cameras was destroyed.

On November 18, a court in Kurgan closed the Kurgan Orthodox Parish in Honor of the Holy Trinity.  In July, the Kurgan Regional Court ordered the dissolution stating that the parish had misled Orthodox believers and infringed on their constitutional freedom of religion.  The Magistrate Court of Kurgan had fined the church in 2020 for illegal missionary work.  The parish was independent of the ROC.

In December, the ECHR ruled in favor of Maksim Mikhaylovich Yefimov in his case against the government for prosecuting him for hate speech in 2011 and dissolving his NGO, the Youth Human Rights Group in 2013.  Authorities had charged Yefimov with offending the feelings of believers and extremist speech when he published an article criticizing the ROC.  The court ruled that the government had violated Article 10 – dealing with freedom of expression – and Article 11 – dealing with freedom of association – of the European Convention on Human Rights and that the government should pay Yefimov 10,000 euros ($11,300).

In November, the ECHR ruled in two separate cases that Russian authorities had violated the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion under the European Convention on Human Rights of members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).  In the latter case, the court also found the government had violated members’ right to family life and a fair trial by arresting and deporting them.  The court awarded 9,500 euros ($10,800) in damages and expenses to the plaintiffs in the International Society for Krishna Consciousness case and a total of 34,270 euros ($38,900) to the plaintiffs in Unification Church case.

According to the MOJ, as of December 2020, there were 31,392 registered religious organizations (LROs and CROs) in the country, most of which were ROC-affiliated, compared with 31,379 in 2019.

According to the SOVA Center, registration was sometimes complicated by imprecise language in the laws regulating the activities of religious groups, LROs, and CROs, which left room for interpretation by local and national authorities.

The SOVA Center reported that in August, law enforcement officers checked the documents of those who had gathered for Friday prayers in several mosques in Moscow and the Moscow region, for example, in Kotelniki.  The officers reportedly took a total of 140 persons to police stations, where they released Russian citizens after checking their documents.  They released the foreigners after collecting their DNA.

In September, the government designated two Church of Scientology groups – World Institute of Scientology Enterprises International and the Church of Spiritual Technology – “undesirable organizations,” effectively banning Scientology within the country.  According to the SOVA Center, the designation meant that the Church of Scientology must stop its activities in the country, and any cooperation with the group would be treated as an administrative or, in some cases, criminal offense.

In August, the government designated four evangelical groups (the New Generation International Christian Movement and the New Generation Evangelical Christian Church (from Latvia), and the New Generation Spiritual Directorate of the Evangelist Christians and the New Generation International Biblical College (from Ukraine) as “undesirable organizations.”

In December, security forces broke up a conference in Ramenskoye attended by Protestant clergy, including representatives of New Generation Churches; one participant was reportedly beaten.

The country’s 83 federal subjects (administrative divisions, excluding Russia-occupied Crimea and Sevastopol) maintained varying policies on the wearing of the hijab in public schools and/or government institutions.  In January, a schoolgirl in a Tyumen secondary school was barred from attending classes due to a Ministry of Education and Science policy that mandated students comply with “generally accepted norms of business style [dress] in society.”  In March, a local Yekaterinburg media outlet published a report describing the ostracism experienced by Muslim women who chose to wear the hijab.

Representatives of minority religious associations and human rights NGOs stated authorities continued to prosecute individuals and smaller religious groups for “illegal” missionary work and frequently imposed fines.  From July 2020 to December 2021, Forum 18 reported 108 prosecutions on administrative charges of unlawful missionary activity for a wide range of activities, including ordinary worship meetings.  Forum 18 stated that more than 80 percent of defendants whose cases reached a verdict were found guilty and fined.  Foreigners also faced possible expulsion.  According to the SOVA Center, Protestant churches were the targets in the largest number of cases.

In September, the Yalta Judicial District Court fined the Christians of the Evangelical Faith of Yalta 30,000 rubles ($400) for carrying out illegal missionary activity.  According to press reports, the Fellowship of Christian Businessmen and Russian Church of Christians of Evangelical Faith Pentecostals were also prosecuted.  In June, four evangelical Christian pastors and believers from Adygea faced administrative cases for illegal missionary activity.  The accused faced fines ranging from five to 50,000 rubles ($.07-$670).  In June, the Sovetsky District Court of Astrakhan found a U.S. citizen guilty of illegal missionary activity, fining him 30,000 rubles ($400) and ordering his expulsion.  In May, authorities charged Russian astrologer Ekaterina Kalinkina with illegal missionary work for promoting and organizing events for the Hindu festival of Maha Shivratri.  Kalinkina faced a fine of 50,000 rubles ($670) as she was not an authorized religious leader.  In April, the Magistrate Court of Evpatoria Judicial District fined the Chava Nagila Synagogue 30,000 rubles ($400) for illegal missionary work, finding that videos posted by the community on social media did not carry the full name of the organization.

Religious minorities said local authorities continued to use the country’s anti-extremism laws to ban sacred religious texts and other books related to religion, other than the four holy books – in their original languages – recognized by law.  The MOJ’s list of extremist material grew during the year to 5,253 compared with 5,130 in 2020 according to SOVA Center reports.

In February, customs officials in Rostov-on-Don confiscated publications by Jehovah’s Witnesses from the library of the ship Missia, which arrived from the Turkish port of Tuzla.  On March 31, the Oktyabrsky District Court of St. Petersburg declared that the Jehovah’s Witness Library mobile application containing the group’s literature, including various translations of the Bible, was extremist.  On September 27, the St. Petersburg City Court upheld the decision to ban distribution of the app in the country.  On September 14, the Primorsky FSB border department searched four homes of Jehovah’s Witnesses and confiscated electronic devices, Bibles, religious literature, and personal records in which they found mention of Jehovah.

On multiple occasions, authorities fined missionary organizations for violating legal requirements pertaining to missionary activity.  On November 10, OVD-Info reported that the Magistrate’s Court in Kabardino-Balkaria fined the Seventh-day Adventist Church 30,000 rubles ($400) for distributing literature without special marking as part of missionary activity.  On November 19, the Magistrate’s Court in Kabardino-Balkaria also fined Seventh-day Adventist Nina Boronina for possessing Christian books about health in violation of the law.  On September 15, the newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported as part of a commentary on persecution of religious believers in the country that authorities in Belgorod fined a Baptist individual for distributing free Bibles in the Sputnik shopping center.

The SOVA Center reported on October 7 that the Leninsky District Court of Stavropol fined the Orthodox Jewish Community of the Stavropol Territory 100,000 rubles ($1,300) for keeping the book Forcibly Baptized by Markus Lehmann, which was included in the government’s list of extremist materials, in its library.  The SOVA Center stated there were no signs of incitement to religious or national hatred in the novel, which is about the persecution and discrimination of Jews in the 14th century in Poland and Lithuania.

Authorities classified literature related to Said Nursi as extremist.  On April 22, the Naberezhnye Chelny City Court in Tatarstan designated 163 editions of the works of Nursi as extremist, according to the SOVA Center.  The court accused the defendants in the case of participating in the “Nurdzhular” organization, a Muslim organization that the Supreme Court declared extremist.

There were several other instances of restrictions on Islamic literature.  The SOVA Center reported on July 14 that the Sernursky District Court in Mari El fined Rosalia Timurgalieva for distributing extremist materials after she posted the film “Miracles of the Koran,” which the center said contained no calls to violence or discriminatory content, on social media.  In April, the Yoshkar-Ola City Court fined Valea Takhmazova and Izzatilo Isakov 1,000 rubles ($13) each for the same offense.

In January, Muslim community leaders criticized the decision by city authorities in Rostov-on-Don to transform the former Cathedral Mosque into a jazz school.  The mosque had been closed during the Soviet era and utilized by the army; in 2016 the Muslim community in Rostov asked for the building’s return.

In November, residents of Troitsk near Moscow complained to the city administration about an unofficial mosque – a residential building in which Muslims gathered for prayer.  The residents said the mosque led to traffic disruptions.  City officials reportedly determined the building was an illegal structure and planned to demolish it.  There were no other mosques in the city.  The case continued at year’s end.

On November 19, Ildar Alyautdinov, the Mufti of Moscow and the main imam of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, proposed opening prayer rooms in shopping centers and the subway instead of in residential buildings.  He stated that Moscow did not have enough local mosques for resident Muslims and migrants, and the rooms would allow Muslims to perform prayers at the right times without eliciting negative reactions from others.  In response, the press service of the Moscow Department of Transport stated that it was impossible to allocate “premises and places for religious actions of people of all views in public transport.”

In August, Ryazan authorities denied a request from Dmitry Pakhamov, cochairman of the Christianity and Islam Association and head of the International Christian Solidarity Foundation, to build an Islamic cultural and educational center in the city.  Officials responded that there were no free plots suitable for the construction of a religious facility.

In August, Samara city government authorities ordered the demolition of a Pentecostal Good News Church in Mekhzavod as an illegal building, saying the area was zoned for residential use.

On November 12, the Leninsky District Court of Nizhny Novgorod charged Kirill Evstigneev with providing financial services deliberately intended to support an extremist organization, for paying rent for a meeting place for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

On November 2, the Kuznetsk District Court of Novokuznetsk prohibited the Orthodox diocese from operating a chapel, citing a violation of fire safety rules.

The NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF) stated it had filed two cases with the ECHR on behalf of the Word of Life church in Kaluga – a Pentecostal church in a dispute with local authorities over ownership and building code violations which blocked efforts to convert a building to a meeting place for their community.  Worshipers reportedly were meeting in a tent outside the property pending resolution of the case.

ADF’s 2019 application to the ECHR on behalf of Pastor Vitaliy Bak remained pending at year’s end.  Bak, a Baptist community leader whom the Novorossiysk city administration accused of holding illegal worship services in his home, faced the possibility that his house would be demolished; local authorities closed the house in July 2019.  The ADF stated the authorities’ actions violated freedom of religion.

According to NGOs and independent experts, the government continued to cooperate more closely with the ROC than with other religious organizations, with officials often interpreting the law that recognized the “special role” of Orthodox Christianity as granting special privileges or benefits to the ROC as an institution.  Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs stated in a report in May that “the Kremlin continues to deepen its reliance on the Russian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (ROC) as a lever of soft power in Russian foreign policy.”  In a July interview posted on the ROC website, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov cited the existence of a Working Group for Cooperation between the foreign ministry and the ROC.  In June, ROC Patriarch Kirill presented Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu with an ROC medal for “supervision of the construction of the main temple of the Russian Armed Forces.”  He thanked Shoigu for his contribution to “this new way of interaction between the Church and the armed forces.”  Patriarch Kirill also presented awards to two deputy defense ministers.  The government continued to provide the ROC Patriarch with security guards and access to official vehicles, a privilege accorded to no other religious organization.  According to the SOVA Center, the ROC had received more government-granted property than any other religious organization.

In January, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court sentenced an assistant to former ROC priest Shiigumen Sergiy to 15 days administrative arrest for inciting hatred through uploading a video on social media, a punishment that does not involve criminal charges.  The ROC had banned him from preaching.  Sergey refused to leave the Sredeuralsk Convent in a dispute over the property.

On February 10, the Sverdlovsk Arbitration Court recognized the Sredneuralsk Convent as property of the ROC Yekaterinburg Diocese.  The ROC had filed a claim for recognition of ownership in 2020.

Forum 18 raised concerns about amendments to the law in October which required clergy, missionaries, or religious teachers who received their religious training outside the country to enroll in a class on state-confessional relations and obtain recertification by a CRO.  The NGO criticized what it said was the vague wording of the amendments, which left interpretation to law enforcement authorities.  According to Forum 18, the majority of religious educational establishments appeared ineligible to offer such courses as they lacked state accreditation.  Baptist, Pentecostal, and Lutheran seminaries all lost their higher education licenses by May.  Forum 18 stated the amendments would affect some communities more than others; for example, the majority of Russia’s Buddhist leaders had trained outside Russia.  Sergey Gavrilov, head of the State Duma’s Committee for the Development of Civil Society and Issues of Public and Religious Associations, stated in an April 5 press release that the (then proposed) amendments were “aimed at protecting the spiritual sovereignty of Russia” and would “take into account Russian legal, moral, and cultural traditions.”

The country’s National Security Strategy, approved in July, included the prevention of the spread of religious radicalism, destructive religious movements, and formation of ethnic and religious enclaves as measures to ensure security.

The Jerusalem Post and Forum 18 reported that antisemitism was rising in the political sphere.  In February, an Anti-Defamation League report criticized the Russian government for instrumentalizing antisemitism to influence domestic and foreign public opinion in its conflict with Ukraine by exaggerating the prevalence of antisemitism in that country.

In January, St. Petersburg State University of Economics and Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration Professor Vladimir Matveyev publicly denied the Holocaust during a webinar.  Matveyev stated Zionists invented the Holocaust, as “it was impossible to pass six million victims through all the concentration camps.”  Other webinar participants contested the statements.  Both institutions fired him in February, and a court denied his request for reinstatement.  Matveyev was charged with rehabilitation of Nazism, and his case remained pending at year’s end.  If convicted, he could face up to three years in prison.

In August, Russia Religious News reported Foreign Minister Lavrov commented that the ROC was “suffering from (unspecified) pressure by Western countries.”

At an October 21 plenary session of the 18th annual meeting of the Valdai International Discussion club, President Vladimir Putin stated that Russians were guided by a moral and spiritual conservatism and must defend “true values” from “adherents of the so-called social progress,” whom he compared to the Bolsheviks, whose quest for progress a century ago became an effort to destroy “age-old values and religion.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In December, the Pervomaisky District Court of Krasnodar sentenced Zoya Malova, a member of the “Citizens of the USSR” movement, to six years in prison for attempting to organize a contract killing of the head of the Jewish Community of Krasnodar.  The case against her codefendant, Alexander Dudrenko, remained pending at year’s end.  The SOVA Center stated antisemitism is a part of the group’s ideology.

In August, a man assaulted 82-year-old Vladimir Tselin and shouted antisemitic threats at him.  The case was under investigation at year’s end.

In November, the Izamilovo District Court sentenced Father Sergy Romanov, a former member of the ROC hierarchy, to four years in prison on charges of vigilantism, violating the right to religious freedom, and encouraging suicide.  He had been arrested in December 2020 on suspicion of encouraging minors to commit suicide in his sermon entitled “For Faith in Christ, Let Us Face Death” that was posted on YouTube.  In 2020, the Verkhnepyshminsky City Court had fined Romanov after he made antisemitic remarks in a sermon, and a diocesan court in the Sverdlovsk Region stripped him of his religious rank.

In October, interfaith representatives took part in the first session of the Interreligious Group for the Protection of Rights and Believers from Discrimination and Xenophobia of the Council for Interaction with Religious Associations.  The council is under the authority of the Russian president.

According to a December survey conducted by the Levada Center, 29 percent of respondents agreed that the ROC had too large an influence on state policies, an increase from 17 percent in 2016.

Also in December, 22 percent of respondents surveyed by the Levada Center professed a negative attitude towards Jews, compared with 34 percent in a survey by the same organization in 2010.

The SOVA Center reported several cases of antisemitic vandalism.  In March, vandals drew a swastika on the gates of the Lyceum of Information Technologies in Novosibirsk.

On April 20, Hitler’s birthday, press reported that unknown persons set on fire the Shamir Jewish Community Center in Moscow, damaging the building’s balcony.  The perpetrators also spray painted a swastika and the word “death” on the building.  Also in April, a vandal painted antisemitic statements on the memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Pushkin.

According to the SOVA Center, authorities investigated antisemitic social media posts.  In September, the Leninsky District Court in Smolensk agreed to hear a case against an individual who posted texts calling for antisemitic violence.  Also in September, the Gusinoozyorsky City Court sentenced an individual to two and a half years in prison for posting statements advocating violence against Jews.  In October, the Taganrog City Court of Rostov Region gave Sergei Shurygin a suspended sentence for creating and leading an antisemitic movement on social media.  Shurygin was not incarcerated but had to report to the penitentiary once a month.

The SOVA Center reported seven cases of vandalism against religious sites in the first six months of the year:  two Orthodox, two Jewish, two pagan, and one Protestant.  In all of 2020, the SOVA Center reported 29 incidents of religiously motivated vandalism.

Vandals also targeted other religious institutions and symbols.  In May, vandals painted a swastika on the wall of a disused church in Bronnitsa.  On August 30, vandals painted offensive inscriptions on the pagan temple in Bitsevsky Park in Moscow.  In June, vandals poured urine on the site.

In July, the Jewish community of Perm received a permit for construction of a Jewish Community center.  The SOVA Center stated that for several years, a group had opposed construction of the center.

On August 18, vandals desecrated the cemetery near the Trinity Cathedral in Nevel, knocking down crosses and damaging 16 tombstones.  Police detained local residents.

In September, vandals painted offensive inscriptions on the walls of a chapel and spring in Bogdanovka.  They reportedly also poured diesel fuel into the church’s well and the chapel’s font.

In October, authorities in Arkhangelsk opened a case against an individual for posting texts “against Orthodox believers.”

In February, two persons shot an air gun at a grocery store containing a halal market in St. Petersburg.

Local residents opposed the construction of churches, mosques, and other places of worship in Nizhny Novgorod, Ulyanovsk, Stupino, Irkutsk.  For example, in St. Petersburg, local residents opposed the construction of the Exaltation of the Cross Church on Krestovsky Island.  According to the SOVA Center, those opposed often complained about the choice of construction sites and the absence of public hearings.  In addition, the center stated public protests against the construction of mosques “often raise xenophobic arguments.”  In Stupino, for example, after buildings formerly used by the military were transferred to the Muslim community for the creation of an Islamic center; opponents distributed leaflets claiming the center could have a negative impact on interethnic conflicts and could lead to the introduction of “sharia norms.”  Some members of the city council supported opponents of the construction.  In Kazan, townspeople opposed the site chosen for construction of a mosque; debate was continuing at year’s end.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad).  The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted by the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided for under the law.  The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law bans “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts, including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.  In practice, there is limited tolerance of private, non-Islamic religious gatherings and public displays of non-Islamic religious symbols, but religious practitioners at variance with the government-promoted form of Sunni Islam remained vulnerable to detention, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.  According to Shia community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased sectarian tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities, and Ashura commemorations were marked by improved relations between the Shia and other communities and public calls for mutual tolerance.  Shia activists stated, however, that authorities continued to target members of the Shia community while carrying out security operations and legal proceedings against them specifically because of their religious beliefs.  On June 15, authorities carried out a death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012.  Government authorities stated al-Darwish received the sentence not for crimes he committed as a minor but rather for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult.  As many as 41 individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by the Berlin-based European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR), which stated that an undetermined number were Shia.  On October 12, London-based human rights organization ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience, which monitors and documents arrests in human rights cases in the country, reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence of which he completed 15 years.  On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA) fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations.  In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, the Israeli nongovernmental organization (NGO) Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020.  The 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit and sell antisemitic publications.  The fair permitted the sale of books about atheism as well.

Some social media platforms carried disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  Terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were found in some social media discourse.  An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents.  His social media posts depicted him in traditional Orthodox clothing and showed positive experiences with Saudis.

In discussions with the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), and other ministries and agencies, senior U.S. officials, including the Charge d’Affaires, continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforcement of laws against religious minorities, promotion of respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participated in interfaith discussions.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.8 million (midyear 2021).  In 2019, the UN estimated that approximately 38.3 percent of the country’s residents are foreigners.  Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 21 million Saudi citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population and an estimated 25 to 30 percent of the Eastern Province’s population.

According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 31.5 million Muslims, 2.1 million Christians, 708,000 Hindus, 242,000 atheists or agnostics, 114,000 Buddhists, and 67,00 Sikhs.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state, the religion of which is Islam.  The Basic Law defines the country’s constitution as the Quran and the Sunna and states the “decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.”  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland.  Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize.  The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority.  The law deems children born to Muslim fathers as Muslim.

The judicial system is largely based on laws derived from the Quran and Sunna.  All judges are religiously trained, although they often also have specialized knowledge of nonreligious legal subjects.  In several areas, including commercial and financial matters and criminal law related to electronic and cybercrimes or terrorism, jurisprudence increasingly is based on international models rather than religious texts.  Law on religious matters, which often affects civil law, particularly on personal status issues, is developed by fatwas (official interpretations of religious law) issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the King.  By law, these fatwas must be based on the Quran and Sunna.  The Basic Law also states that governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality, according to sharia.

The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the Grand Mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the King’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The counterterrorism law criminalizes, among other things, “calling for atheist thought in any form or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  It criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law also bans publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.

According to the Basic Law of Governance, “The Judiciary is an independent authority.  The decisions of judges shall not be subject to any authority other than the authority of the Islamic sharia.  The courts shall apply rules of the Islamic sharia in cases that are brought before them, according to the Holy Quran and the Sunna, and according to laws which are decreed by the ruler in agreement with the Holy Quran and the Sunna.”  In the absence of a comprehensively codified criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and supreme courts, where in some instances, appellate decisions have resulted in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation sometimes differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff.  In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, a court may rule the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation that a Muslim male would receive.  In some circumstances, other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount that a Muslim male would receive.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The HRC, a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC.  During the year, the commission had approximately 26 members from various parts of the country, including four Shia members.

The law permits death as punishment for blasphemy against Islam.  Courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy since 1992.  Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences.  Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

In 2020, as the result of a Supreme Court decision, the government ended flogging as a ta’zir (discretionary) criminal sentence and replaced it with prison sentences or fines.  As a result, flogging may no longer be used against those convicted of blasphemy, public immodesty, sitting alone with a person of the opposite sex, and a range of other crimes.  However, judicial officials have stated that flogging still may be included in sentences for three hudood offenses (crimes that carry specific penalties under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law):  drunkenness, sexual conduct between unmarried persons, and false accusations of adultery.

In 2020, a royal decree abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors.  The juvenile law sets the legal age of adulthood at 18, based on the Hijri (Islamic lunar) calendar.  Minor offenders, however, who are convicted of qisas, a category of crimes that includes various types of murder, or hudood offenses could still face the death penalty.  The royal decree also capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.

The country is the location of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.  The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina.  Muslims visit these cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and during Umrah pilgrimage throughout the rest of the year.  The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims.  The King employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities.  Citing reasons of public safety and logistics, the government establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.  Saudi authorities continued to limit access to Mecca and Medina, including for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, due to ongoing COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The MOIA vets, employs, and supervises Sunni Muslim clerics.  Those who preach at government-owned mosques are government employees who receive a monthly stipend.  The MOIA permits only government-employed clerics to deliver sermons and vets the sermons in advance.

The MOIA must approve clerics traveling abroad to proselytize and they operate under MOIA supervision.  The stated purpose of this regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel or to preach overseas and to prevent the actual or apparent interference by clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali school of jurisprudence.  Private schools must also follow the official, government-approved religious curriculum.  Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students may receive a course on Islamic civilization or alternative coursework in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; courses entail one hour of instruction per week.  The government permits private international schools to teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV) is a government agency charged with monitoring social behavior and reporting violations of moral standards to law enforcement authorities.  The CPVPV provides counseling and reports individuals suspected of violating the law to police.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees CPVPV operations on the King’s behalf.  According to law, the CPVPV must “uphold its duties with kindness and gentleness as decreed by the examples of the Prophet Muhammad.”  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but they are required to wear identification badges.

A royal decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the Grand Mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

Social media users who post or share content considered to attack religion face imprisonment for up to five years under the Cyber Crimes Law.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order, public morals, or religious values may also be subject to a fine up to three million riyals ($800,000).

The government requires noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.”  Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicate other religious designations, such as “Christian.”

The law does not allow for political parties or similar associations.  The law does not protect the right of individuals to organize politically and specifically bans organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

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

Government Practices

Because religion and politics are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.  NGOs and Shia activists said authorities committed a range of abuses against members of Shia communities.  While NGOs and Shia activists stated that the prosecution of Shia was often based on religious affiliation, observers said that members of other religious groups faced arrest and trial for similar offenses.

On February 7, according to NGOs, the government commuted the death sentences of Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher and Ali al-Nimr (nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric executed by the government in 2016) to 10 years in prison.  On October 27 and November 16, authorities released Shia youths Ali al-Nimr and Abdullah al-Zaher following completion of their 10-year prison sentences.  Al-Nimr and al-Zaher, along with Dawood al-Marhoon, who remained imprisoned, were among a group of 13 Shia youth previously arrested as minors who faced possible execution, according to ESOHR.  The government reviewed their sentences as part of the implementation of a royal decree announced in 2020 abolishing ta’zir death sentences for crimes committed as minors.  In a March 3 statement, UN human rights experts welcomed the government’s decision to commute the death sentences given to the three men “for crimes allegedly committed when they were less than 18 years old.”  The statement also said the government should “quash” the convictions and release the three men.

The news website Middle East Eye reported that authorities arrested Ali al-Nimr’s father Mohammed Bakr al-Nimr on February 24 in his home in the Eastern Province town of Awamiyah.  The government released Mohammed al-Nimr on February 26.  The reason for his detention was not known.

On February 8, according to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), prosecutors amended charges against eight Shia detainees, seeking prison sentences rather than the death penalty for five of the eight – Ahmed Abdul Wahid al-Faraj, Ali Mohammed al-Bati, Mohammed Hussein al-Nimr, Ali Hassan al-Faraj, and Mohammed Issam al-Faraj – who were minors at the time of the alleged commission of the offenses.  The remaining defendants were Haidar al-Saffar, Hussein Saeed al-Subaiti, and Mujtaba Abu Kabus.  According to ESOHR, in October, the government dropped the request for the death penalty against the five younger prisoners, but all eight still face trial.  The men faced charges that included “seeking to destabilize the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” and “chanting slogans hostile to the regime.”  According to ESOHR, in late October, the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC), which focuses on terrorism and national security cases, held a new hearing in the case of eight detainees, including the five minors.  The NGO stated the hearing was the first after a break of more than seven months.

On February 10, the SCC sentenced Shia activist Israa al-Ghomgham, detained in 2015 for participating in antigovernment protests, to eight years in prison and an eight-year travel ban, according to ALQST and Amnesty International.  The SCC also sentenced al-Ghomgham’s husband, Mousa al-Hashim, to 17 years.  The court sentenced four other Shia arrested along with them to prison, with sentences ranging from eight to 15 years:  Ahmed al-Matrood received a sentence of 15 years, Khaled al-Ghanim 13 years, Ali al-Ouwaisher 10 years, and Mujtaba al-Muzain eight years.

On August 24, SANAD Rights Organization, a London-based human rights NGO, reported that Shia prisoner Mustafa al-Khayat, convicted on charges involving demonstrations, disrupting security, and carrying weapons, awaited a death sentence upheld by the Supreme Court in 2020.

In February and March, authorities released three activists who had written about discrimination faced by Shia in the country, pending trial.  According to an April tweet by Prisoners of Conscience, the government also released one of the men’s wives, who – like her husband – had been held for two years.  In October, authorities found one of the men guilty under the Cyber Crimes Law and sentenced him to two years in jail, followed by a two-year travel ban.  The judge ruled that the defendant would be credited with two years of time served but that the travel ban would remain in effect.

As many as 41 Shia individuals faced the possibility of execution, according to an October report by ESOHR.  The report added that trials of 32 individuals, most of them Shia, on charges carrying potential death sentences were ongoing, with 10 of them facing preliminary death sentences.  As is the case for detainees of any religious group, international human rights NGOs said that many of the convictions were “based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture” during pretrial detention and interrogation.  Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

On June 15, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Mustafa al-Darwish, initially arrested for involvement as a minor in antigovernment protests in 2012 and charged with membership in a terror cell and participation in an armed revolt.  Authorities stated that al-Darwish received the death penalty for crimes that he committed subsequently as an adult.  Reprieve, a London-based NGO opposed to the death penalty, said that Darwish’s execution “once again show[ed] that the Kingdom’s claim to have eliminated capital punishment for childhood crimes is not true.”  The NGO said that the government told the UN Human Rights Council in February that “anyone who commits a death-eligible crime as a child” will be subject to “a maximum sentence of 10 years in a juvenile institution.”  Reprieve also said that Darwish’s execution was contrary to a 2020 Royal Decree that abolished ta’zir death penalty sentences for those who committed crimes as minors and capped prison sentences for minors at 10 years.  On May 28, prior to al-Darwish’s execution, UN experts called on the government to halt the process leading to his eventual death, stating that authorities sentenced him for crimes when he was younger than the age of 18 and that the government did not provide due process and a fair trial.  Following al-Darwish’s execution, on July 7, the UN experts stated that they were “shocked” after the government did not address their May 28 concerns and that the government’s failure to provide details to his family about his execution inflicted “additional, unjustifiable, and useless pain” on his loved ones.

On August 3, authorities executed Shia Ahmed al-Janabi under a ta’zir sentence for armed rebellion and protesting against the state in Shia-majority Qatif.  On September 6, authorities carried out a ta’zir death sentence against Shia citizen Adnan al-Sharfa for joining a terrorist cell that aimed to “destabilize security in the country” and smuggling.

On July 1, ESOHR said at least four individuals accused of crimes committed as minors remained on death row, including Shia Jalal Hassan al-Labbad.  ESOHR reported on December 3 that Labbad was still at risk of execution.  Authorities sought the hudood penalty against Labbad in 2019 for hirabeh (unlawful warfare or insurgency) on a variety of charges, including participating in protests, some of which dated to when he was a minor.

In May, the NGOs Shia Rights Watch (SRW), Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), ALQST, and SANAD each reported that Shia Zaheer Ali Sharida al-Mohammed Ali died on May 8 in al-Hai’r Prison.  They blamed prison authorities’ medical negligence for Ali’s death and said he contracted COVID-19 in April.

In August, the SCC upheld a ta’zir death sentence issued on February 21 against Shia citizen Mohammed al-Shakhouri, according to ESOHR and UN experts.  Authorities arrested al-Shakhouri in 2017 and tried him in 2019 on charges of destabilizing the social fabric and national cohesion by calling for sit-ins and demonstrations and chanting antistate slogans.  The government also charged him with possession of arms, as well as photos and information of individuals classified as terrorists.  According to an August 27 letter by UN experts to the government, the appeals court upheld this verdict on August 2, and at year’s end the case was pending before the Supreme Court.

In the same August 27 letter to the government, the UN experts raised the case of Asaad Makki Shubbar, a Shia citizen, whom, according to the experts’ letter, authorities arrested in Asir Province in 2017 and held without trial for more than two years, subjecting him to “various types of torture and ill-treatment.”  According to the letter, interrogators reportedly used “sectarian terms denigrating minority Shia believers and insulted [Shubbar’s] religious beliefs.”  In 2019, the government charged him with several crimes under the counterterrorism law, including joining a group from Qatif in acts of sabotage, participating in demonstrations, chanting slogans, and calling for participation in demonstrations and sit-ins.  The SCC sentenced Shubbar to death in January and, in July, the Specialized Appeals Court upheld his sentence.  At year’s end, the case was pending before the Supreme Court.

On November 1, the Saudi Press Agency, citing MOI, reported that a ta’zir death sentence had been carried out against Makki Kazem al-Obeid in Damman.  The ministry statement said that al-Obeid participated in attacks against security forces and was “linked to people wanted for terrorism-related activities.”  The Committee for Human Rights in the Arabian Peninsula “condemned the Saudi regime’s execution” of al-Obeid and said that he was a “Shia prisoner of conscience.”

In February, media reported authorities arrested 65-year-old Aisha al-Muhajiri, reportedly because she continued to preach and teach the Quran at her home in Mecca.  Authorities also arrested two other women along with al-Muhajiri, one of whom, according to a news site, was 80 years old.

ALQST alleged in March 2021 that the health of imprisoned Shia cleric Mohammad al-Habib was deteriorating due to neglect.  He was closely associated with Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016.

During the year, the SCC held several hearings in the case of cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, described by HRW as a religious reformer, in detention since September 2017.  Earlier in 2017, a criminal court convicted and sentenced al-Maliki to three months on charges of extremism, fanaticism, and holding an impure (takfiri) ideology.  In December 2020, his son tweeted that the public prosecutor had sought the death penalty for al-Maliki on 14 charges, including calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad reported by multiple sources, and thus deemed especially reliable).  According to HRW, the charges against him also included criticism of several early Islamic figures, insulting the country’s rulers and the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, and describing them as extremist.

The SCC continued trials of some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government continued to regard as a terrorist organization, a view also expressed by the CSS, which stated the Muslim Brotherhood did not represent the true values of Islam.  The accused included prominent scholars of Islam Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari, who were arrested in 2017.  According to Saudi and international rights groups, the public prosecutor sought the death penalty against them.

Amnesty International reported in August that authorities tried al-Odah before the SCC in a secret session, where they charged him with 37 counts.  Amnesty International reported that since 2018, courts scheduled more than 10 hearings on his case, which were postponed for months at a time, with no clear explanation being provided to al-Odah or his family.  Al-Odah’s son stated in a July tweet that his father’s physical and mental condition had declined during four years of solitary confinement and that he had partially lost his sight and hearing due to medical negligence.  In July, his son said that authorities had denied al-Odah access to family telephone calls for almost a year.  According to HRW, authorities barred 18 members of al-Odah’s family from traveling abroad since his arrest.  In a report released in August, al-Odah’s son Salman told Amnesty International “No legal process or court was involved in the bans against my family, and no reason was given by any authority.  The bans are mainly to pressure me into silence, even when I’m overseas, and to further pressure my father in jail.”  In February, UN experts called for an explanation for the repeated postponements of his trial and asked for information regarding his “right to physical and mental health while detained.”

During the year, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC issued verdicts in the trials of a number of clerics, religious leaders, and academics arrested in 2017 and charged for offenses related to free expression and their religious views and increased prison sentences previously issued against some of them, including Nasser al-Omar, Mohammed Mousa al-Shareef, Waleed al-Huwairini, Mohammed al-Bishr, Ali Badahdah, Yousef al-Ahmed, and Khalid al-Muhawish.  At the time of their arrests, the government said those arrested had ties to a “foreign spy cell” and the Muslim Brotherhood.  According to Prisoners of Conscience, the SCC sentenced them to between four and 10 years in prison.

On August 24, SANAD reported that the government continued to detain Sheikh Saad Matar al-Otaibi, a scholar in Islamic politics and public policy and popular preacher on national TV, whom authorities arrested in 2017.

On April 15, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC commuted prison sentences against clerics Dr. Adel Bana’ma, Dr. Ibrahim al-Harthi, and Sheikh Ali Badahdah to four years from eight, five, and six years, respectively.  On August 16, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted and on August 24 SANAD confirmed that authorities released Sheikh Khaled al-Ajeemi, whom authorities arrested in 2017, due to failing health.  On November 24, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that authorities extended al-Harthi’s sentence to eight years.

On June 24, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the SCC increased the prison sentence of religious leader Sheikh Yousef al-Ahmed from four to 13 years.  In December 2020, the SCC sentenced al-Ahmed to four years in prison and a four-year travel ban on charges that included visiting prisoners of conscience and appearing in a television show hosted by Fahd al-Sunaidi, who is also serving a four-year prison sentence.

In November, ALQST reported that authorities detained Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, son of missing preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish, after he asked about the whereabouts of his father.  On November 10, Prisoners of Conscience tweeted authorities held a secret trial of Abdulrahman al-Dowaish, which took place without his family or legal representation being present.  Officials had previously arrested his brother, Abdulwahhab al-Dowaish, in August, according to ALQST.  The NGOs DAWN and MENA Rights Group reported that security personnel arrested Sulaiman al-Dowaish in 2016 after he posted several tweets summarizing a religious lecture he delivered that day during a trip to Mecca that warned about the dangers of individuals providing their sons with great privileges and responsibilities without proper oversight and accountability.  In March, ALQST reported that it obtained and confirmed information that high-ranking officials “brutally tortured” preacher Sulaiman al-Dowaish after his 2016 disappearance.  ALQST stated that the last reported sighting of al-Dowaish was in July 2018, and that nothing has been heard of him since then.

On September 1, ESOHR stated that from 2016 through the end of August 2021, the bodies of at least 88 persons executed or killed in Saudi security raids, including nine minors and three foreigners, were not returned for burial.

According to NGOs and Shia community members, prison officials held Shia inmates in some cases in separate wings of prisons, and they reportedly faced worse conditions than Sunnis.

According to ESOHR, authorities detained Shia cleric Mojtaba al-Nimr on June 6 at King Fahd Airport when he returned from a trip to the Shia holy city of Qom in Iran.  Mojtaba al-Nimr is a member of executed sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s family, although their exact relationship remained unclear.

Prisoners of Conscience reported that on September 14, authorities arrested Abdulrahman al-Mahmoud, a former professor of Islamic faith at Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, on charges that were not made public.  There was no update on his case at the end of the year.

On October 12, ALQST and Prisoners of Conscience reported that religious leader Musa al-Qarni, a former professor of Islamic jurisprudence, died in prison after his health deteriorated while serving a 20-year prison sentence, of which he completed 15 years.  “Qarni was subjected to brutal torture, and the Saudi authorities deliberately harmed him by giving him unsuitable medication,” ALQST said on Twitter, adding that it “questions the causes of death & calls for an international investigation.”  Prisoners of Conscience tweeted that al-Qarni died after “extremist prisoners” had beaten him and that prison authorities had refused his request to be housed with other older prisoners.  In addition, the authorities waited three days to inform al-Qarni’s family of his death.  SANAD stated that authorities did not allow al-Qarni’s family to see his body before his funeral.  In November, Prisoners of Conscience reported that prison authorities had beaten and withheld medicines from another prisoner arrested with al-Qarni in 2007, Mukhtar al-Hashimi.

In July, the website Together for Justice reported there were no updates since 2020 regarding the arrest of Quran reciter Sheikh Abdullah Basfar, an associate professor of sharia and Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah and imam of the Mansour al-Shuaibi Mosque in the al-Salama neighborhood of Jeddah.  The site stated that until his detention was confirmed in September 2020, a month after his arrest, Basfar had not appeared before any court.  On December 8, Prisoners of Conscience reported that Basfar remained in detention.  At the time of Basfar’s arrest, observers noted that persons of any religious affiliation who expressed views not supported by the government did so at personal risk and that when clerics were arrested, it was often for expressing views counter to government policy.

In 2020, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities had arrested Saud al-Fanisan, the former head of the Faculty of Sharia at Imam Mohammed ibn Saud Islamic University, on undisclosed charges earlier in the year.  In November, Prisoners of Conscience and SANAN both reported that the SCC had sentenced the 85-year-old al-Fanisan to two years’ imprisonment.

Several human rights NGOs signed a letter publicly calling on the government to return the remains of individuals executed in 2019 in connection with “terrorism crimes.”  At the time, HRW reported that at least 33 of the 37 citizens executed by the government were from the country’s Shia minority.  ESOHR reported that at the time authorities carried out the sentences, at least six of those executed were minors, a statement which the government denied.  Separately, in August, SANAD reported that authorities were refusing the family of executed Shia activist Yousef al-Mushaikhis access to his remains.  The government executed al-Mushaikhis in 2017, after arresting him in 2014.

According to an August 16 tweet sent by Prisoners of Conscience, the government sentenced three sons of prominent religious scholar Safar al-Hawali to four years in prison.  Authorities arrested the three men, along with their father, his brother, and another son on undisclosed charges in 2018.  In 2019, officials released the youngest son, after detaining him for seven months.  According to the website Middle East Monitor, authorities charged Safar al-Hawali, in his seventies and facing chronic health issues, although details of the charges remained unknown.  In an August 24 post, SANAD stated that a family member reported that one of the three brothers, Abdullah, had serious medical concerns, due in part to having only one kidney and to prison conditions.  In a separate post, SANAD noted that in addition to the sentences given to Safar al-Hawali’s three sons, authorities also sentenced his brother, Saadallah, and his office manager, Ismail Hassan, to three and a half year sentences.

The SCC sentenced well-known preacher Nasser al-Omar to 10 years in prison.  Authorities arrested al-Omar in 2018.  He was a professor at the Faculty of Fundamentals of Religion at Imam Muhammad Ibn Saud Islamic University, near Riyadh.  Like Safar al-Hawali, he was associated with the Sahwa (Islamic Awakening) movement.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al Saud, in an April 27 televised interview, cautioned against adherence to one particular school of Islamic jurisprudence or Islamic scholarship.  He said any Saudi with extremist views, even if that person had not yet committed a crime, “is a criminal and will face the full force of the law.”  In the same interview, the Crown Prince said no sharia punishment could be enforced without a clear Quranic stipulation or an explicit stipulation from the Sunna.  He also stated that only hadith were to be enforced.

The government continued to incarcerate individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, and engaging in “black magic” and sorcery.

At year’s end, authorities continued to imprison Raif Badawi based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols.  In a June 18 post on its website, the NGO Reporters without Borders (Reporters sans Frontiers, or RSF) stated that the government continued to hold Badawi in solitary confinement and limited his contact with the outside world to two phone calls per week with his wife and children, were living in Canada.  According to RSF, authorities monitored these calls, which were very short and sometimes suddenly disconnected.  Badawi had originally been sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, but a court increased his sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes, as well as a one million riyal ($267,000) fine.  Badawi received 50 lashes in 2015; the government has not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.  The Supreme Court directed that flogging be ended in 2020.

According to media reports, authorities arrested Ahmad al-Shammari and sentenced him to death for apostasy in 2017 after he posted videos to social media in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.  He was believed to be incarcerated as of year’s end.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

In June, media reported that the Saudi Zakat, Tax, and Customs Authority said a customs officer at King Fahd International Airport in Dammam thwarted an attempt by an air traveler to smuggle suspected sorcery-related pieces into the kingdom.  Authorities referred the smuggler and the seized items for possible prosecution.

In March, a Christian convert faced two court cases as well as threats of violence against him and his family, according to media reports.  Authorities charged the man in court on March 11 with trying to convert Muslims after he allegedly discussed his own conversion to Christianity.  A second court case, on March 26, concerned financial assistance he gave his sister, also a convert to Christianity, for her and her children to flee the country.

On November 17, RSF called for the immediate release of Yemeni journalist Ali Aboluhom, who received a 15-year prison sentence for tweets that, according to Saudi authorities, promoted apostasy, atheism, and blasphemy.  According to the Gulf Center for Human Rights, the Criminal Court in Najran sentenced Aboluhom on October 26 to 10 years in prison after convicting him of apostasy and atheism, and another five years in prison for publishing his writings on social media networks that “would prejudice public order, religious values, and morals.”

On November 23, local media reported that Public Prosecutor Sheikh Saud al-Muajab issued an order to arrest a man who posted a video on his Twitter account that showed him making remarks insulting the Divine Essence.

On September 21, Prisoners of Conscience reported that the Supreme Court increased prison sentences issued by the SCC against three clerics and academics:  Sanhat al-Otaibi from four years to eight years, Ibrahim al-Nasser from three months to three years, and Omar al-Muqbil from six months to four years.  In August, the NGO Together for Justice reported that authorities arrested al-Nasser in 2017 but did not disclose charges.  Authorities arrested al-Muqbil in 2019 for criticizing concerts sponsored by the government’s General Entertainment Authority, calling them a threat to the country’s culture.

Human rights NGOs and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religion.  According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to detention, discrimination, harassment, and, for noncitizens, deportation.  Members of the expatriate Christian community said that congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.  Members of other minority faith communities similarly reported less interference in private religious gatherings than public ones.

In mixed neighborhoods of Sunni and Shia residents, authorities generally required all mosques, including Shia mosques, to use the Sunni call to prayer.  In predominantly Shia areas such as Qatif, however, and in some Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Twelver Shia variant of the call to prayer.

Authorities generally permitted Muslim detainees and prisoners to perform Islamic religious observances, such as prayers.

On May 23, the MOIA instructed mosques to set loudspeakers at only one-third of the maximum volume and limited the use of loudspeakers for the call for prayers and to signal for prayers to start.  The MOIA mandated that full prayers and sermons could not be broadcast via loudspeaker.  The MOIA said the changes were a response to complaints from the public, including from the elderly and parents whose children’s sleep was disrupted.  On May 28, the MOIA modified its decree to allow use of loudspeakers during Eid and Friday prayers.  On July 19, Prisoners of Conscience reported that authorities arrested academic and legal advisor Dr. Omar Abdullah al-Saadoun for an article criticizing the decision to restrict the use of loudspeakers.

On March 17, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that domestic pilgrims between the ages of 18 and 70 would be allowed to perform Umrah.  On April 8, an official source at the MOI said pilgrims who performed Umrah without a permit during the month of Ramadan would be fined 10,000 riyals ($2,700), along with a 1,000 riyal ($270) fine for anyone entering the Holy Mosque in Mecca without a permit.  On June 12, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that it would limit the 2021 Hajj to approximately 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims, all living in-country, who had to be free of chronic diseases and be between the ages of 18 and 65.  On August 7, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah said the country would begin receiving Umrah pilgrimage requests from abroad for vaccinated pilgrims starting August 9 after nearly 18 months of barring overseas pilgrims due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Foreign Umrah pilgrims who took two approved doses of Covid-19 no longer needed to be institutionally quarantined upon arrival.  On September 7, the ministry announced it increased the number of Umrah pilgrims to 70,000 per day under a plan to gradually raise capacity to two million per month.  As of September 14, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah no longer required a quarantine or a negative COVID-19 test result prior to issuing a permit to perform prayers at the Holy Mosque in Medina.  On September 18, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that 10 million pilgrims performed Umrah since October 4, 2020, following the launch of its “safe Umrah” procedures and the gradual return of pilgrims to the two Holy Mosques.  On October 25, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that pilgrims wishing to perform Umrah would no longer be required to wait for 14 days to book for the ritual.

On June 13, the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah allowed women to attend without a male guardian as long as they performed the pilgrimage with other groups of women.  Some pilgrimage service providers announced they would not accept women without a guardian.  Some companies reportedly charged women more than men.

Authorities continued to permit public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, home to the country’s largest Shia population.  According to community members, processions and gatherings continued due to decreased tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.  They stated that the Shia Ashura commemoration was marked by improved sectarian relations and publicity for mutual tolerance.  In May, local media reported that the community in the Eastern Province observed the anniversary of the death of Imam Ali bin Abi Talib (the first of the Twelve Imams) in Shia mosques and husseiniyas (prayer halls).  In Qatif, authorities eased restrictions imposed after civil unrest in 2011-2012 and took steps to encourage development and tourism to improve conditions for the town’s predominantly Shia residents.  Shia activists reported that security authorities closed some Shia mosques and husseiniyas in Qatif and al-Ahsa, summoned the individuals in charge, and fined them 60,000 riyals ($16,000) for violating COVID-19 precautionary measures.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance to Sunni imams on the substance of Friday sermons.  The MOIA does not vet sermons in advance, but imams must choose from a list of Friday sermons on the MOIA website.  The ministry restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons considered sectarian, political, or extremist, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  The MOIA may also issue circular notes directing all imams to dedicate their Friday sermons to certain topics, such as denouncing political Islam groups.  In this regard, MOIA supervisors may attend Friday sermons to ensure compliance with MOIA directives.  According to local observers, Shia clerics did not receive guidance on their sermons from MOIA and did not submit them for preapproval.  However, Shia clerics continued to exercise significant self-censorship in light of the government’s well-known views on the scope and substance of acceptable preaching.

On October 22, the website Arabi21 reported that MOIA Minister Abdul Latif al-Sheikh directed mosque preachers to dedicate the Friday sermon to warn against “Sururi” thought and the “terrorist al-Sururiya organization, which pursues secrecy to reach its goals, foremost of which is inciting people to revolt against the rulers, divide the Muslim community, sow division among them, and spread wars in their countries.”  Commentators have referred to Sururism as a movement that is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, representing a blend of the country’s Wahhabi movement and Salafi jihadism.

On December 6, the MOIA said in a tweet that Minister al-Sheikh directed imams to use Friday sermons on December 10 to warn against the Tablighi and Da’wah group, a transnational Islamic revivalist movement that originated in India and also known as al-Ahbab.  The minister directed that the sermon cover topics that included a declaration of “the misguidance, deviation and danger of this group, and that it is one of the gates of terrorism, even if they claim otherwise,” mentioning its prominent mistakes and its “danger to society,” and a statement that affiliation with partisan groups, “including (the Tablighi and Da’wah Group), is prohibited in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

There were media reports that some Sunni clerics who received government stipends used antisemitic, anti-Shia, and religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  The MOIA issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to express discriminatory or intolerant views in internet postings and in unsanctioned sermons in areas of the country lacking government monitoring.

According to a January 3 report in the newspaper Okaz, the government fired seven imams and preachers in al-Bahah Province for failing to condemn the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, as instructed by the MOIA.  On March 29, al-Watan newspaper reported that the MOIA fired 54 imams and preachers in Mecca Province because of ideological and administrative violations.  In September, the Minister of Islamic Affairs said the MOIA had purged religious institutions of individuals who had adopted extremist ideologies.

The government continued to mandate that imams and muezzins of the two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina be “moderate” and “tolerant,” among other requirements, including holding a degree from a Saudi sharia college.

On April 15, former imam of the Holy Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani tweeted that authorities dismissed him without reason as imam of a Riyadh mosque.  His dismissal came hours after he appeared in a video announcing that he contracted COVID-19, despite receiving two doses of the vaccine.

On April 25, the Mirat al-Jazeera news website reported that authorities demolished the Shia al-Ahd Mosque in Qatif, which authorities said was part of a road expansion project.  The website described the action as “part of an arbitrary and systematic sectarian campaign” aimed at the Shia community.

On June 27, according to ALQST, authorities released orator Mohammed Bou Jabara [Bojbara] on completion of a nine-month prison sentence.  Security forces arrested Bojbara in October 2020 with eight other young persons on charges related to his participation in Arbaeen ceremonies (the Shia mourning observance occurring 40 days after Ashura and the death of Imam Hussein).  The same day, authorities released Shia activist Nassima al-Sadah upon completion of a three-year sentence, although a three-year travel ban remained in effect following her release.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained prohibited.  Shia community members reported that authorities permitted Shia pilgrims to celebrate Eid al-Ghadir, a Shia-specific holiday, after the Hajj.

In a July 16 circular, Ajlan bin Abdul Aziz al-Ajlan, the head of the Council of Saudi Chambers of Commerce and Industry, announced that the country would allow shops to remain open during prayer times, explaining that the measure was intended to “improve the shopping experience and the level of services for shoppers and clients.”  Commenting on the decision, Ali Sameer Shihabi, a commentator on Middle East politics and economics with a focus on Saudi Arabia, tweeted that keeping shops open during prayer time was a “hugely symbolic and practical step to end the dominance of the religious class in daily life.”

On August 30, the Minister of Islamic Affairs instructed all mosques to remove books that called for extremism and partisanship and banned unlicensed preaching activities, including proselytizing non-Muslims without permission.  The minister also directed mosque officials to participate in “intellectual security” courses (aimed at countering extremist ideologies) held by MOIA or other state agencies.

On May 18, the CPVPV presidency tweeted a fatwa by CSS member Sheikh Fouzan al-Fouzan obligating citizens to report to government authorities anyone who criticized the government and religious scholars.

On January 1, CPVPV head Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sanad said in an interview with al Arabiya that the CPVPV fired hundreds of employees after reports confirmed that they embraced extremist ideologies.

Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship, although husseiniyas existed in areas inhabited by Shia residents.  The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any reported violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as in urban areas.  MOIA maintained a hotline for individuals to report statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  An MOIA mobile phone app called Masajed (mosques) allowed mosque-goers to monitor sermons and rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work.

While authorities indicated that they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and community members said the mainly foreign-resident Ahmadi Muslims hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

The government continued to enforce Islamic norms, such as prohibiting eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  On May 10, local media reported that the CPVPV in Riyadh Province intensified its field presence in markets and malls during the last 10 days of Ramadan and the Eid al-Fitr holiday.

According to media reports, the government prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasigovernmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.

According to government policy, non-Muslims generally were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There were, however, public non-Islamic cemeteries in Jeddah and Riyadh that, according to officials, were used in cases where repatriation was not possible, such as when there were no claimants for a body, the family did not accept the body, or the deceased received the death penalty.  There also was a private, non-Islamic cemetery in Dhahran available only to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

The government continued a multiyear project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  On February 15, an HRW statement said the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language.

In a September review of Saudi textbooks used in the second semester of the 2020-21 and the first semester of the 2021-22 school years, IMPACT-se reported that the trend of “significant improvement” in content dealing with religions other than Islam had continued from its last review of the Saudi curricula in late 2020.  According to IMPACT-SE, officials either removed or altered 22 anti-Christian and antisemitic lessons and five lessons about “infidels” and polytheists.  The NGO reported that this removal included an entire textbook unit on the possible need for violent jihad to spread Islam and protect Muslim lands and praising it as an act of piety.  Specifically, IMPACT-se stated that officials altered several lessons that explicitly blamed “the Jews” as a collective for attacking Muslims and Muhammad, instead attributing responsibility to Arabian tribes and in some cases removing references altogether; in addition, they removed references to forbidding friendships with Jews and Christians, formerly referred to as “infidels, as they are enemies of God.”  The NGO also reported that authorities removed a series of ahistorical, harmful, and in some cases antisemitic assertions, such as Jewish connections to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount being fabricated by rabbis, and purported Jewish threats to the al-Aqsa Mosque.

In February, HRW noted separately that the country had taken important steps to purge its textbooks of hateful and intolerant language but said current texts continued to disparage practices associated with religious minorities.  HRW’s comprehensive review of Education Ministry-produced textbooks for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years found that they still stigmatized as un-Islamic and prohibited some practices associated with the Shia and Sufi Islamic traditions.

On January 27, the head of the General Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques inaugurated a Mediation and Moderation Academy in the Grand Mosque in Mecca, with the goals of fighting extremist thoughts and promoting mediation and moderation in all aspects of life, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

On March 16, the Ministry of Education announced the establishment of intellectual awareness units in all universities and education departments that were intended “to promote loyalty to religion,” “to spread the values of moderation, tolerance and coexistence, and to prevent extremist thought and address its effects.”

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import Bibles for personal use.  There were no reports that the government confiscated personal, non-Islamic religious materials.  Media reported the confiscation of sorcery-related items.

The government continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring “objectionable” content, such as views of religion it considered extremist or misinformed.  The government shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for “religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users under the Cyber Crimes Law.  The government also shut down websites it regarded as being used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.

Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions.  They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools.  A small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.  Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.

According to HRW, the government systematically discriminated against members of Muslim religious minorities, notably Shia, including in the justice system, education, and employment.

At year’s end, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister, Mohammed bin Faisal Abu Saq, who assumed the position of Minister of State for Shura Affairs in 2014.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, ministry branch directors, or security commanders.  Although Shura Council members’ religious affiliations are not publicly announced, there were an estimated seven or eight Shia on the 150-member council.  Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia Saudis reside, had large proportions of Shia as members, to reflect the local population, including a majority in Qatif and 50 percent in al-Ahsa.  In both cities, five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.

Shia reported the government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for employment credit for graduates of Shia religious training centers and that the government did not apply the same standards to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions applying for government positions and religious jobs.

According to human rights groups, Shia Muslims were not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals were Sunni, although some teachers were Shia.  Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, with the remaining 30 percent located in private residences or built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required permission from the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits.  The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerics.

The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques; Shia congregations self-funded construction, maintenance, and repairs.  Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars.  Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to endorse these mosques, according to some NGOs.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam licensed by the government served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and authorities required Shia communities to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  There were no licensed Shia mosques in Jeddah and Riyadh.  Shia in those areas were obliged to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where, some Shia said, they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia resident in the country reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship.

State security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province.  Media and other sources additionally reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Reports from Shia community members cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari school of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management.  There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in Qatif and al-Ahsa.  Community members reported Sunni judges sometimes completely disregarded or refused to hear testimony by Shia Muslims.

Observers stated that judges at times discounted the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam and favored the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims.  In certain circumstances, the testimony of a woman equals half that of a man.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials.  The government also provided the names of offices to which one should report violations of this policy.

In November, King Salman issued a royal approval to grant Saudi citizenship to Shia Islamic scholar and the Secretary General of the Arab Islamic Council in Lebanon Mohammed al-Husseini, along with 26 other Sunni religious scholars, academics, and physicians.  According to the press, the King offered citizenship “in recognition of their distinguished services and outstanding contributions.”

There is no religious worker visa category, but non-Muslim clergy were able to enter the country to minister to their communities.  Non-Muslim clergy also were able to bring religious items, including books, when traveling.

In May, local media reported that authorities removed the “Muslims only” phrase from traffic signs leading to the Holy Mosque in Medina, adding that the signs now read “Haram area,” in reference to Medina’s Haram, or sacred site.  Authorities did not comment on the decision, but media reports attributed it to the kingdom’s efforts to promote moderation.

The Crown Prince announced in February a series of judicial reforms intended to codify the law to increase transparency and predictability in judicial decision-making.

According to an October 5 posting on its website, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) stated that the 2021 Riyadh International Book Fair, organized by the Ministry of Culture under the sponsorship of the King, allowed booksellers to exhibit more than two dozen well-known antisemitic books for sale, including numerous editions of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Hitler’s Mein Kampf.  According to the ADL, other antisemitic books permitted at the 2021 fair featured references to blood libel, Holocaust denial, Jewish-Masonic conspiracy theories, and portrayals of Jews as evil puppet masters and the killers of divine prophets.  The NGO also reported that there were two books demonizing the Baha’i Faith and Yezidism.  Other observers reported that the fair permitted the sale of publications about atheism.

According to the ADL, following violence in Jerusalem between Palestinians at the al-Aqsa Mosque and Israeli police, General President for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a May 11 sermon praying for God to “keep the al-Aqsa Mosque, God keep them from the attacker Zionists, the occupying, combatant brutes.”  He added, “We seek refuge in you from their butchery and seek protection in you from their evils and all the rest of the enemies of religion.”  The same day, Sheikh Salah al-Badir, an imam of the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, delivered a sermon calling for God to “liberate the al-Aqsa Mosque from the usurper Jews and the traitorous occupying Zionists.”

On May 12, on Eid al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a member of the CSS, delivered a sermon at the Grand Mosque in Mecca calling on God to “grant victory to our brothers in Palestine over your enemy and their enemy.”  He called for God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the filth of the occupier Zionists.”  Saudi state television broadcast the sermon and promoted it on social media.  In an Eid sermon at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina, al-Humaid urged God to “cleanse the al-Aqsa Mosque from the befoulment of Jews.  Oh God, it is incumbent upon you to deal with the usurper Jews and the aggressor Zionists.”

On May 13, separate Eid al-Adha sermons delivered at the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina urged God to free the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem from “usurping Zionists” and “occupying Jews.”  On May 14, Imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca Sheikh Mahir al-Muayqali likewise concluded his Friday sermon with a prayer to God to free al-Aqsa from “usurping, occupying Jews.”  On June 11, Chief of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Sudais delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to free al-Aqsa from the “usurping occupiers.”  On July 30, Sheikh Saleh bin Humaid, a royal advisor and a CSS member, delivered a sermon in the Holy Mosque in Mecca in which he prayed to God to “destroy the usurping, occupying Zionist Jews.”

On April 8, local media reported that Mohammed al-Issa, the Secretary General of the government-sponsored Muslim World League (MWL), sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter urging them to combat Islamophobia.  The letter was part of a campaign to denounce hate in social media platforms and curb anti-Muslim rhetoric.

On June 11, the MWL convened a Declaration of Peace in Afghanistan Conference, bringing together senior scholars from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan to discuss topics such as peace, tolerance, moderation, and reconciliation in Islam.

On August 4, the MWL sponsored talks in Mecca involving approximately 80 Iraqi Sunni and Shia representatives.  The two sides renewed calls for an end to sectarian violence and attacks on houses of worship, the release of innocent detainees, and the return of displaced persons to their homes.

On October 19, al-Issa and World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald Lauder met with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres, urging him to advocate for religious freedom and an end to violence against houses of worship.  On October 4, the MWL and WJC made a joint statement before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, pledging an interfaith commitment to promote and to protect human rights for all.  It was the first time Jewish and Muslim representative groups presented a coordinated statement before a UN body.

On October 20, al-Issa met with students during a visit to Yeshiva University in New York, saying that religious communities “have a shared responsibility toward followers of different faiths to build bridges and improve relationships.”  In a March video address to an online conference organized by the U.S. Department of Defense, al-Issa said that there was now greater awareness in the Muslim world of the dangers posed by political Islam, led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

In January, cleric and former director of the CPVPV in Mecca Ahmed al-Ghamdi created controversy when he tweeted that Muslims could pray for mercy for non-Muslims, explaining that there was no religious text prohibiting such prayer.

In January, a group of Israeli drivers traveled to Saudi Arabia to compete in the Dakar Rally race, despite a ban on Israeli travelers to the country.  On February 2, the English-language newspaper Arab News ran the first-ever op-ed in a Saudi newspaper authored by Israeli writers.  In March, local media reported that the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities arranged the shipment of 650 pounds of matzah and kosher food to all six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, for Passover.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, but local residents said self-censorship was common, given the risk of official reprisals.  While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, self-censorship on social media was believed to be widespread when discussing topics such as religion or the royal family.  Online discussions included disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  Terms like “rejectionists” (referring to Shia who view as illegitimate the first three caliphs that Sunni Muslims recognize as the Prophet Muhammad’s legitimate successors) which Shia consider insulting, and images of donkeys, comparing them to Shia, were occasionally found in social media discourse.

An Orthodox Jewish rabbi made several unofficial visits to the country to conduct outreach and offer religious services to Jewish residents.  His social media posts depict him in traditional Orthodox clothing and show positive experiences with Saudis, whom he publicly described as “happy” to have a rabbi in the kingdom.  International media described local residents as stopping to take photographs with the rabbi and offering Hebrew greetings.

Community members reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution.  The NGO Open Doors reported that women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

On October 31, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC) told the Saudi-owned al Arabiya English-language news channel that the first-ever Jewish dating website, JSG, which stands for “Jewish Singles in the Gulf,” launched in the Gulf.  The aim of the website is to help unmarried Jews living in the country and its neighboring countries meet each other.

The global consulting firm PSB Insights conducted a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 35 percent of Saudi Arabian respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, consistent with 34 percent regionwide.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.


Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies.  The constitution states, “Religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons younger than 18 from participating in public religious activities.  The government’s Committee on Religion, Regulation of Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA) maintains a broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.  The government continued to detain and prosecute Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to serve in the military.  Starting January 20, a new law on military service permitted men to fulfill their military service obligation without serving on active duty by paying a fee and completing a one-month reserve training course, after which there was no commitment to be available for active duty.  Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said this new provision was not acceptable according to their faith because the alternative arrangement required participation in the military (through training) and payment of a fee to the Ministry of Defense, and did not allow for an exemption based on religious beliefs.  On January 7, before the new law took effect, the Khujand Military Court sentenced Jehovah’s Witness Rustamjon Norov to three and a half years in prison for evading compulsory military service.  According to the international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18, this was the longest known sentence to date in the country given to a conscientious objector.  In accordance with a widespread prisoner amnesty, authorities released Norov from prison on September 21.  Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to seek registration, an effort begun in 2007, and some adherents stated they were harassed by authorities.  Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at those mosques.  Government officials continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in religious organizations identified by authorities as extremist and banned, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist organizations.  According to NGOs, law enforcement agencies continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in, or of supporting, groups banned by the government, including groups that advocated for Islamic political goals and presented themselves as political opponents of the government.  In April, the Supreme Court sentenced 119 individuals who were arrested in 2020 for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood; their prison sentences ranged between five and 23 years.  In August, the Minister of Internal Affairs said that in the first half of the year, law enforcement officials arrested 143 individuals on suspicion of participation in banned movements and organizations, terrorist groups, and extremist organizations.  Authorities reportedly continued to discourage women from wearing hijabs.  On December 23, a new article was added to the Criminal Code that criminalized providing “unapproved religious education,” including through the internet.  In February, local officials in Mastchoh District destroyed the dome of a newly constructed mosque they said had not been approved by the CRA.

Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, due to fear of government harassment.  Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations among different religious groups, remained a subject they avoided.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials encouraged the government to adhere to its commitments to respect religious freedom.  The Ambassador discussed freedom of religion and belief and advocated for imprisoned Jehovah’s Witnesses during his interactions with the government.  Embassy officers raised concerns regarding the restrictions on participation of women and minors in religious services, restrictions on the religious education of youth, and the situation facing Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country.  During the eighth U.S.-Tajikistan Annual Bilateral Consultations on July 1 in Washington, D.C., officials from the two countries discussed opportunities to advance religious freedom, and U. S. officials urged the government to ease religious restrictions and to free detained Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In 2016, the country was designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the required sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9 million (midyear 2021).  According to local academics, the country is more than 90 percent Muslim, of whom the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam.  Approximately 3-4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshon Autonomous Region (GBAO), located in the eastern part of the country.

The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox.  There are smaller communities of evangelical Christians, Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, and nondenominational Protestants.  There also are smaller communities of Jews, Baha’is, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country a secular state and that “religious associations shall be separate from the state and shall not interfere in state affairs.”  According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly with others to profess any religion or no religion and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies.  Since October 2007, the government has banned the Jehovah’s Witnesses for carrying out religious activities contrary to the country’s laws, such as refusing obligatory military service.

The law prohibits the establishment and activities of religious associations promoting racism, nationalism, enmity, social and religious hatred, or calling for the violent overthrow of the constitutional order or for the organization of armed groups.  The constitution prohibits “propaganda and agitation” that encourages religious enmity.  In accordance with provisions of the constitution, no ideology of a political party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as a state ideology.

The law prohibits provoking religiously based hatred, enmity, or conflict as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.

The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power.  This definition includes inciting religious hatred.  In the case of noncriminal incitement of “social, racial, national, regional, or religious hatred,” the Code of Administrative Violations provides for five to 10 days’ administrative detention or a fine of 50 to 100 “fee units” (the value of which the government sets each year), equal to 3,000 to 6,000 somoni ($270 to $530).  The Criminal Code stipulates two to 12 years’ imprisonment for a crime committed on the same basis, depending on the details of the case.

The law prohibits individuals from joining or participating in what it considers to be extremist organizations.  The government maintains a list of “extremist organizations” that it says employ terrorist tactics in an effort to advance Islamist political goals, including the National Alliance of Tajikistan, the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan (IRPT), Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, the Islamic State of Iraq Syria (ISIS), Jabhat al-Nusra, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Salafist movement broadly.

The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion.  The Center for Islamic Studies, under the Executive Office of the President, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.

The law defines a religious association as any group composed of persons who join for religious purposes.  A religious association is a voluntary association of followers of one faith, with the purpose of holding joint worship and celebration of religious ceremonies, religious education, and spreading religious beliefs.  To register a religious association, a group of at least 10 persons older than 18 must obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming the adherents of their religious faith have lived in a particular local area for five years.  The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the Tajik citizenship of its founders, along with their home addresses and dates of birth.  The group must provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage.  The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious association, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.  According to the CRA, there are 4,058 religious associations registered in the country, 66 of which are non-Muslim, including the Russian Orthodox Church and the Baha’i Faith.

The government subdivides associations formed for “conducting joint religious worship” into religious organizations and religious communities, which also are defined by law.  To operate legally, both are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.

According to the law, a religious organization may provide religious education and spread religious faith.  Types of religious organizations include the Islamic Center of Tajikistan (the government-supported body that oversees religious institutions belonging to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, established in law as the Republican Religious Center), central Friday mosques, central prayer houses, religious education entities, churches, and synagogues.  Religious organizations are legal entities and function on the basis of charters, and they must strictly adhere to the limits of their charters.  They may be district, municipal, or national organizations.

According to the law, a religious community, unlike a religious organization, is not a legal entity.  Its members may gather to conduct other religious activities, which are not defined by law.  For example, individuals may gather for joint prayer, attend funeral prayers, and celebrate religious holidays.  Types of religious communities include Friday mosques, daily five-time prayer mosques, prayer houses, and other places of worship.  After registering with the CRA, a religious community must also function on the basis of its charter, which determines the nature and scope of its activities.

The law prescribes penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charters, and it assigns the CRA responsibility for issuing fines for such activities.  The law imposes fines for carrying out religious activities without state registration or reregistration; violating provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association.  For first-time offenses, the government fines individuals 420 to 600 somoni ($37 to $53), heads of religious associations 1,200 to 1,800 somoni ($110 to $160), and registered religious associations, as legal entities, 6,000 to 12,000 somoni ($530 to $1,100).  For repeat offenses within one year of an initial fine, penalties are increased to 720 to 1,200 somoni ($64 to $110) for individuals, 2,400 to 3,000 somoni ($210 to $270) for heads of religious associations, and 18,000 to 24,000 somoni ($1,600 to $2,100) for registered religious associations.  If a religious association conducts activities without registering, local authorities may impose additional fines or close a place of worship.

The law allows restrictions on freedom of conscience and religion deemed necessary by the government to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, public order, protection of the foundations of constitutional order, security of the state, defense of the country, public morals, public health, and the territorial integrity of the country.  In addition, religious organizations annually must report general information about worship as well as organizational, educational, and outreach activities to the state.

The freedom of conscience law stipulates that no party, public or religious association, movement, or group may be recognized as representing state ideology.  The law also asserts that the state maintains control over religious education to prevent illegal training, propaganda, and the dissemination of extremist ideas, religious hatred, and hostility.

The same law broadly empowers the CRA to create regulations to implement state policies on religion, such as establishing specific guidelines for the performance of religious ceremonies.  In addition to approving the registration of religious associations, organizations, and communities, the CRA maintains a broad mandate that includes approving the construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature.

The CRA oversees activities of religious associations, such as the performance of religious rites, and the development and adoption of legal acts aimed at the implementation of a state policy on the freedom of conscience and religious associations.  Religious associations must submit information on sources of income, property lists, expenditures, numbers of employees, wages and taxes paid, and other information upon request by the CRA.

The freedom of conscience law recognizes the special status of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life.  This status, however, does not have any specific legal bearing.

The law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations:  mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines.  It regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques that may be registered within a given population area.  Outside the capital, the government allows “Friday mosques,” which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, to be located in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; it allows “five-time prayer mosques,” which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, in areas with populations of 100 to 1,000.  In the capital Dushanbe, authorities allow Friday mosques in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time prayer mosques in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000.  The law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city and makes other mosques subordinate to it.

Mosques function according to their charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations, by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population.  The law states the selection of chief-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders at a central Friday mosque), imam-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in a Friday mosque, who deliver a sermon at Friday noon prayers), and imams (government-sanctioned prayer leaders in five-time prayer mosques) shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs,” namely the CRA.  Local authorities decide on land allocation for the construction of mosques in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs.”  The CRA disseminates recommended talking points for Friday sermons drafted by the Islamic Center.  Individual imam-khatibs may modify or supplement the talking points, and, according to the CRA, there is no penalty for noncompliance.

The law on traditions and celebrations regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and observations of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday; sets limits on the number of guests for these events; and governs ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals, with the goal of preventing what the government considers exorbitant expenditures on such events.  It also bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and 40th day after a death.  Traditional sacrifices are permissible during Ramadan and Eid al-Adha.  Separately, the freedom of conscience law states that group worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies must be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions.  A June 2021 amendment to the law on traditions and celebrations gives the government authority to impose further restrictions on celebrations and ceremonies in the case of emergencies, including medical emergencies.

According to the law on traditions and celebrations, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language and national dress.”  According to customary (i.e., not official) interpretation, “national dress” does not include the hijab, although it does include a traditional Tajik form of woman’s head covering known as a ruymol.  The Code of Administrative Violations (the Code) does not list the wearing of a beard, hijab, or other religious clothing as violations.

The freedom of conscience law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute religious literature and materials containing religious content after receiving CRA approval.  Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises that produce literature and material with religious content.  Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it.  The Code allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without CRA permission.  According to the Code, violators are subject to confiscation of the given literature, as well as fines of 1,800 to 4,200 somoni ($160 to $370) for individuals, 3,000 to 9,000 somoni ($270 to $800) for government officials, and 6,000 to 18,000 somoni ($530 to $1,600) for legal entities, a category that includes all organizations.  According to the Code, producing literature or material containing religious content without identifying the name of the religious organization producing it entails fines of 3,000 to 6,000 somoni ($270 to $530) and confiscation of the material.

The parental responsibility law prohibits individuals younger than 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship.  Individuals younger than 18 may attend religious funerals and practice religion at home, under parental guidance.  The statute allows individuals younger than 18 to participate in religious activities that are part of specific educational programs in authorized religious institutions.

The law on parental responsibility allows minors between the ages of seven and 18, with written parental consent, to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside mandatory school hours.  According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction that is already part of a school curriculum; as part of high school curriculum, students must take general classes on the history of religions.

According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided they express a desire to learn.  While the freedom of conscience law allows parents to provide religious education to their children, it forbids religious associations from preaching or engaging in educational activity in private homes.  The same law also restricts citizens from going abroad for religious education or establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent.  To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a degree in religious studies domestically and receive written consent from the CRA.  The Code stipulates fines of 3,000 to 6,000 somoni ($270 to $530) for violating these restrictions.

While the Ministry of Education sets classroom and curriculum standards and issues licenses for religious organizations, the CRA is responsible for monitoring the organizations to ensure implementation of the law’s other provisions.  Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates, but there are currently no madrassahs operating in the country because in practice, no madrassah has been able to meet the Ministry of Education’s requirements relative to classrooms, qualified teachers, and curriculum.  Other mosques, if registered with and licensed by the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students in accordance with their charters.

The law requires men to serve one year in the armed forces if they have a university degree, and two years if they have not graduated from a university.  Since January, men who want to fulfill their service commitment without serving the full one or two years on active duty may pay a fee and complete a one-month reserve training course.

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

Government Practices

On January 20, the Majlisi Namoyandagon (lower house of parliament) adopted the new Law on General Military Duty and Military Service, which allowed one-month reserve training instead of one- or two-year active-duty military commitments, upon payment of a fee.  In August, a Ministry of Defense official told media the number of participants in the program would be capped each year by regional and local military commissariats (draft commissions).  Applicants not selected in a given year would not be conscripted in that year but would be called up for an accelerated training program during the next conscription period according to a wait list.  Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Tajiki language outlet Radio Ozodi reported that on July 30, President Emomali Rahmon signed into law regulations setting the fee to be paid to the Ministry of Defense in 2021 at 420 fee units, equal to 25,200 somoni ($2,200).  NGOs said the new law removed the text in the previous version that had allowed for alternative service only once the government specified what that service would be.  Previous governments never enacted legislation determining acceptable alternative service, which allowed the government to punish those seeking alternative civilian service.  Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives said the new law was not acceptable according to their faith because the alternative arrangement required participation in the military (through training), required payment of a fee to the Ministry of Defense, and did not allow for an exemption based on religious beliefs.

On January 7, before the new law on military service went into effect, the Khujand Military Court sentenced Rustamjon Norov, a Jehovah’s Witness, to three and a half years in prison for evading compulsory military service.  According to Forum 18, this was the longest known sentence to date in the country given to a conscientious objector.  A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative said this lengthy sentence was meant to intimidate the group’s members and to demonstrate the firmness of the government’s position against the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ refusal to accept their military service obligation.  Authorities arrested Norov in November 2020, and prosecutors accused him of falsifying his medical history to evade military service, which he denied.  Norov offered to perform alternative civilian service.  On September 21, Norov was freed under the annual nationwide amnesty law signed by President Rahmon.

According to Forum 18, Jehovah’s Witness Shamil Khakimov continued to serve a four and a half-year sentence in a prison in Shughd Region that began in 2019 for “inciting religious hatred” after police found Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and a Tajik-language Bible in his home.  Khakimov’s sentence was reduced by a year under the September amnesty, following a prior reduction of his original seven and a half-year sentence.  Khakimov also faces a three-year ban on proselytizing once released from prison.  Khakimov’s relatives told Forum 18 that the 70-year old was in poor health, but that authorities denied requests, including from the UN Human Rights Committee, to transfer him to an outside hospital.  Authorities also did not act on Khakimov’s request for a presidential pardon during the year.  On May 17, Khakimov told his lawyer that the prison administration wanted him to admit his guilt in writing; Khakimov refused.  On June 30, the General Prosecutor’s Office (PGO) forwarded his case to the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office, which supervises prisons in Sughd Region.  On July 1, the prison administration said Khakimov’s petition for pardon was inapplicable because he did not repent his “crimes” or renounce his “extremist” beliefs as a Jehovah’s Witness.  In July, the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office rejected Khakimov’s petition for pardon because he refused to admit guilt, although an admission of guilt is not a legal requirement for pardon, and Khakimov’s original offense (inciting religious hatred) had been removed from the Criminal Code in December 2020.  On August 5, the Supreme Court denied Khakimov’s appeal.

According to Radio Ozodi, on January 29, authorities released independent journalist Daler Sharifov from prison after he served his full one-year sentence.  Authorities charged him in 2020 with inciting religious hatred, based on articles and notes on human rights and religious freedom he wrote that a Shomansur district court determined contained extremist content and language that incited religious hatred.

According to NGOs, authorities continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in, or of supporting, banned extremist organizations.  There were 339 such arrests during the year, according to Minister of Internal Affairs Ramazon Rahimzoda.  At a press conference on August 4, he said that in the first half of the year, law enforcement authorities detained more than 140 persons on suspicion of participation in banned movements, organizations, and groups the government deemed to be terrorist and extremist.  Of those detained, 45 were reportedly proponents of Salafism; 33 were members of banned opposition organizations, including IRPT, “Group 24,” and the National Alliance of Tajikistan; three were Muslim Brotherhood members; two were members of Jamaat Ansarullah; 26 were ISIS members; three were al-Qaeda members; eight were members of Jamaat Tabligh; six were members of Hizb-ut-Tahrir; and 18 were members of the Islamic Party of Turkestan.

On January 14, citing the PGO, state news outlet Khovar reported that the Tursunzoda City Court sentenced local resident Abdullo Haitov to five and a half years in prison for supporting and promoting Salafism.  According to the PGO, Haitov studied Salafist teaching while working as a migrant laborer in Russia from 2010 to 2020.  The PGO said he became an active Salafist and used social media to recruit others.  Authorities had detained Haitov in February 2020 and charged him with extremism.

On February 12, Radio Ozodi said that the Ismoili Somoni District Court in Dushanbe sentenced Sirojiddin Abdurahmonov, a cleric widely considered to be the leader of the Salafist movement in the country, to five and a half years in prison for supporting Salafism.  He had been in custody since November 2020.  Abdurahmonov previously was arrested in 2009, sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of inciting religious hatred and released in 2013 under an amnesty.

In April, the Supreme Court issued a verdict in the high-profile case begun in July 2020 against a large group of individuals it said were members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Independent news outlet Asia-Plus reported that the court sentenced 119 individuals, including Ismoil Qahhorov (from a prominent religious and political family) and two Egyptian citizens, to between five and 23 years in prison each.  Radio Ozodi reported that the court found the suspects guilty of terrorist financing, publicly calling for extremist activities, organizing an extremist community, and organizing activities of an extremist organization.  The court also fined two additional defendants for “failure to report a crime.”  According to Asia-Plus, the court identified Egyptian national Muhammad Bayumi, a professor at the Tajik National University, as the leader of the group and sentenced him to 23 years imprisonment.  The second Egyptian citizen, an Arabic professor at the same university, received seven years in prison.  The court sentenced Qahhorov to 15 years’ imprisonment.

On April 22, state news outlet Khovar reported that officials from the State Committee on National Security (GKNB) detained Abdulhaq Obidov, imam-khatib of a mosque in Shohmansur District of Dushanbe, along with four others on suspicion of membership in the banned Salafist movement.  On June 22, Radio Ozodi reported that Obidov and two of those detained with him had been released.  Some independent commentators said Obidov was arrested for making critical remarks, including of President Rahmon, at the funeral of prominent cleric Domullo Hikmatullo Tojikobodi.  Publicly criticizing the President is a criminal offense.

Radio Ozodi reported that the Dushanbe City Court in late May sentenced Saidhasan Saidqiyomiddin, the son of Islamic cleric and opposition figure Saidqiyomiddin Ghozi, to 11 years in prison on unspecified charges in a trial held behind closed doors.  Court representatives did not provide any details of the verdict, but Radio Ozodi reported that authorities accused him of extremism.

On June 2, Radio Ozodi reported that a court sentenced Mirzokul Hojimatov, also known as Mirzo Hojimuhammad, to five years’ imprisonment on charges of membership in a banned extremist organization.  He formerly served as deputy head of the Sughd regional branch of the IRPT but voluntarily left its ranks in 2015, according to his relatives.  Authorities reportedly arrested Hojimatov on May 22 after an investigation into an unspecified Facebook post by him.

On June 19, media reported GBAO authorities arrested prominent cleric Abdullobek Quvvatbekov, also known as Mavlavi Abdullo Yazgulomi, and his brother Izzatullo Quvvatbekov on June 18 at their home in Dushanbe and seized religious books and money.  Radio Ozodi stated on June 30 that authorities released Izzatullo but extended Abdullobek’s detention and transferred him to a pretrial detention center.  On September 17, Radio Ozodi reported that in September, the Khorugh city court sentenced Abdullobek to five years’ imprisonment for “calls to extremism through the internet.”  The exact date of the court ruling was not provided.  According to Radio Ozodi, the Khorugh City Court also sentenced two of Abdullobek’s students, Imomiddin Aliev and Nazriddin Shukurov, to four and a half years each on the same charges.  Quvvatbek Quvvatbekov, Abdullobek’s brother, told Radio Ozodi on September 17 that they would appeal the court ruling.

On July 1, the Bobojon Ghafurov District Court sentenced 18 individuals to prison, with sentences ranging from one to five and a half years, on charges of involvement in the Salafist movement.  The Sughd Department of Internal Affairs arrested the 18 individuals in February.  An unnamed lawyer told Asia-Plus news that Muhsin Kholmatov was sentenced to five and a half years for being the organizer of the group; 13 individuals received five-year sentences for extremism; another four received one-year sentences for failure to report or concealment of a crime.

On July 12, the Sughd Department of Internal Affairs reported that the Konibodom District Court sentenced five residents on charges of participating in the banned Salafist movement online, organizing illegal gatherings to promote ideas the government considered extremist, using literature with content considered extremist under the law, deliberately committing crimes against the constitutional order, and violating state security through their participation in the Salafist movement.  Damir Sobirov, previously charged with the same Salafist-related offenses, was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, while Umar Ashurov, Sulton Ismoilov, Navruz Mavlonov, and Burkhon Tukhtaev were each sentenced to five years in prison.

On July 22, Radio Ozodi reported that a court in Kulob sentenced Mahmadsodik Saidov, imam-khatib at Nonvoyi Poyon Mosque in Kulob, to five years in prison for collaborating with the editor of banned website  Chair of the court Izatullo Tabarzoda told Radio Ozodi that Saidov repeatedly contacted the editor-in-chief of the website by mobile phone and sent him Friday sermons and information regarding the Kulob city leadership and the situation in the city.  According to Tabarzoda, the court also sentenced Kulob residents Abdughaffor Rajabov and Aslamkhon Karimov to five years in prison on charges of cooperation with banned organizations, including  Editor-in-chief of Muhammadikbol Sadriddin denied he and Saidov were in contact and stated he received the sermons from another source.  Forum 18 said in August that GKNB officers arrested Saidov in March after he refused to preach a CRA-provided sermon and preached his own sermon instead.

According to Radio Ozodi, on April 19, GKNB officers detained Asadullo Ismoilov, imam-khatib at a mosque in the Yakkachinor area of Dushanbe.  Radio Ozodi reported that authorities visited Ismoilov’s home and seized books and literature in April 20, and then released him from custody without charges on April 25.

Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council in August 2004 that prohibited women from praying at mosques.  Ismaili Shia women were permitted to attend Shia services in the GBAO and Dushanbe.

The CRA stated that during the year, it received one application for registration from a non-Islamic religious association, the synagogue in Dushanbe, which was approved.  Authorities later deregistered the synagogue at the request of the Jewish community due to the small number of congregants, according to the CRA.