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Algeria

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas.  They also discussed church closures, registration concerns related to minority religious groups, the impact of constitutional changes, and jailed activists.  In April, embassy officials requested to meet with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship to discuss the inability of some religious groups to register, but they did not receive a response.

The then Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities, including the Catholic and Anglican Churches, the EPA, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.

Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious roles of women with religious and political leaders, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.  The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.  Specifically, the embassy used its cultural engagements to emphasize tolerance and its social media engagements to promote the benefits of diversity and inclusion, and it held iftars during Ramadan with members of the country’s different religious communities.

On November 15, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Algeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states, “Freedom of belief is absolute” and “The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine religions [i.e., the three Abrahamic faiths:  Islam, Christianity, and Judaism] is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution states citizens “are equal before the law” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.”  The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.”  The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.  Authorities executed Ahmad Saeed Ibrahim al-Sonbati on June 21 for the 2017 premeditated killing of Coptic priest Father Samaan Shehata of the church of Yulius al-Aqfahsi in the village of Ezbet Girgis, Beni Suef Governorate.  In October, Alexandria’s criminal court sentenced brothers Nasser and Ali al-Sambo to life in prison for the December 2020 killing of Coptic Christian Ramsis Boulos Hermina.  On February 10, the Court of Cassation upheld 15-year prison sentences for 10 defendants who participated in a 2013 church burning in Kafr Hakim, Giza Governorate.  Minya’s Criminal Court on June 15 sentenced 10 defendants to five-year prison terms on charges of “vandalism, violence, and burning the homes of Coptic citizens” during a 2016 sectarian riot in the village of Karm in Minya.  A court on November 17 sentenced lawyer Ahmed Abdou Maher to five years in prison with hard labor for defaming Islam in his book, How the Imams’ Jurisprudence Is Leading the Nation Astray, and for comments he made to BBC TV and al-Mayadeen TV.  In June, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan contesting a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page.  Authorities twice renewed Quranist Reda Abdel Rahman’s detention.  Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II hosted a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of Family House, a foundation established after the 2011 suicide bombing at Alexandria’s All Saints Church and dedicated to communal reconciliation.  In December, authorities banned Shia activist Haidar Kandil, a reporter for al-Dustour newspaper, from travelling to Moscow where he planned to seek employment.  On September 25, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a final verdict that banned the use of mosques for political purposes and upheld the state’s right to supervise them.  According to analysis by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, and authorized customs officials to confiscate religious materials from the groups’ adherents.  The Mansoura Emergency State Security Misdemeanor Court on December 7 ordered the release of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) researcher Patrick George Zaki after 22 months of pretrial detention pending an investigation on charges related to his 2019 article on anti-Copt discrimination.  The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities opened the first stop on the 2,100-mile Holy Family Trail, the biblical route believed to have been taken by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  In September, the government launched its National Strategy for Human Rights, which contained a section dedicated to “Freedom of Religion and Belief” prescribing steps to reform religious discourse and promote religious tolerance.  In December, press reported the Ministry of Justice sent the draft Personal Status Law for Christians to the cabinet for approval.  The cabinet had not sent the draft legislation to the House of Representatives at year’s end.  Coptic human rights attorneys filed a lawsuit on August 25 demanding the Minister of Interior’s Civil Status Department remove the “religion” field from the national ID card.

In April, ISIS-Sinai Peninsula (ISIS-SP) released a video that documented the killing of Nabil Habashi, a local Coptic Christian and cofounder of the only church in the district of Bir al-Abd, one of the focal points of ISIS-SP operations.  On July 27, Copt Shenouda Salah Asaad was stabbed to death, allegedly by a Salafist neighbor, in Assiut Governorate.  In April, sectarian clashes in al-Mudmar village in Sohag Governorate resulted in at least one death and six injuries that required hospitalization.  A July report by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Coptic Solidarity stated that out of 141 athletes on the national Olympic team that competed in the 2020 Tokyo games (held in 2021), only one was a Copt.  Reuters reported that the country’s first all-female Muslim recitation choir, al-Hour, is challenging “deep-rooted taboos about women singing in public or reciting from the Quran.”

The Ambassador, other embassy representatives, and senior U.S. government officials met with government officials and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law.  Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, bishops, and senior pastors of the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican churches, and the Jewish community.  In these meetings, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised concerns, including reports of harassment of religious converts, prospective changes to the country’s personal status law, lack of recognition for Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the continued use of religious designations on national identity cards.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 106.4 million (midyear 2021).  Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10 percent is Christian.  Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population.  These include Anglican/Episcopalian, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches.  Most Protestant denominations are members of the umbrella group known as the Protestant Churches of Egypt, also known as the General Evangelical Council.  These include the Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (al-Mithaal al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (al-Kiraaza bil-Ingil), First Grace (al-Ni’ma al-Oula), Second Grace (al-Ni’ma al-Thaneya), Independent Baptist, Message Church of Holland (ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-day Adventists.  There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses and fewer than 100 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates.  Christians reside throughout the country.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population.  Baha’i representatives estimate the size of their community to be between 1,000 and 2,000 persons.  There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims as well as expatriate members of various other religious groups.

According to a local Jewish NGO, there are six to 10 Jews in the country.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists; in 2020, local media sources quoted a former Minister of Culture and a scholar at al-Azhar University estimating numbers of atheists at “several million” and “four million,” respectively.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation.  The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine [Abrahamic] religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution also states citizens “are equal before the law,” prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and makes “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason” a crime.  The constitution prohibits political activity or the formation of political parties based on religion.  The constitution also states, “No political activity may be engaged in, or political parties formed, on the basis of religion, or discrimination [be permitted] based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location.”

The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents as defined by the government to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  The constitution defines al-Azhar, the main authority on theology and Islamic affairs, as “an independent scientific Islamic institution with exclusive competence over its own affairs… It is responsible for preaching Islam and disseminating the religious sciences and the Arabic language” worldwide.  Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam is elected by al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the President for a life term.  The President does not have the authority to dismiss him.  The constitution declares al-Azhar to be an independent institution and requires the government to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes.”

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out.  The Grand Mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the sentence.

The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.  Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) depending upon their official religious designation.  The Ministry of Interior issues national identity cards that include official religious designations.  Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens.  Although the government designates Jehovah’s Witnesses as “Christian” on identity cards, a presidential decree bans their religious activities.  Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is’ religious affiliation is denoted by a dash (“-”) on national identity cards.  The Minister of Interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data national identity cards must list.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize.  The law states individuals may change their religion.  However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion.  The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to a Ministry of Interior decree pursuant to a court order.  Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints.  After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document is issued with the Christian name and religious designation.  In cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims.  When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

The law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.  Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam.  Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men.  A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert.  If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 15 and her daughter until she marries.  The children’s father has the right to petition the court to ask the children to choose between staying with their mother or father, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens, with documentation from a cleric, and does not recognize civil marriage between Egyptian citizens.  Marriages of Shia are recognized as Muslim.  The government recognizes civil marriages of Baha’is, as well as of individuals from other unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, if one or both are foreigners.  Authorities deny Baha’is the rights of married couples pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse.  In practice, however, Baha’is have reported occasional success in filing individual petitions for recognition of their marriages in civil court.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance.  In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that personal status matters for Christian and Jewish communities are governed by their respective religious doctrine.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; or harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims):  the al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy, the Dar al-Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s (Islamic endowments) General Fatwa Directorate.  While a part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar al-Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives previously unrecognized religious groups the right to be governed by their own canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature.  To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of the Interior’s Administrative Affairs Department.  The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace.  As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and al-Azhar.  The President then reviews and adjudicates the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws, and it bans Baha’i institutions and community activities.  The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government, through the Ministry of Awqaf, appoints, pays the salaries of, and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques.  According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both.  The penalty doubles for repeat offenders.  Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law.  A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons written and disseminated by the Ministry of Awqaf.  Ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques and an imam who fails to follow the guidelines for ministry sermons may lose the bonus and be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.

The Prime Minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.”  Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art.  The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace.  The Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (sunnah) and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates.  The governor is to respond within four months of receipt of an application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification.  The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe.  The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches.  It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented.  Under the law, the size of new churches continues to depend on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area.  Construction of new churches must meet specific land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf reviews and approves building permits.  A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum of 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1,900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.”  The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades.  Schools determine the religious identity of students, and the religious studies courses they should take is based on official identity card designations, not personal or parental decisions.  Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other once selected.  A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including parochial schools.  Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves an estimated two million students from kindergarten through secondary school using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to… religion or belief.”  The law stipulates imprisonment, a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both, as penalties for discrimination.  If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,200) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,400).

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates the country’s modern judicial and legal systems and is recognized in the law in instances that do not involve serious crimes (i.e., homicide, serious injury, or theft).  Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions.  Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws.  In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens.  The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program called “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain conditions are met, including requirements that the guardians share the same religion as the child and have been married to one another for a minimum of five years.

The quasigovernmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament under a 2016 law, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom.  It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights.  The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

The 2014 constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament, but the parliament has not yet established such a commission.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

Authorities executed Ahmad Saeed Ibrahim al-Sonbati on June 21 for the 2017 killing of Coptic priest Father Samaan Shehata, of the church of Yulius al-Aqfahsi, in the village of Ezbet Girgis in Beni Suef Governorate.  Sonbati’s 2017 death sentence was confirmed by the court of appeals in 2018 and received final approval on November 9, 2020 from the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court.

In October, the Alexandria Criminal Court sentenced to life in prison brothers Nasser and Ali al-Sambo for the December 2020 killing of Coptic Christian Ramsis Boulos Hermina in Alexandria.  Hermina was attacked in his plastics and household goods shop.  According to press reporting, Nasser and Ali Sambo and their brother Anwar had a reputation in their neighborhood for harassment of Coptic shop owners.

On February 10, the Court of Cassation upheld a 15-year prison sentence for 10 defendants who participated in a 2013 church burning in Kafr Hakim, Giza Governorate.

On October 11, the Court of Cassation dismissed the first appeal submitted by the defendants convicted of the 2013 arson attack on Mar Girgis Church in Sohag city and originally sentenced in 2015 and 2020 by the Criminal Court to 3 to 15 years’ imprisonment.  Authorities charged the defendants with assaulting Christian places of worship, destroying and burning police cars, possession of firearms and ammunition without a license, attempted theft, assaulting public and private property and shops, inciting violence, vandalism, and intimidating citizens.

According to press reporting, the Minya Criminal Court on June 15 sentenced 10 defendants to five-year prison terms on charges of “vandalism, violence, and burning the homes of Coptic citizens” during a 2016 sectarian riot in the village of Karm in Minya Governorate, and acquitted 14 others, citing lack of evidence.  The June 15 court verdicts were linked to a separate attack on Souad Thabet, an elderly Christian woman whom attackers stripped and dragged through the village of Karm during 2016 rioting.  Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other Christian-owned homes in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  In January 2020, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to ten years’ imprisonment for the attack on Thabet.  After the men surrendered, the Minya court returned the case to the Beni Suef Criminal Court for retrial.  When that court acquitted the three defendants in December 2020, the Prosecutor General subsequently filed an appeal with the Court of Cassation in January.  At year’s end, no session had been called to examine the appeal.

BBC Arabic aired an interview on November 25 with Ahmed Abdou Maher, described as a “lawyer, researcher, and writer,” whom a court sentenced on November 17 to five years in prison with hard labor for defaming Islam in his book, How the Imams’ Jurisprudence Is Leading the Nation Astray.  Maher told the interviewer that his book did not include a word of extremism, blasphemy, or incitement against Islam; rather, it only criticized what he called Islam’s “blood-soaked ideology.”  In a separate interview, Abdou told al-Mayadeen TV that the Islamic “nation” was “static,” and that “enlightenment” required courage.  According to media reports, “liberals” defended him and insisted that his prosecution was “a disgrace” and “an assault on freedom of thought and expressions.”  Activists and NGOs responded to the case by calling for the abolition of the country’s blasphemy law, with some estimating there had been 130 cases of blasphemy during the last 10 years, with penalties ranging from six months to five years in prison.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan of a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page.  Authorities originally arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”  According to a local civil society group, Hassan’s next court session was set for February 2022.

The detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salib (commonly known solely as Ramy Kamel) continued.  Authorities originally arrested Salib in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community.  The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news.  On October 10 and again on November 27, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.  Kamel’s defense team said he was subjected to harsh conditions of imprisonment, including solitary confinement, that may have endangered his health.

On October 12 and again on November 27, authorities renewed Quranist Reda Abdel Rahman’s detention.  During the year, the courts heard several appeals submitted by Abdel Rahman’s defense team to release him.  Quranists (Quraniyyun) believe the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed).  The NGO EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him.

In September, the government released four prominent Salafi preachers who were members of a political group arrested in 2019.  Authorities had charged Mahmoud Shaaban, Ashraf Abdel Moneim, Hisham Mashali, and Saad Fayyad with “inciting violence and joining a terrorist group.”  Shortly after their release, the government rearrested Shaaban and charged him with inciting violence, joining a group seeking to disrupt the country’s constitution and laws, and harming social peace.  His case remained pending at year’s end.

On September 8, social media activists posted videos of the demolition of a 4,300-square-foot unlicensed church building in the village of Bastra, Beheira Governorate.  As reported by the Coptic newspaper Watani, the city council in Beheira’s capital Damanhour implemented the removal order in cooperation with local security forces.  Clashes between parishioners and security forces as the demolition order was carried out resulted in at least four injuries and the arrest of 21 Coptic protestors, who were subsequently released; no interreligious community violence was reported because of the building’s demolition.  Observers, including Coptic Church officials, and administrators blamed local clergy for not having gone through official registration channels to erect the building.

On November 8, al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II hosted a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the government-sponsored Family House (Beit al-’Aila), a foundation established after the 2011 suicide bombing at Alexandria’s All Saints Church.  Family House’s mission is “preserving the fabric of Muslim-Christian unity within Egyptian society and upholding the principles of coexistence and tolerance,” principally through communal reconciliation efforts.  Former president Adly Mansour attended, as did the Minister of Justice, who delivered a speech on behalf of the Prime Minister.  In remarks at the event, al-Tayyeb said that freedom of religion was “one of the most precious human rights.”  According to press reporting, Tawadros II said at the event, “God did not grant religion to man for the sake of rivalry, but rather for the sake of cooperation.”  Muslim and Christian religious leaders said Family House was very active in some areas, such as Assiut Governorate, while in others, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it was much less engaged.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church did not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, a Church spokesperson said reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of the application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence.  At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing them as substitutes for criminal proceedings rather than a means of addressing attacks on Christians and their churches.  Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions.  Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized reconciliation sessions as encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and that Christian participants were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading in some cases to the dropping of criminal charges.

Some Christian expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly did not declare Easter, May 2, as an official holiday for state workers.  Instead, he announced it would be a day off from work in order to prevent overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Citing the article (No. 53) in the constitution that says that the state shall take all necessary measures to eliminate discrimination, human rights activists said that basic religious holidays should be official ones for all citizens and should be referred to as such.  The government had not previously designated Easter as a holiday.

Efforts to combat atheism received official support.  In 2019, al-Azhar founded a Bayan (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.”  As of the end of the year, the unit remained active.  During the year, its activities included posting more than 15,000 social media comments intended to refute atheist opinions.

On October 18, the Supreme Administrative Court postponed hearing an appeal filed by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) against an administrative court’s 2020 ruling that obligated the NTRA to block Shia websites in general, and the Ibn al-Nafis news website in particular, from the internet, until a November 15 hearing.  The case was pending at year’s end.

In August, a religious leader in the Presbyterian community said police stopped dozens of converts on their way to a church retreat, confiscated IDs, and detained and interrogated some parishioners.  While all detainees were ultimately released, the leader said many continued to be subject to harassment and occasional detention.

EIPR called on September 9 for the release of Coptic Christian Gerges Samih Zaki Ebeid and the dropping of charges against him for having written a post on his personal Facebook account described by villagers, social media commenters, and prosecutors as offensive to Islam.  On September 7 and again on November 24, a court renewed Samih’s detention for 45 days, pending an investigation into allegations he had joined a terrorist group, spread false news with the aim of disturbing the public peace, and used an online account with the intention of committing a crime.  Authorities arrested Samih in Delta Governorate in November 2020 following sectarian violence in the village of al-Barsha, in Mallawy District of southern Minya Governorate that had resulted from the Facebook post.  Following interreligious clashes, the Minya Public Prosecutor detained 35 defendants, including 15 Copts and 20 Muslims, for 15 days pending investigations, releasing them on January 12, pending further questioning.

Members of the country’s Shia community said that they risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought.

The government has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization (the government in 2013 banned the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party).  On June 14, the Court of Cassation upheld death sentences for 12 senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders including Mohamed al-Beltagy, Safwat Hegazy, and Abdel-Rahman al-Bar, following a mass trial of 739 persons for their participation in large-scale antigovernment sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in July and August 2013.  On July 11, the Cassation Court upheld the 2019 sentencing of 10 Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the group’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, to life imprisonment on charges of “killing policemen, organizing mass jail breaks, and undermining national security by conspiring with foreign militant groups, including Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah” during unrest in 2011.  On April 8, a court sentenced Mahmoud Ezzat, former acting Supreme Guide, to life in prison.  Media reported the court convicted Ezzat on terrorism-related charges stemming from 2013 clashes between Brotherhood supporters and their opponents in Cairo.  In an April 8 statement, the Brotherhood denounced the verdict as politicized and based upon fabrications and described Ezzat as a “devoted religious leader.”

On July 12, the parliament passed legislation, signed into law by the President on August 1, that allowed the dismissal of any public employee found to have undermined national security, or whom the government has listed as a member of a terrorist organization.  Press and NGOs said the new law targeted the Muslim Brotherhood.  On July 26, the Supreme Council of Universities directed university presidents in the country to prepare and submit lists of employees covered by the new law, for submission after the law took effect.  In September, press reported the country’s railway authority had removed approximately 190 employees for alleged Muslim Brotherhood ties.

In August, the Ministry of Awqaf issued an order banning books relating to extremism and the Muslim Brotherhood from all mosque libraries.  The director of the religious sector at the ministry alerted its directorates in all governorates to review books, magazines and publications in mosque libraries and remove any items that were found to include “extremist ideology.”  In a statement, Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa directed the punishment of any official neglecting these orders.  The ministry’s order also warned imams to not include any books in mosque libraries without permission from the ministry’s office responsible for religious guidance.

In November 2020, the Supreme Administrative Court added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists, based on a charge that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group.  The court dismissed an appeal submitted by Aboul Fotouh on November 18.

In December, authorities banned Shia activist Haidar Kanil, a reporter for al-Dustour newspaper, from travelling to Moscow where he said he planned to seek employment.  Kandil told the news website The New Arab that police required him to check in on a weekly basis in his hometown, Tanta city.  He said officials accused him of contempt of religion, spreading Shiism and anti-state ideas, and establishing a group in violation of the law.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa directed the punishment of any official neglecting these orders.  The ministry’s order also warned imams to not include any books in mosque libraries without permission from the ministry’s office responsible for religious guidance.

At year’s end, authorities continued to detain Ahmed Sebaie, who was arrested in 2020 after posting a video on his YouTube channel that discussed the Bible and Christian doctrine.  More than 400,000 subscribers followed Sebaie’s YouTube account, which focuses on religion.  In the past, he produced videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and promoted Islam.

On June 28, the Ministry of Awqaf banned Alaa Mohammed Hussein Yaqoub, son of a prominent Salafi imam and preacher, from preaching at mosques, ostensibly for having failed to adhere to sermon length and content guidelines.  The ban came after Alaa Yaqoub’s father, Mohammed Hussein Yaqoub, testified for the government in a terrorism case before a Cairo court, denying that he was a religious scholar and criticizing Salafism.  The press said that Mohammed Yaqoub’s testimony, which appeared to contradict many years of preaching, resulted in “widescale controversy.”  Al Masry al-Youm reported that, as a result of the testimony, a member of parliament introduced legislation to prevent nonspecialists from speaking in religious matters or issuing fatwas.  Alaa Yaqoub said he would comply fully with the government’s order banning him from preaching.

On January 17, the Court of Urgent Matters in Egypt accepted a lawsuit filed by the head of the Judiciary’s Committee for Inventory, Seizure, and Management of Terrorist Funds aimed at seizing assets belonging to 89 members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood – including family members of the late former president Mohammed Morsi – and transfer them to the state treasury.

On September 18, the Awqaf Minister ordered the dismissal of the undersecretary of the Ministry of Awqaf in Ismailia after a quarrel with worshipers at al-Matafy Mosque.  The undersecretary reportedly angered some of the worshipers by describing them as extremists during a sermon, leading to an altercation with worshipers following his address.

On September 25, local media reported the Supreme Administrative Court issued a final verdict that banned the use of mosques for political purposes and upheld the state’s right to supervise them.  This ruling upheld a previous decision by the Minister of Awqaf to place 42 mosques in Beheira Governorate under the ministry’s supervision.

Local media reported in October that a new prison complex at Wadi al-Natroun included a church, making it the first in the country to include church facilities.  Media reported Christian clergy previously had to conduct prison services in multipurpose rooms.  The government said publicly that clergy were allowed inside prisons to perform services for inmates during Copts’ celebration of Christmas on January 8.  According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, on January 1, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison for permission to attend upcoming Coptic Christmas services.  Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers, but it continued to deny requests for public religious gatherings by unregistered religious groups.

Baha’is were subject to inconsistent application of administrative court rulings recognizing marriages.  Members of the community reported that members whose marriages the state formally recognized were occasionally subject to government appeals seeking to overturn that recognition.

Shia community sources and religious freedom observers stated that information contained in a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, on challenges facing the country’s Shia community remained valid in 2021.  The MRGI report stated that there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyas) in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship.  Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought.

Based on 2020 Supreme Administrative Court verdicts banning faculty and teaching staff at Cairo and Ain Shams Universities from wearing the niqab in class, a lawyer filed an October 5 lawsuit before an administrative court to obligate the Minister of Education to issue a decision banning the wearing of the niqab for teachers, students, workers, and administrators in public, private, and international schools.  According to the memo submitted to the court in support of the suit, criminals wearing the niqab had taken advantage of the anonymity it affords to commit crimes, including terrorist attacks.  The case remained pending at year’s end.

According to analysis by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, an international NGO focused on human rights, the government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and authorized customs officials to confiscate religious materials from these groups’ adherents.

On July 9, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that a broad array of antisemitic books continued to be exhibited among the materials hosted at the state-run book fair, “including the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  The ADL noted that it had raised the Cairo Book Fair’s sale of antisemitic titles with government representatives in previous years.  The NGO said that the 2021 book fair, which began on June 30, continued to sell every problematic book sold at the 2020 fair that the ADL had identified in its earlier communications with the government.

The Mansoura Emergency State Security Misdemeanors Court ordered on December 7 the release of EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaki after 22 months of pretrial detention, pending an investigation on charges of “spreading false news” following a 2019 article Zaki wrote on anti-Coptic discrimination.  The court set February 1, 2022 as the next hearing date in Zaki’s case.

The Coptic Papal Office, local bishoprics, and Coptic media expressed positive views about the pace of church registration and construction five years after passage of the 2016 Church Construction Law.  EIPR, however, listed 25 cases in which churches and worship places had been closed after the passage of the 2016 law, and called for new legislation guaranteeing freedom of religious practice and the building of places of worship for all citizens.

In a November 7 statement, a cabinet committee tasked with registering unlicensed churches approved the legalization of 63 churches and church facilities that had been operating without a permit, bringing the total number of churches and service buildings granted legal status since 2017 to 2,021.  In November, the Prime Minister ordered governorates to accelerate permits and to send him periodic reports on their progress.

In August, the Ministry of Awqaf said that 1,650 mosques had been opened since September 2020, including 1,510 new mosques, while 140 underwent maintenance or restoration.  The construction and renovation work, implemented under the supervision of the regional directorates, brought the number of new or refurbished mosques between September 7, 2020 and August 27 to 1,810.

Local media reported pharaonic inscriptions on the facade of the Ibrahim Abdel Latif Mosque, located in the Youssef al-Siddiq Center in village of Nazla, Fayoum Governorate, sparked controversy in September.  Local media said the community had paid to construct the mosque, but the inscriptions had escaped the notice of the Awqaf Ministry’s engineering department (which limits mosque inscriptions to Islamic themes or text).  An engineer in the engineering department of the Fayoum Awqaf Directorate was being investigated.

On January 5, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities opened the first stop on the 2,100-mile Holy Family Trail – marking the route believers hold was taken by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – in Samannoud, Gharbeya Governorate.  Development projects in Samannoud included the conservation and restoration of St. Abba Noub Church and the surrounding area.  The ministry announced the project in 2020, stating the trail would run from Sinai to Assiut, including stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells.

On July 24, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi directed the renovation of the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Muhammad) across the country, particularly the tombs of Sayyida Nafisa (Muhammad’s great-granddaughter), Sayyida Zeinab (Muhammad’s granddaughter), and Sayyid al-Hussein (Muhammad’s grandson), including the restoration of the interior halls of mosques at these sites and their architectural details.

In November, the Ministry of Awqaf issued a decision that banned the use of collection boxes in mosques.  The boxes often are used for donations for mosque repair and upkeep, provision of social services, and charitable endeavors.  Authorities said the decision was driven by security and transparency concerns.  After the government’s initial announcement, the ministry stated an exception would be made for mosques belonging to Sufi orders, which have “vows” collection boxes, used for donations made if a worshiper believes God has answered a prayer.

On February 14, Deputy Minister of Education Reda Hegazy announced in parliament that the ministry supported a proposal by Member of Parliament Freddy al-Bayadi advancing school curriculum that highlighted the common values shared by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and the principles of tolerance, citizenship, and coexistence.  Sources in parliament stated that schools were gradually updating curricula to include messages of interreligious tolerance, although al-Bayadi’s proposal progressed no further in the chamber by year’s end.  According to news websites, Hegazy also said that there were new government instructions to remove Quranic verses from the general curriculum and restrict them to religious courses.  He explained that including religious texts in courses such as Arabic, history, and geography allowed unqualified teachers to provide “an extremist and destructive” interpretation of the texts.  A former senior Ministry of Awqaf official responded that the measure represented “a plan to alter Egypt’s Islamic identity” and that President Sisi “has used all his media outlets to attack al-Azhar, its grand sheikh, and Islam.”  The Salafist al-Nour Party said that the removal of Quranic texts from the general curriculum was “unacceptable.”

In December, parliament debated a bill intended to support the use of Standard Arabic, the Quranic form of the language.  During the debate, a representative of al-Azhar expressed support for the proposed legislation’s requirement that elementary school students memorize Quranic verses.  Yousef al-Husseini, a member of the House of Representatives, said, “There are non-Muslim students like Copts who should not be forced to memorize the Quran.”  In a statement, al-Azhar said, “The call to remove Quranic texts from the Arabic language subject is an explicit call to distance students from their religion and values and to cut them off from their language, culture, and identity, as it opens the door to destructive ideas and interpretations.”

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In 2020, third grade students began using revised textbooks, including the book Values and Respect for Others, an ethics text drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.  For the 2021/2022 academic year, use of the text expanded to first and second grade classes.

On March 9, the Jerusalem Post reported the Ministry of Education for the first time approved a measure that allowed Egyptian children to study verses from Jewish scripture.

On January 2, TV anchor and journalist Ibrahim Issa cited a lack of “adequate references” to Christian history in educational curricula, except for material dealing with monasticism, monasteries, and participation in the 1919 Revolution.  In June, Pope Tawadros II called on the Ministry of Education to include information on the route of the Holy Family in its curricula, calling the history of the flight to Egypt a source of “pride for any Egyptian.”  The Minister of Education pledged to study the Pope’s proposal “within the general framework of the new curricula in the ministry.”

In early September, the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS) released a statement reinforcing a Dar al-Iftaa fatwa calling on preschools to stop posting verses from the Quran or the Bible over their entrances.  The fatwa and statement followed the viral spread via social media of a photo of a nursery gate that featured a Quranic verse that had been taken out of context and contained grammatical errors.  MOSS’s statement stressed, moreover, “Egypt is a home for everyone,” and said that the inclusion of religious verses could be construed to indicate that specific schools or nurseries only catered to Muslims or Christians, respectively.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet, which consists of 32 ministers.  Among the 27 governorates, only Damietta and Ismailia had Christian governors.  The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor.  The electoral laws reserve 24 seats for Christian candidates in the House of Representatives.  During the year, the House of Representatives exceeded the quota, with 31 Christians, out of a total of 596 representatives.  There were a total of 24 Christian senators – 17 elected, and seven appointed by President Sisi – out of 300 seats in that chamber, including the Deputy Speaker.  Observers stated that President Sisi also had several senior Christian advisors.

Some Shia stated they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from employment in the security and intelligence services.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country.  Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

On March 1, the President issued a decree forming Boards of Directors of endowment bodies for the Catholic Church and Protestant churches of Egypt.  The decree followed passage of a law in parliament intended to give the Catholic and Protestant communities equal status to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

On August 22, local NGOs reported that the Supreme Judicial Council – the highest administrative body for the country’s judiciary and headed by the President of the Court of Cassation – approved a request by the Prosecutor General to transfer 11 female judges, including one Copt, to work in the public prosecutor’s office for the judicial year beginning in September.  On August 5, the Official Gazette published two presidential decisions appointing assistant delegates to the State Council – an independent body that rules on mainly administrative matters involving the country’s judiciary – from among 2016 and 2017 law school graduates.  According to EIPR researchers, the first decision included three Copts out of 204 delegates, or 1.5 percent.  The second decision included three Copts out of 207 delegates, or 1.4 percent.

Grand Imam al-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Coexistence, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.”  Al-Tayyeb and Pope Francis met in person and discussed the initiatives resulting from the document on October 4 following a Vatican-hosted summit entitled “Faith and Science:  Towards COP26,” alongside other world faith leaders.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism.  The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites.  The center’s website and social media employed numerous languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi.  Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam.  Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In May, the government announced it would include all civilians who lost their lives to terrorist operations since January 2014 among those eligible for government aid via the 2018 official Fund for Honoring Martyrs, Victims, Missing Persons, and Injured in Terror and Security Operations, and their Families.  The list of those eligible for aid included the families of 1,260 civilians killed and 1,804 civilians injured in terrorist attacks targeting religious minorities.

During an August 3 meeting with participants in a conference organized by Dar al-Iftaa, “Fatwa Institutions in the Digital Age,” President Sisi said that scholars needed to confront electronic platforms spreading false ideas that distorted the essence of Islam and exploited religion to achieve political goals through terrorism.  During an August 24 television interview, the President said, “We are all born Muslim and non-Muslim according to our ID cards, but we realize that we have to reformulate our understanding of the belief that we follow.”  On September 11, during the launch ceremony of the National Human Rights Strategy, President Sisi asked, “Why are you upset to see a church or a synagogue?  The state has moved to face this matter effectively and ensures the respect of all religions through laws.”  He added, “I respect nonbelievers.  If someone tells me [he or she is] neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I would tell them, you are free to choose.”  Sisi also said, “And it is not because I am not protective of my religion.  I am.  And that is why I respect the will of nonbelievers, which is based on freedom of belief – a God-given right.”  On social media, some users criticized Sisi for normalizing the acceptance of individuals who do not believe in God, saying this attitude was unacceptable to much of the Muslim majority in the country.  On October 17, marking the celebration of Mawlid al-Nabi (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), Sisi urged religious institutions and scholars to intensify their efforts to spread values of tolerance, intellectual diversity, and acceptance of others.

The National Strategy for Human Rights contained a section dedicated to “Freedom of Religion and Belief” that noted several steps the government had taken in recent years, including the establishment of a National Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism and the Supreme Committee for Combating Sectarian Incidents as well as the Ministry of Higher Education’s strategy against extremism and takfiri (declaring someone a nonbeliever) ideology at the country’s universities.  It stated that the Ministry of Awqaf dedicated some Friday sermons to promote tolerance and combat violence and hatred.  The document also noted efforts by al-Azhar, the Dar al-Iftaa, and Christian churches to promote intercommunal understanding.  The strategy stated the government frequently promoted interfaith dialogue.

On January 24, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa permitting Muslims to work in church construction in exchange for a salary, a ruling that sparked controversy on social media.  Activists recalled previous 2013 fatwas on Salafist websites prohibiting such employment.  Dar al-Iftaa based the more recent decision on an earlier ruling by Imam Abu Hanifa in which he stated that such work was permissible and was an obligation unless it involves the humiliation of a Muslim or required him to consent to anything that contradicted Islamic theology.  Some media interpreted the fatwa as giving Muslims permission to contribute to the ongoing or planned construction/restoration of churches throughout the country.

On October 13, while addressing a workshop that trained religious leaders to raise awareness of women’s issues, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa said a pilot program involving female preachers and nuns set an outstanding model of national action, which, he added, was an approach adopted by the ministry in partnership with churches and the National Council for Women.  Gomaa said that women’s equality was a religious, national, and humanitarian obligation.  According to local press, in September, the number of female preachers was 304, including 251 female volunteers and 53 female mentors appointed by the ministry.

The cabinet’s media center released a documentary that promoted the values of citizenship, loyalty, nondiscrimination, and equality between Muslims and Christians.  The documentary highlighted the importance of strengthening these values in preserving the country’s security and stability, as well as of countering attempts to sow sedition within communities, according to a statement released by the center on January 7.

On January 9, the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism issued a report in 12 languages under the title Religious Freedom:  An Authentic Islamic Principle.  The observatory stated in the report that religious freedom was one of the most important principles of Islam.  On May 5, the Grand Imam said, “Congratulating non-Muslims on their holidays and their joys and comforting them in their misfortune…[is] the righteousness that Islam command[s].”

On August 11, President Sisi extended the term of Grand Mufti Shawky Allam by a year by presidential decree.  The President issued a separate but related decree the same week that designated the Dar al-Iftaa as a “special entity” not subject to the provisions of the civil service law.  Some observers said that these decrees redistributed power traditionally vested in the Council of Islamic Scholars to the President.  In July, a proposed law sought to make Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti independent of al-Azhar.  Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar under the direct control of the government.  Under its terms, the President would have had the right to appoint the Grand Mufti.  The State Council ruled the draft law unconstitutional, after which it was withdrawn by the government.

On September 14, after the launch of the National Strategy on Human Rights, the Minister of Awqaf announced his intention to establish a human rights unit to enact provisions of the strategy.  The unit, according to the statement, will work to promote the values of citizenship and religious tolerance, contribute to social protection and community service programs, and fulfill the rights of people with disabilities (for example, incorporating sign language during weekly sermons).

On March 7, EIPR filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Coptic woman with the Supreme Constitutional Court regarding the constitutionality of requiring Christian citizens to apply the rules of sharia in inheritance matters.  The lawsuit maintained that this requirement violated Article 3 of the constitution, which permits the canonical laws of religious minorities to prevail in civil matters.  Defendants in the lawsuit included the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, and Speaker of Parliament.  On September 12, the court’s board of commissioners examined the case and on November 14, the court referred the case to the Constitutional Court to set a date for further review.  The case remained pending at year’s end.

On December 4, the news website Cairo 24.com reported that that the Ministry of Justice completed drafting the Family Law (Personal Status for Christians) after representatives of Christian denominations agreed on its text during meetings earlier in the year.  On July 4, a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church announced completion of a review of the draft law in the Ministry of Justice after 16 sessions that brought together ministry officials with representatives of Christian denominations to agree on its articles.  In September, the newspaper Al-Dustour reported the draft law would be introduced in parliament, after other Christian churches expressed support.  In December, the ministry sent the draft law to the cabinet for approval.  At year’s end, the cabinet had not submitted the draft legislation to the House of Representatives.

There was public debate and court challenges on the issue of listing religions on the national ID.  Coptic human rights attorneys filed a lawsuit on August 25 demanding the Civil Status Department of the Ministry of Interior remove the “religion” field from the national ID card.  Referring to what it said was the positive atmosphere of religious unity promoted by the Sisi government, the lawsuit stated that some persons still used the religious designator on ID cards to discriminate against religious minorities.  During a panel discussion in September, journalist Ibrahim Eissa called for religion to be removed from citizens’ ID cards.  Justice Minister Omar Marwan responded that “there must be some form of official documentation of citizens’ religion” to ensure laws and services that were specific to one’s religion were properly provided.

On December 27, the Alexandria Administrative Court dismissed a lawsuit brought in January by EIPR on behalf of a group of Baha’i citizens in Alexandria seeking to have the government designate a cemetery for those whose national ID cards showed a “-” (meaning no selection) under religious affiliation.  The government cited opinions from al-Azhar that, despite earlier rulings and practices, said it was impermissible to allocate a plot of land for individuals who were not Muslims, Christians, or Jews.  Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo, which members of the Baha’i community described as overcrowded and inconveniently distant for Baha’is living outside Cairo, remained the only cemetery in the country where Baha’is could be buried.  EIPR said it planned to appeal the decision.

In June, the ADL reported that it had completed a review of elementary, middle, and high school textbooks as part of an examination of antisemitic content in state-published curricula.  The ADL stated that although the country’s most recent textbooks contained some positive material about the Jewish people, that content was “directly contradicted by other, much more problematic lessons in the curriculum.”  The report cited one fifth grade textbook that teaches taught students that “the treachery of the Jews” was “one of their traits” and that Jews “betrayed God and his Prophet.”

The press reported that on June 29 the al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwas warned against the online video game Fortnite, saying it contained a portrayal of the destruction of the Kaaba, the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca.  The game’s designers posted a statement on Facebook that said they respected all religious faiths and that the problematic content was made by an independent player in “creative mode.”

On June 20, President Sisi met with Sultan Mufadal Saifuddin, head of the Bohra branch of Ismaili Shia Islam.  According to press reporting, the President noted the country’s close ties with Bohra Ismailis and thanked the group for its help in restoring several historic mosques and shrines in the country.

On March 16, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa said that the President and government had always called for the export of moderate Islam to Africa.  Gomaa said that the government had regularly sent imams and preachers to many African countries, stressing that the government placed great importance on countering extremism.  On August 2, al-Azhar announced a training course on countering extremism for 23 imams and preachers from Mali.  On August 10 after a meeting with the ambassador from Senegal, Grand Imam al-Tayyeb, said that al-Azhar was ready to establish a similar institution in Senegal, while confirming that 350 Senegalese students were currently studying at al-Azhar, which had sent 41 teachers to Senegal.  In separate statements in June and August, al-Azhar said it would step up efforts to train imams in Pakistan and Russia.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Terrorist groups, including Islamic State-Sinai Peninsula (or ISIS-SP, formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), continued sporadic attacks on government, civilian, and security targets in the North Sinai Governorate.  According to an international NGO, at least 26 civilian deaths, 51 security force deaths, and 31 terrorist deaths occurred in the conflict in Sinai between January and July.  According to an ISIS media affiliate, ISIS-SP claimed 101 attacks resulting in 206 casualties during the year.

In April, ISIS-SP released a video that documented the killing of Nabil Habashi, a local Coptic Christian and cofounder of the only church in the district of Bir al-Abd, one of the focal points of ISIS-SP operations.  ISIS-SP kidnapped Habashi in November 2020, using the justification of “Christian support for the Egyptian military and state” and held him for ransom until killing him in February.  Pope Tawadros II released a statement mourning the “faithful son and servant” Habashi, offering condolences to his family and church, and “saluting the heroes of the Egyptian military and police.”  EIPR characterized the killing as a “murder based on religious identity.”

On July 27, Shenouda Salah Asaad, a Copt, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a Salafist neighbor, in al-Qusiyah, Assiut Governorate.  Salah’s wife was injured and hospitalized.  The investigative police in al-Qusiyah reportedly intensified efforts to arrest the perpetrator.  At year’s end, there had been no official confirmation of his apprehension.

In April, sectarian clashes in al-Mudmar village in Sohag Governorate resulted in at least one death and six injuries that required hospitalization.  Witnesses in al-Mudmar said that the events began with a dispute between two Copts, and later drew in a Muslim would-be mediator.  Following the violence, security forces moved into the village.  Eyewitness residents said the village generally experienced amicable relations between Muslims and Christians.

On October 11, local media reported that a female pharmacist working in Sharqia Governorate accused her coworkers of assaulting, harassing, and persecuting her for her decision not to wear a hijab.  The pharmacist filed a report with the Zagazig District police department against her colleagues, prompting the Governor of Sharqia to offer support, pending investigation by the prosecution.  The pharmacist also appealed to the Pharmacists Syndicate to intervene, and one of her colleagues documented the alleged assault in her workplace with a video that was widely circulated on Facebook.  One week after the pharmacist’s complaint, the Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered her detained for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “joining a terrorist group and spreading false news.”  In November and again on December 21, the State Security Prosecution Office extended the pharmacist’s detention by 15 days.  The pharmacist remained in detention at year’s end.

In September, the press reported that two doctors and another employee at a Cairo hospital had anonymously posted a video to social media of them bullying a nurse and demanding that he kneel and pray to a dog.  The nurse stated that it would be a sin for all of them if he complied.  The press reported that there was a “wave of indignation on social media.”   The Ministry of Health later said that it fired the senior doctor; the country’s Prosecutor General ordered the three men detained, pending an investigation on charges of bullying, abuse of power, and contempt of religion.  The case was referred to a criminal court, which sentenced the three to two years in prison in October.

Religious discrimination in private sector hiring continued, according to human rights groups and religious communities.

A July report by the NGO Coptic Solidarity stated that out of 141 athletes on the national Olympic team that competed in the 2020 Tokyo games (held in 2021), only one was a Copt.  The Olympic teams in 2012 and 2016 had similar breakdowns, which the NGO stated was due to “entrenched, deep-rooted, systematic, and systemic discrimination against the Copts.”

In February, Al-Monitor, a news website, reported that Christian soccer players formed a team, Je Suis Club, in 2016 to provide Christians playing opportunities.  The report stated that the main Egyptian teams, including Zamalek, Ahli, Ismaili, and the Alexandria Union, had only Muslim players on their rosters.

During a nationally broadcast television program, an al-Azhar University professor responded to the beating of a woman by her husband by saying that women tended to exaggerate when complaining, that no man would resort to this degree of violence unless strongly provoked, and that wives were guilty of bringing domestic violence upon themselves.  A local advocacy group for battered spouses posted the video on social media, criticizing the downplaying of spousal abuse by a member of the country’s religious establishment.  One of the professor’s female colleagues at al-Azhar’s Tadwein Center for Gender Studies denounced the professor’s televised statements and said Islam did not justify violence against women under any circumstances.

Reuters reported the country’s first all-female Muslim recitation choir, al-Hour, was challenging “deep-rooted taboos about women singing in public or reciting from the Quran.”  Al-Hour founder Nemaa Fathi said, “Having women in the Muslim religious chanting field not only breaks social stereotypes about female chanters.  It also gives a new, distinctive style to an art that has long been dominated by only men.”

The press reported that a video of a girls’ choir singing Christian hymns on the Cairo Metro was extensively reposted after initially having been posted by Nabila Makram, a Copt and Minister of Emigration and Expatriate Affairs.  One human rights lawyer characterized the singing as courageous, adding, “The reality is that Egyptian society is intolerant of Christians’ public expression of faith.”

In June, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar welcomed a proposal to establish a center in Egypt for Islamic studies, presented to him by a delegation from the Anglican Episcopal Church. The proposal was the first of its kind in the history of relations between al-Azhar and the Church.  Also included in the proposal were the establishment of an Islamic library, in cooperation with al-Azhar University.

In November, Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and All Africa inaugurated the Patriarchal Center for Studies and Dialogue in the Holy Monastery of St. Georgios in Cairo as a new center for interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

In October, the Syndicate of Musical Professions in Egypt issued a decision banning its members from dealing with Egyptian rapper Marwan Pablo due to his having “defiled a religious invocation” during a concert in New Cairo.  In a statement, the syndicate said that Marwan “repeated a well-known religious invocation but that he replaced its words with vulgarity and emptied it of its moral content.”

According to a January 8 report on Al-Monitor, following a decision by the Government of Pakistan to ban the release of a British film, The Lady of Heaven, a number of social media activists, Islamic scholars, and Salafist imams called for a ban on screening the film in Egypt.  They urged the issuance of fatwas prohibiting the viewing of the film and sent demands to the United Kingdom to stop the international distribution of the movie.  According to press, the film portrayed the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, who also was the wife of Ali, fourth caliph of Sunni Muslims and first imam of Shia Muslims.  Several newspapers reported that the film featured the voice of the Prophet Muhammad as a narrator in the film.

On April 3, 22 royal mummies and 17 sarcophagi were transferred from the Egyptian Museum, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilizations, also in Cairo.  During the transfer, prominent actors and actresses portrayed figures from the history of Egyptian civilizations, including the centuries-long coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – including prominent scenes within churches and synagogues.

The research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 24 percent of Egyptian respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, which was lower than the regionwide result of 34 percent.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador, other embassy officials, and other senior Administration officials, regularly raised religious freedom concerns with senior government officials.  The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed church legalization and construction, preservation of Jewish cultural heritage and sites, interfaith dialogue, and countering religious extremism with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, regional governors, senior religious leaders, and civil society and minority religious groups.  In these meetings, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised issues including alleged harassment of religious converts; prospective changes to Egypt’s Personal Status Law; recognition of Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ; access to Jewish communal archives; and the use of religious designations on national identity cards.

Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar; Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; bishops and senior pastors of Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican Churches; and members of the Jewish community.  In these meetings, embassy staff members discussed cases in which administrative courts applied inconsistent or discriminatory standards to members of unrecognized religious minorities; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination via the continued inclusion of religious designations on national identity cards.  They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues such as continued issuance of permits for and new construction of churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the protection and restoration of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in meetings with government officials.  Embassy officials on several occasions attended court hearings or submitted letters to court officials expressing official interest in cases of Egyptians held in pretrial confinement based on religious statements or writings.

On April 18, following a five-year restoration project implemented through U.S. funding, the Ambassador attended the reopening of the country’s largest mausoleum dome:  the tomb of Imam Abu Abdullah Mohammed bin Idris al-Shafie, the founder of the Shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence.  On August 28, the Ambassador toured Sohag Governorate’s Red and White Monasteries – 3rd Century monastic churches that are among the best preserved of their kind in the country – where he met with church officials, observed more than five million dollars worth of U.S.-funded preservation work, and emphasized the U.S. commitment to preserving the country’s religious and cultural heritage.  On September 15, the Ambassador opened a U.S.-government-supported academic conference on the 12th-century Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides, reminding attendees in his remarks of the centrality of religious freedom to the founding principles of the United States and the longstanding history of pluralism in Egypt.  On October 20, the embassy held the public launch of a girls’ empowerment event in Upper Egypt.  The three million dollar program, with a strong emphasis on religious tolerance, was being implemented in the governorates of Qena and Minya, two areas historically characterized by higher levels of interreligious discord between Muslims and Copts.  In the second half of the year, the embassy conducted a six-month virtual interfaith dialogue program with U.S. and Egyptian Muslim and Christian religious influencers focused on conflict resolution and peace building.  The embassy facilitated a 12-week professional development course for more than 70 English language instructors at al-Azhar University, allowing for broader U.S. government engagement with al-Azhar and, according to al-Azhar staff members, allowing the institution to better engage with the outside world.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution requires the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state.  The conflict that erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 spread to other regions during the year and victims of violence included religious figures.  According to media, at least 78 priests were killed in Tigray during the first five months of the year by soldiers from the national army and Eritrean troops.  The Telegraph reported the killings based on a church letter to the Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) that said “priests, deacons, choristers and monks” had been “massacred” over a period of five months.  In April, according to media, EOTC Co-Patriarch Abune Mathias accused the government of genocide in Tigray.  On February 25, the Belgium-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Europe External Programme with Africa reported that one monk was killed during the bombing and looting of Debre Damo Monastery in January in Tigray.  Reportedly, Eritrean troops aligned with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces committed the attack.  According to media, on May 9, security forces violently shut down iftar celebrations at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa during Ramadan and turned away thousands of attendees.  Numerous individuals stated the shutdown was religiously motivated, as some members of the EOTC said Meskel Square was EOTC’s traditional property.  City officials, however, stated the shutdown was due to safety concerns.  According to media, in July, police officers raided a cathedral in Addis Ababa, interrupting prayers and forcing a dozen ethnic Tigrayan priests and monks into a pickup truck; they were released several weeks later.  On January 5, the BBC reported the government agreed to repair the al-Nejashi Mosque that was damaged in 2020 during the conflict in Tigray.  The government said a nearby church would also be repaired.

In October, the Amhara Region Islamic Affairs Supreme Council said the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had demolished a historic mosque in Zarema town, North Gondar, Amhara Region.  Some human rights groups stated that societal violence was on the rise, especially in the context of the ongoing conflict in the northern part of the country.  Because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked, and because criminality also played a role, according to knowledgeable observers, it was difficult to characterize many incidents of societal violence as solely based on religious identity.  On March 5, according to the Addis Standard, members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) killed 29 individuals in Abo Church in Debos Kebele, East Wollega, Oromia Region.  Witnesses said victims were marking the beginning of the EOTC’s two-month period of fasting.  Reports stated members of the OLA stormed into the church, immediately killed the church administrator, took the rest of the victims to a nearby forest and killed them.

U.S embassy officials met with senior religious leaders to advocate peaceful resolution to the conflict in Tigray.  The Ambassador met with the Co-Patriarch of the EOTC following a viral video in which the Co-Patriarch warned of genocide against the Tigrayan people.  The embassy provided funding to faith-based organizations, including the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE), to implement community projects aimed at long-term peacebuilding and religious tolerance, among other goals.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 110.9 million (midyear 2021).  According to 2016 U.S. government estimates, 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOTC, 31 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 23 percent belong to evangelical Christian and Pentecostal groups, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, and Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.  Most observers believe the evangelical Christian and Pentecostal proportion of the population has increased since the last national census was conducted in 2007.  The EOTC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions.  Established Protestant churches have the most adherents in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s (SNNP) Region and Gambella Region and parts of Oromia Region.

Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions.  The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000 and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs.  It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law to protect public safety, education, and morals as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion.  The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another.

The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches.  The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols.  Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity and 15 for registration as a ministry or association; the rights and privileges are the same for each category.  During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper.  If there are no objections, registration is granted.  Unlike other religious groups, the EOTC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force.  Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery.  Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits.  Religious groups must renew their registration at least once every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports.  Activity reports must describe proselytizing activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution, the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state.  The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays to allow Muslim workers to attend Islamic prayers.  Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values.  The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques.  The Charities and Societies Agency, a government body accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction.  The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

The law allows all civil society organizations and religious groups to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities and to collect and obtain funding from any legal source.

Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and to follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

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

Government Practices

The conflict that erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 spread to other regions during the year and victims of violence included religious figures.  According to media, at least 78 priests were reportedly killed in Tigray during the first five months of the year by soldiers from the national army and Eritrean troops.  The Telegraph reported the killings based on a church letter to the Synod of the EOTC that said “priests, deacons, choristers and monks” had been “massacred” over a period of five months.

In April, according to media, Co-Patriarch Mathias, an ethnic Tigrayan, accused the government of genocide in Tigray.  In a video shot the previous month on a mobile phone and taken out of the country, the Co-Patriarch addressed the Church’s millions of followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out were blocked.  “I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray,” the Co-Patriarch said, speaking in Amharic.  “They want to destroy the people of Tigray,” he added, listing alleged atrocities including massacres and forced starvation as well as the destruction of churches and looting.

On February 25, the Europe External Programme with Africa reported that one monk was killed during the bombing and looting of Debre Damo Monastery in Tigray in January.  Reportedly, Eritrean troops aligned with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were responsible for the attack.  The Times reported other buildings had been completely destroyed, including monks’ ancient dwellings.  Many reporters cited ethnic grievance as the basis of the attack and said there was no evidence the attack was religiously motivated.

On May 9, according to the Addis Standard, government security forces dispersed thousands of Muslims from Meskel Square where the Muslim community in Addis Ababa had organized a Grand Iftar event during Ramadan.  In response to videos and photos showing security forces firing teargas at the crowds, Muslim activists and clerics on social media decried the government’s actions as religiously motivated.  Some members of the EOTC said Meskel Square was the EOTC’s traditional property.  City officials, however, said the violent dispersal was due to safety concerns arising from the unexpectedly large number of attendees and ongoing construction in Meskel Square.  City officials consequently canceled the event and rescheduled it for May 11.  According to the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), the rescheduled event was held peacefully.  ENA also reported that the purposes of the event included demonstrating that Ramadan was a time of compassion, sharing, and supporting one another in line with Islamic teachings and praying for the unity of the country.  Despite the delay, event organizers thanked city administrators for allowing the event to take place.  Mayor of Addis Ababa Adanech Abiebie stated that the square belonged to all citizens – not just Christians – and called for Ethiopians to unite and celebrate religious differences.

In June, police accused a preacher from the Mahibere Kidusan – an EOTC congregation – of supporting the TPLF, which parliament had designated as a terrorist group.  Police reportedly arrested members of the Mahibere Kidusan for taking pictures of police officers during a demonstration outside the home of EOTC Co-Patriarch Mathias.  Demonstrators marched to show solidarity with Mathias after he publicly condemned the ongoing war in Tigray and characterized abuses against Tigrayans as genocide.

According to media, in July, police officers raided a church in Addis Ababa, interrupting prayers and forcing a dozen ethnic Tigrayan priests and monks into a pickup truck; they were released several weeks later.

In August, Minister of Health Lia Tadesse thanked the IRCE for holding a high-level advocacy meeting on reduction of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and their families.  She tweeted, “Our Creator does not stigmatize and discriminate; let’s not stigmatize and discriminate.”

On January 5, the BBC reported the government agreed to repair the al-Nejashi Mosque that was damaged in 2020 during the conflict in Tigray.  Local Muslims said the mosque was the oldest in Africa.  The government said a nearby church would also be repaired.

During the year, the government provided funding to religious schools, including 250 Catholic schools and 219 Islamic schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights groups stated that societal violence was on the rise, especially in the context of the conflict in the northern part of the country.  Because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked and because criminality, politics, access to resources, and historical grievances were also drivers of violence, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In October, the Amhara Region Islamic Affairs Supreme Council said the TPLF had demolished a historic mosque in Zarema town, North Gondar, Amhara Region.  The secretary general of the council said the attack proved TPLF’s continued antireligious stand.  He said the TPLF had destroyed several other mosques and religious sites in the region and massacred religious students in madrassahs.

On March 5, according to the Addis Standard, members of the OLA killed 29 individuals in Abo Church in Debos Kebele, East Wollega, Oromia Region.  Witnesses said victims were marking the beginning of the EOTC’s two-month period of fasting.  Reports stated members of the OLA stormed into the church, immediately killing the church administrator.  The OLA members took the rest of the victims to a nearby forest and killed them.

In May, the EOTC stated that the government allowing Muslims to hold the Grand Iftar celebration in Meskel Square – of which the EOTC claimed traditional “ownership” – could threaten coexistence between the country’s Christians and Muslims.  The EOTC advised Muslims to hold the event at its usual venue, Abebe Bikila Stadium.  After the government disrupted the celebration on May 9 and despite the EOTC’s protests, the rescheduled celebration took place peacefully on May 11 in Meskel Square.

The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community.  The EIASC accused foreign Salafist groups of forcibly taking control of local mosques.  The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the EIASC, the number of Islamic religious schools was growing.  Abdul Geni Kedir, a headmaster at one school, said that the expansion of the schools, which were “significantly contributing to the spread of the faith,” reflected the steady increase of the community’s influence in society.  He said, “Islamic education has been reinforced by the burgeoning Islamic media and related public activities.  Now, we have private newspapers, television stations, educational videos, and there is an increase in the production of multilingual traditional and modern Islamic hymns.”

Observers described a small revival of Waaqeffanna – an indigenous religion in Oromia – especially on university campuses.

The IRCE continued to include representatives from the EOTC, EIASC, Catholic Church, and several evangelical Christian groups, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, and Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May and December, the Ambassador hosted EOTC Co-Patriarch Mathias to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Tigray and Mathias’ public statement that genocide was occurring in Tigray.  In a Facebook post following the May meeting, the embassy reported that the Ambassador discussed the humanitarian situation in Tigray as well as the Co-Patriarch’s video message on the crisis released a week earlier and reported widely in local press.  The Ambassador invited the Co-Patriarch to attend future interfaith community meetings to “further explore and continue their conversation.”

The U.S. government awarded several grants to the IRCE and other faith-based organizations to fund projects that encouraged religious tolerance.  In September, the embassy awarded funding to the Ghion Peace, Reconciliation and Development Association for a program promoting religious tolerance.  The program trained 60 youth and faith-based organizations to facilitate consultative workshops on peacebuilding and conflict mitigation within Amhara and Qimant communities.  Participants then led discussions with over 200 youth from the towns of Gondar and Chilga/Aykel on peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

In October, the embassy provided funding to the IRCE to design a two-day program for religious leaders on conflict prevention and mitigation, to be conducted in 2022.  This program, designed to encourage peacebuilding and religious and ethnic tolerance, would bring together IRCE members across the country to engage on security issues, including the conflicts in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar.  The embassy provided logistical and technical support to the IRCE as it began organizing the meeting and identifying potential conflict mitigation roles for regional and religious leaders at the community level.  The two-day program would establish a six-month engagement plan framework.

In August, the embassy provided funding to the Inter-Religious Council in Dire Dawa to facilitate a program to promote interreligious peacebuilding and tolerance in Harar, Chiro, and Dire Dawa by empowering leaders to work with youth and women in their constituencies to promote interreligious peace.

 

Morocco

Executive Summary

According to the constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.  The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.”  The constitution states the King holds the title “Commander of the Faithful” and that he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  The constitution prohibits political parties founded on religion as well as political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam.  The law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam.  It criminalizes acts and speech “undermining the Islamic religion.”  Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government delayed or rejected their registration requests.  The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.  The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  According to the government, 79 persons were criminally charged or convicted for engaging in prohibited acts during the month of Ramadan.  On December 14, King Mohammed VI introduced an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites in the country, to include hundreds of synagogues, cemeteries, and other sites in several cities.  An organization of Moroccan Christians launched a campaign to revise laws restricting the ability to conduct and attend services in official churches and the right to ecclesiastical or civil marriage.  The group also called on the government to allow Moroccan Christians to be buried in Christian cemeteries and to hold Christian names.  The Ministry of National Education, Vocational Training, Higher Education, and Scientific Research announced a change to the public school curriculum to include Jewish heritage and history in both Arabic and French.

According to a 2020-2021 report by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Moroccan Association of Human Rights (AMDH), there was continued societal harassment of Shia individuals and Shia Islam in the press and in Friday sermons.  As a result, many worshipped in private and avoided disclosing their religious affiliation.  Representatives of minority religious groups said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.  Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety.  They said that they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.

The Charge d’Affaires and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from the Ministries of Interior (MOI) and MEIA, to discuss religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.  In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of the protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.  The Charge d’Affaires and Consul General regularly met with members of the Jewish community in Casablanca, as well as with Jewish leaders in other cities, including Marrakesh and Tangier.  Together, they met with more than 50 Jewish government leaders, and others to highlight the country’s religious diversity.  Consulate general officials in Casablanca also engaged with Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican Church leadership.  As part of this outreach, the Consul General visited local churches and heard from committee members and church leaders about the growing Christian population in the country, comprised primarily of recently arrived sub-Saharan African migrants.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.4 million (midyear 2021).  More than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, and less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim.  Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 2,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca.  Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, AMDH estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens.  The number of Moroccan Christians reached approximately 31,500, according to reports from a number of print and electronic media, although due to the absence of statistical data from official and research centers and the fact that some Christians practice in private, it is difficult to reach an accurate estimate.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the Christian population includes at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and approximately 10,000 Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents whose families have resided and worked in the country for generations but do not hold citizenship.  There are small, foreign-resident Anglican communities in Rabat, Casablanca, and Tangier.  There are an estimated 3,000 foreign residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca.  Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Marrakesh, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north.  In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, Tunisia, and Iraq.  Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 750.  Leaders of the Baha’i Faith community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament, who are normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches.  Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years, a fine of up to 200,000 dirhams ($21,600), or both.  Imprisonment may be increased to five years or fine of 50,000 to 500,000 dirhams ($5,400-$53,900), or both, if the acts “are committed either by speech, scream, or threat made in public places or public meetings, or by poster publicly exhibited by sale, distribution, or any other means used for publicity included by online form, paper, and audiovisual form.”

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith by exploiting a weakness or need for assistance, or through the use of educational, health, or other institutions and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22-$54).  The same penalties apply to anyone who intentionally interferes with religious rites or celebrations where this causes disturbances or affects the dignity of such religious acts.  It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense.  Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law.  The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22-$54).  The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($22-$54).  Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

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

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

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

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

The law does not allow Moroccan Christians to be buried in Christian cemeteries or to hold Christian names.

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

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

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

Government Practices

On June 17, security services arrested an Italian national of Moroccan origin, Ikram Nazhi, upon her arrival in Morocco from Italy, for contempt and blasphemy against Islam via her use of social media networks in 2019 while visiting Morocco.  On June 28, the First Instance Court of Marrakesh sentenced Nazhi to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dirhams ($5,400) for insulting Islam.  Nazhi appealed on June 30 and the court reduced her sentence to two months in prison without a monetary fine.  Following the sentencing, AMDH-Marrakesh released a statement calling on the government to stop “depriving” citizens of fundamental freedoms enshrined in the constitution.  Nazhi was released from prison on August 23.

In May, a court in Casablanca fined movie actor Rafik Boubker 5,000 dirhams ($540) as a condition for provisional release from custody pending a hearing on his case.  Authorities arrested him in May 2020 and charged him with making blasphemous remarks against Islam and attacking the sacredness of worship in an alleged posting of a video of himself on social media.  No date had been set for the hearing as of year’s end.

Following a process that lasted more than a year, authorities renewed the registration of the Rabat International Church in December.  By year’s end, the new pastor of the church, a non-Moroccan who had arrived in February, had not received his residency permit and permission to manage the church’s activities.

Authorities continued to deny Moroccan citizen Christian groups the right to Christian or civil marriage and funeral services, and the right to establish churches.  The government denied official recognition to NGOs that it considered to be advocating against Islam as the state religion.

The government continued to allow the operation of 44 registered, foreign-resident Christian churches.  Some church leaders reported that Christian citizens generally did not attend those services out of fear of incurring governmental harassment, including concern that security authorities might open a file on them.  However, some foreign-born clergy and Christian citizen leaders stated that some citizens who were well known to be Christian encountered no harassment from government security officers when they attended the services of registered foreign-resident Christian churches.  Foreign residents and visitors attended religious services without restriction at those churches.

The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the King’s spiritual authority, remained banned but still active.  The government continued to monitor the JCO’s activities, and it remained the largest social movement of its kind in the country, despite being unregistered.  The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations.  According to media in the country, there were instances in which the government prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.  In December, during a visit from the Israeli Defense Minister to the country, JCO participated in a protest that local police dispersed.

Community leaders from various Christian groups said authorities continued to make phone or house calls to monitor the activities of Christians.  According to various sources, authorities continued to say the purpose of such monitoring was to protect minority religious communities.  Authorities informed religious communities they would be monitoring compliance with COVID-19 restrictions at religious venues, as they did with the general population.

A number of religious groups reported occasionally informing authorities of planned large gatherings, for which authorities at times assisted with security measures.

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

The Moroccan Association of Religious Liberties, an organization that advocates for rights of religious minorities, applied for registration in 2019 and remained unregistered at year’s end.  A foreign, non-Muslim religious association was still waiting for its organization’s registration to be renewed, limiting its ability to hold meetings and raise funds.

The U.S.-based NGO Open Doors stated in its annual 2021 World Watch List that the penal code, which criminalizes “shaking the faith” of a Muslim, put many Christians who talked to others about their faith at risk of criminal prosecution and arrest.  The NGO also stated that while the penal code provision “only punish[ed] proselytization, converts to Christianity [could] be punished in other ways, such as loss of inheritance rights and custody of their children.”

Christian leaders continued to say there were no reports of authorities pressuring converts to renounce their faith by informing friends, relatives, and employers of the individual’s conversions.

According to the government, 79 persons were criminally charged or convicted for performing prohibited acts during the month of Ramadan.

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

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

The government required religious leaders who worked in the country to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher.  The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The government continued drafting and implementing an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.”  The Ministry of Education continued an ongoing review of the religion curriculum used in primary and secondary education and continued to make reforms based on universal values of liberty, empathy, solidarity, and honesty.  Since the review began in 2016, 29 textbooks had been rewritten, and additional modifications to textbooks continued during the year.

Jewish and Christian citizens continued to state that elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country.  The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.  In October, the Ministry of National Education, Vocational Training, Higher Education, and Scientific Research announced a change to the public school curriculum to include Jewish heritage and history in both Arabic and French, starting in the fourth year of primary school.

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

On October 9, the group Coordination of Moroccan Christians launched a campaign advocating for revision of existing laws restricting the ability to conduct and attend services in official churches and the right to ecclesiastical or civil marriage.  The group also called on the government to allow Moroccan Christians to be buried in Christian cemeteries and to hold Christian names.

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

From April to September, the Baha’i community invited followers of its Facebook page from different faiths to pray for relief from COVID-19 and organized several online conferences.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance.  On December 14, King Mohammed VI introduced an initiative to renovate Jewish heritage sites in the country, including hundreds of synagogues, cemeteries, and other sites in several cities.  The Israeli Israel Hayom publication said the Jewish cemetery in Fes, which includes 13,000 graves, was included in the initiative, and that the King had decided to reinstate the original names of some of the country’s Jewish neighborhoods.

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

On August 12, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited the Beth-El Synagogue in Casablanca.  Secretary General Serge Berdugo of the Council of Jewish Communities in Morocco presented Lapid with a book documenting the restoration of Jewish cemeteries and holy places in the country.  A Moroccan delegation, including government officials, also met Lapid at the synagogue where Lapid said a prayer.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches, synagogues, and mosques.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

Jewish citizens continued to state that they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety.  They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.

On May 27, the Wali (Governor) of Tangier, Mohammed M’hidia, held a working session with Serge Berdugo, Secretary General of the Council of Jewish Communities in Morocco, and a delegation from one of the Council’s regional chapters, the Jewish Community Committee of Tangier, composed of Aron Abikzer, Vice President; and Sonia Zagury, in charge of Cultural Heritage.  Participants reviewed projects launched by the Jewish Community of Tangier as part of a national initiative, the Rehabilitation of Jewish Heritage, approved by King Mohammed VI.

In June, the Assayage Synagogue in Tangier announced plans for creation of the Jewish Museum of Tangier, to be located in the synagogue.  Establishment of the museum is in accordance with royal directives requiring preservation and safeguarding of the country’s Jewish heritage and includes government funding.

The Eias Hazan Synagogue remained open for worship and in active use as a national heritage site after being designated as such in 2020.

Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors.

Muslim citizen children and youths continued to study at private Christian and Jewish elementary and high schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering a high quality education.  According to school administrators, Muslim students constituted a significant portion of the students enrolled at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

The UAE research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 39 percent of Moroccan respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, which was higher than the regionwide result of 34 percent.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

 

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials, including from MOI and MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.

In February, the U.S. government entered into a cooperative agreement with Mimouna Association, a Moroccan-based NGO to combat antisemitism, including anti-Zionism, the delegitimization of Israel, and other forms of intolerance and hatred, including “Islamophobia.”

In regular meetings and discussions with members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country, embassy and consulate general representatives highlighted the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.  The Charge d’Affaires and Consul General regularly met with members of the Jewish community in Casablanca as well as with Jewish leaders in other cities, including Marrakesh and Tangier.  Together, they met with more than 50 Jewish government leaders, and other guests to highlight the country’s religious diversity.

Consulate general officials in Casablanca also engaged with Protestant, Catholic, and Anglican Church leadership.  As part of this outreach, the Consul General visited local churches and heard from committee members and church leaders about the growing Christian population in the country that was comprised primarily of recently arrived sub-Saharan African migrants.

In December, the Consul General met with Christian leaders in Casablanca and highlighted the importance of religious freedom.  The discussion included the importance of supporting and encouraging religious tolerance and diversity.

On November 8, the Consul General met with members of the Jewish community to highlight the longstanding bond between the United States and the community.  The discussion included concerns and challenges facing the Jewish community and the need for further collaboration to promote inclusion of all religions in the country.

On November 3, the Consul General participated in a conference on religious coexistence hosted by the Salam Contemporary Art Forum and provided opening remarks.

On October 5, the Charge d’Affaires joined Andrew Azoulay, Advisor to King Mohammed VI, at Bayt Dakira, in Essaouira, as part of the launch of a three-year, U.S. government program supporting the activities of religious and ethnic minorities.  The Charge d’Affaires also toured the city’s Christian, Muslim, and Jewish cemeteries and visited a U.S.-government-funded Hebrew-language and Jewish cultural heritage class for Essaouira tour guides that aims, in part, to preserve Essaouira’s Jewish heritage.

On September 18, the Charge d’Affaires attended a rededication ceremony of St. John’s Anglican Church, the first Protestant church established in Casablanca, built in 1906.  In discussion with leaders of the Christian community, the Charge d’Affaires emphasized the need for religious diversity and protection for all religious minorities.

In March, the Consul General met with members of the Moroccan Jewish Community in Casablanca.  The Consul General discussed challenges impacting the Jewish community and the need to collaborate further to protect and promote all religious minority groups.

The embassy implemented a multi-year $3 million program to promote religious tolerance and community efforts that preserve cultural heritage sites of ethnic and religious minorities in the country.

Nigeria

Executive Summary

The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion.  The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts.  Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts.  In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory, and customary courts in most of the 36 states.  Religiously affiliated state schools must admit students of all faiths or no faith; Christian-owned state schools must allow students to wear the hijab, while Muslim-owned state schools require all female students to wear it.  Civil society organizations and media stated that general insecurity again increased and was prevalent throughout the country, particularly in the North West region.  There were kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the South as well as the North West, criminal groups in the South South, and criminal groups and separatists in the South East, but there was a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents and deaths in the North East linked to the terrorist insurgency there.  There were numerous violent incidents between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers in the North Central and South West regions and between predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Muslim, but also Christian, farmers in the North West.  According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there were an estimated 1,112 deaths during the year from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers.  The government continued security operations and launched operations that authorities stated were meant to stem the insecurity and violence throughout the country.  Some observers, such as the nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Crisis Group (ICG), said the government’s efforts were inadequate.  The Kaduna State Court released Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, head of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia political organization, and his wife in July.  On several occasions, security forces clashed with IMN marchers, resulting in reports of casualties, including at least one death on each side, which both sides disputed.  After detaining him for more than a year, the Kano State government in June charged Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, with deliberately “posting blasphemous statement(s)…insulting the Holy Prophet of Islam” and Muslims in Kano State calculated to “cause a breach of public peace,” among other charges.  In January, the Kano State High Court vacated a sharia court’s conviction and death sentence of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu for blasphemy and remanded the case to the sharia court for retrial.  The same high court acquitted a man convicted of blasphemy as a minor by the same sharia court and vacated his 10-year prison sentence.  Kano State authorities banned Muslim cleric Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara from preaching and charged him with blasphemy for comments he made during a television debate.

Terrorist groups, including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA), attacked population centers and religious targets, including churches and mosques, and maintained an ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers.  ISIS-WA increased its use of improvised explosive devices, which resulted in dozens of military deaths.  Observers also reported that ISIS-WA expanded efforts to implement shadow governance structures in large swaths of the region.

According to NGOs such as ICG, the level of insecurity and violence increased, including in the predominantly Muslim North West, where expanded numbers of criminal groups carried out thousands of killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies.  Because issues of religion, ethnicity, land and resource competition, and criminality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even principally, based on religious identity.  According to information on its website, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), an NGO, reported 3,699 civilian deaths from the violence during the year, compared with 2,455 in 2020.  According to a survey conducted by NGO Mercy Corps, a minority of the violence in the north of the country was interreligious, and both Christians and Muslims were perpetrators and victims.  The NGO stated that “rather than religious belief or animus, we find that intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups competing for political power and control over natural resources.”  The report also stated that “for a minority of northern residents … religious freedom remains a concern,” if indirectly, because fear of attacks created a fear of gathering in religious communities and “exacerbates tensions and mistrust between religious groups – the primary pathway to intercommunal conflict in the north.”  There were instances of mob violence against clergy and members of religious groups and mass killings of Muslims and Christians that press reports and observers described as planned and carried out by organized groups.  For example, in May, criminals shot and killed eight Christians and burned down a church and several homes in Kaduna State.  In August, Christian youths killed 27 Muslims on a bus in Plateau State.  On September 26-27, according to international NGO CSW and subsequent reports by other NGOs and press, Muslim herders killed at least 49 persons and abducted 27, most of whom were Christian, in several attacks on communities in religiously mixed southern Kaduna State.  In June, the Tiv and Jukun communities, both of which are Christian, clashed over land and water resources, often razing churches.  On October 25, gunmen killed at least 18 worshippers and abducted 11 during early morning prayers at a mosque in Mashegu Local Government Area in Niger State.  On December 8, at a mosque in the same area, ICG reported an armed group killed between nine and 16 persons and injured 12 others during early morning prayers.  CSW reported several cases during the year of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.

The U.S. embassy, consulate general in Lagos, and visiting U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State – raised freedom of religion issues such as the resolution of widely publicized blasphemy cases, the role of religious leaders in peacebuilding and social trust, and reports of societal abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion during the year.  These included meetings with government officials such as President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, Presidential Chief of Staff Ibrahim Gambari, cabinet ministers – including Attorney General Abubakar Malami, Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, and Minister of Interior Rauf Aregbesola – and National Assembly members.  The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials regularly met with interfaith and religious groups across the country, including the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the Society for the Support of Islam, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS), and the Nigeria Inter-Religious Council (NIREC).  They met with religious leaders in Plateau and Taraba States to discuss and encourage efforts to promote peace and religious tolerance in those states.  The embassy continued to fund peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna and Plateau, and interfaith dialogue training for leaders in six North West and North Central states.  The embassy awarded five small grants to faith-based and community organizations to support reconciliation in communities, primarily in the North Central region, experiencing ethnoreligious violence.

The Secretary of State determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom or as a Special Watch List country for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 when such designations were announced on November 15, 2021.  Nigeria had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern in 2020 and a Special Watch List country in 2019.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 219.5 million (midyear 2021).  The Pew Global Religious Futures project estimates the country is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups.  Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.

A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, although a sizable minority follows the Shafi’i school of fiqh.  The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “just a Muslim” (42 percent).  Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi brotherhoods, including Tijaniyyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride.  A 2012 Pew Research Center survey found 37 percent of Nigerians identify with Sufi orders (19 percent identified specifically as Tijaniyyah and 9 percent as Qadiriyyah).  There are also Izala and Salafist minorities and small numbers of Ahmadiyya and Kala Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims.  A 2011 Pew report found roughly one quarter of Christians are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations.  Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each.  Other communities include Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

Although accounting for far less than 1 percent of the population, there are also two distinct Jewish communities.  The smallest of these are mostly foreigners, whom Israel and the diaspora recognize.  A larger group of several thousand indigenous Nigerian Jews are not recognized internationally.  There are also significant numbers of Sabbatarian groups, variously self-identifying as Christian, non-Christian, or neither.  These groups include some that have adopted Jewish customs.

Islam is the dominant religion in the North West and North East regions, although significant Christian populations reside there as well.  Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central region.  Christianity is the dominant religion in the South West, including Lagos, which is also home to significant Muslim populations.

In the South East region, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority.  In the South South, Christians form a substantial majority.  There are small but growing numbers of Muslims in the South South and South East.

Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South South, and South West regions.  Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja.  The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West region, while Nigerian Jews and Judaic-oriented groups are prevalent in the South East.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds.  It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others.  The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.”  It prohibits political parties that limit membership based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation.  The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other qualities, as a distinct component of the “national ethic.”

The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law civil (i.e., secular) courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts.  Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts.  In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory.  Customary courts function in most of the 36 states.  The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction.  The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for noncriminal proceedings, but state laws do not compel participation in sharia courts in noncriminal cases.  Non-Muslims, as well as Muslims, have the option to have their civil cases tried in secular or sharia courts.  In addition to noncriminal matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both the complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue.  Zamfara State law makes it mandatory for all Muslims to utilize sharia courts in such cases, but not in noncriminal cases.  Criminal cases with possible sentences of death or life in prison may be heard by secular courts, usually at the preference of police.

Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide hudud punishments such as caning, amputation, and stoning.  Sharia penal code offenses and charges are only applicable to Muslims.  Sharia courts operate under similar rules as common law courts, including requirements for mens rea and other due process considerations.  According to the Chief Registrar of the Kano Sharia Court, by law defendants have the right to legal representation in all cases, and certain high crimes require the testimonies of four witnesses to be considered as admissible, corroborative evidence.  Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal sentences through common law appellate courts, and these courts have sometimes found for the plaintiff in cases where they have sued individual states for assault for penalties, such as flogging, imposed by sharia courts.  The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the sharia panel of the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, often do and may seek advice from sharia experts.  In some states with sharia penal codes, blasphemy or religious insult is a crime that may incur a fine, imprisonment, or in some cases the death penalty.  The various states’ sharia penal codes do not prohibit apostasy or heresy.

According to the federal penal code, any person who carries out an act “which any class of persons consider as a public insult on their religion, with the intention that they should consider the act such an insult, and any person who does an unlawful act with the knowledge that any class of persons will consider it such an insult, is guilty of a misdemeanor” and may be subject to imprisonment for two years.

The Companies and Allied Matters Act (CAMA) authorizes the federal government to intervene in the management of private entities and gives it broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members.

Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools.  The constitution prohibits schools from requiring students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own.  State officials and many religious leaders stated that students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own.  The constitution also states that no religious community or denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place of education maintained wholly by that community.  The law requires schools that receive state funding (state schools) to admit and accommodate students of all faiths or no faith, regardless of the student’s or school’s religious affiliation.  Christian state schools are required to allow Muslim students to wear a hijab.  In Muslim state schools, the hijab is required of all female students, regardless of religion, as part of the uniform.

Katsina and Kaduna States have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools.  In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including by issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators.  The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,200), or both for operating without a license.  In Kaduna State, the Interfaith Preaching Council issues permits to those who wish to preach in public and regulates against the use of foul, demeaning, or derogatory language against individuals or other religions based on recommendations from the Local Government Interfaith Committee.  Violators of the law are subject to fines and/or two to five years’ imprisonment.  Local government areas and states establish their own modalities for licensing public preachers, but do not license religious organizations.

In the states of Kano, Zamfara, and Sokoto, legally established Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license imams, attempt to resolve interpersonal and family disputes between Muslims in those states, and work with police to enforce the respective states’ sharia penal code.  The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, Kano, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs commissions, ministries, or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.

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

Government Practices

Civil society organizations and media stated that insecurity was pervasive throughout the country and increased nationwide, particularly in the North West region.  There were kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the South as well as the North West, criminal gangs in the South South, and criminal groups and separatists in the South East, but a significant reduction in the number of violent incidents and deaths in the North East.  There was pervasive violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and mostly Christian, but also Muslim, farmers, particularly in the North Central, but also in the North West (where most farmers were Muslim), and South West regions.  There were thousands of killings, kidnappings, and armed robberies.  According to the Nigeria security tracker maintained by the Council on Foreign Relations, there were an estimated 10,399 deaths from violent conflict during the year, compared with 9,694 in 2020.  Of the deaths in 2021, the council estimated 1,112 resulted from violence among ethnic groups, herdsmen, and farmers, some of which had implications for religion and religious freedom, according to multiple observers or, in the words of the council, “sometimes acquires religious overtones.”  Other violent deaths were carried out by militants, Boko Haram, or government security forces.  The council said the estimates were conservative and based on press reports.

During the year, the government undertook 20 targeted military operations, the stated aim of which was to root out criminals and armed gangs and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence.  In May, the government launched Operation Whirl Strike, a security operation that it said sought to deter and minimize intercommunal violence in Benue and Nasarawa States.  In October, the army launched Operation Golden Dawn with the stated intent of helping it confront security challenges that included armed criminal gangs, kidnapping, land disputes and communal clashes, chieftaincy disputes, assassinations, youth restiveness, and secessionist activities by the Movement for the Actualization of Sovereign State of Biafra, the Indigenous People of Biafra, and Eastern Security Network.  In addition, in November, the Police Service Commission announced it would recruit 30,000 constables over the next three years to meet manpower requirements for the fight against insurgencies, armed criminal gangs, and kidnapping.

In response to increased criminality in the North West and South East regions, the Nigerian Police Force deployed more personnel and equipment on major road networks.  State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Nasarawa/Benue Agro Rangers and Livestock Guard, the Enugu Forest Guard, the Amotekun that worked across six South West states, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services.  According to observers, local media and officials, particularly in the South West region, often initially said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for criminal attacks, but, upon further investigation, stated local armed criminal groups of various ethnicities perpetrated most incidents.  In January, Chief Gani Adams, a traditional leader in Yorubaland, said, “The security threat we are having in the South West now, our people (Yoruba) constituted about 25-30 percent of the security threat.”

The government further implemented substantial reforms in the cattle-rearing industry with input from state and local stakeholders to facilitate and incentivize ranching over herding, with the stated aim of “combatting violence” between farmers and herders.  To implement the National Livestock Transformation Policy (NLTP), in November, the federal government began to receive applications from states for allocated funds for herding-to-ranching projects, and disbursed funds to Nasarawa and Plateau States.  According to NLTP Coordinator Andrew Kwasari, the work of constructing the first NLTP model farm for training the pastoralists began “in earnest” in Awe Local Government Area, Nasarawa State in December, adding that communities within the project site were “very happy with the initiative and committed to its success.  The dialogue between the cropping and herding communities is most encouraging.”

Multiple sources, however, stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the scale of the violence.  For example, in an update on the country issued in May, the ICG stated that, although the government had repeatedly pledged to curb violence, it lacked sufficient personnel and resources, and its military response had been inadequate.  The ICG also said the government had made little progress toward resolving the farmer-herder conflict.  The report cited the proliferation and evolution of the criminal gangs popularly known as bandits, stating the gangs spread from Zamfara to all neighboring states, including Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Niger, Kebbi, and Sokoto, and were expanding in number and size, acquiring more sophisticated weaponry, and carrying out an increasing number of abductions of students and others.  The ICG said the insecurity could create more opportunities for jihadists in the region.  According to the report, attempted peace deals (including offers of unconditional amnesties) with the gangs by state governors had been unsuccessful, and all the governors, except for Zamfara’s, had abandoned the deals.  Benue State Governor Samuel Ortom also said the government’s efforts to combat the violence were inadequate.

During his Easter homily, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah said about conditions in the country, “The nation has since become a massive killing field, as both government and the governed look on helplessly.”  He continued to criticize what he said was a lack of response from the government to violence in the country.  President Buhari’s spokesperson Garba Shehu reacted to the Bishop’s statements by saying, “Some of the comments are no more than a sample of the unrestrained rhetoric Father Kukah trades in, which he often does in the guise of a homily… We urge well-meaning citizens to continue to support the ongoing efforts by the administration to secure the country and move it forward.”

The military remained engaged in a decade-long war against terrorist groups Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, both of which killed or kidnapped Muslims and Christians.  Boko Haram’s Leader Abubakar Shekau was killed or killed himself in May, and Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi of Islamic State in the Greater Sahara died in August.

On October 19, the military announced it killed 24 suspected Islamist insurgents and recovered two gun trucks and destroyed another during an encounter with insurgents a few kilometers from Maiduguri, the Borno State capital.  On October 25, Air Force spokesman Air Commodore Edward Gabkwet said the military carried out air operations targeting terrorist camps in the Lake Chad basin and stated several terrorists were killed.  On October 28, the army announced it had taken delivery of 60 new armored personnel carriers to boost the war against the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East and banditry in the North West.  Chief of Army Staff Lieutenant General Faruk Yahaya said the deployment of new platforms to the battlefield underscored the government’s commitment to ensure that a state of normalcy was achieved across the country.

CAN stated Christians faced persecution from ISIS-WA and Boko Haram but that the problem also affected other groups.  On November 20, CAN President Reverend Samson Ayokunle said the terrorist groups, “have joined other militant Islamic groups to be ferociously attacking churches, killing worshippers, and kidnapping for ransom.  Though the madness has grown now and those who are not Christians are being attacked, killed, and kidnapped, this is because these criminal acts have become a lucrative business and it is whoever you can kidnap for money!  If the government had responded appropriately when this criminal madness began and subdued these evil groups immediately, we wouldn’t be where we are now!”

The government’s proscription of the Shia group IMN as an illegal political organization remained in place, and the government continued to state that the proscription was not directed against Shia Muslims.  On July 28, the Kaduna State Court acquitted IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife, who had been imprisoned since 2015 on charges of “aiding and abetting homicide, unlawful assembly, and disruption of public peace” and released them.

In January, March, and May, protesters marching for the release of Sheikh El Zakzaky, calling themselves the Free Zakzaky movement, clashed with security forces.  The NGO Shia Rights Watch stated that government security forces opened fire on Free Zakzaky protestors on May 7.  IMN said some protesters were injured when police fired on them.  According to press reports, police arrested 49 persons and stated that IMN protesters killed police officer Ezekiel Adama – which the IMN denied – and destroyed public property during the protest.  On September 28, IMN members and security forces clashed again in Abuja during IMN’s annual march coinciding with the Shia Muslim Arbaeen religious observance.  IMN spokesperson Ibrahim Musa stated security forces killed eight marchers but later lowered the number to one.  According to press reports, the government arrested 57 persons and denied any marchers were killed.

Several Shia religious leaders, including Sheikh Salle Sani Zaria, Secretary General of the Rasulul A’azam Foundation of Nigeria, criticized IMN as a political group that was not representative of the majority of Shia Muslims in the country.  In Kano in June, Zaria stated that Shia Muslims throughout the country “make their religious processions unimpeded every Friday.”

NGOs and others criticized the continuing lack of accountability for soldiers involved in the 2015 clash between the army and IMN members in Zaria in which, according to a Kaduna State government report, 348 IMN members and one soldier were killed.

In July, authorities detained for 20 days three visiting Israeli filmmakers making a documentary about Nigerian Jews in South East region on suspicion they were supporting the Indigenous People of Biafra, a group the government outlawed for its stated aims of seeking the separation of the South East region from the country, the leaders of which professed a connection to Judaism.  Authorities released them without charge, and they left the country.  The filmmakers were allowed to retain their recordings.

In January, President Buhari expanded his policy of directing senior government officials to convene meetings with local traditional and religious leaders throughout the country.  According to the President, the meetings aimed to reinforce community-based early warning programs and thereby help prevent religiously motivated violence and property destruction.  Such meetings included those between Presidential Chief of Staff Ibrahium Gambari and Ministers of Interior Rauf Aregbesola, Works and Housing Babatunde Fasola, and Trade and Industry Niyi Adebayo with the Oba of Lagos, Relwanu Akiolu, the Ooni of Ife, Adayeye Oniton II, the Olubadan of Ibadanland, Obasaliu Adetunji, several bishops from different Christian denominations, and local imams.  Media reported Buhari also chaired several National Security Council meetings to consider solutions to insecurity, some of which included enhanced grassroots peacebuilding and increased security presence in certain areas.

The government also said it promoted interfaith dialogue at the state and local level to address violence.  For example, the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency incorporated an interreligious council into its operations throughout Plateau State.  The Kaduna Peace Commission sought out national religious leaders to convene a meeting within the state to condemn the chronic violence there.  Taraba State enlisted the help of the Taraba Interreligious Council to draw up plans to initiate a state government agency to promote reconciliation and peacebuilding.  According to several local NGOs, various early warning systems operating throughout the North Central and North West were also responsible for preventing attacks from occurring.  One NGO, the Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, said that, since law enforcement was often exclusively reactionary, citizen peacebuilding committees in local communities fearing violence or noting the seeds of conflict alerted police and other authorities in Plateau and Kaduna States in order to thwart plans of attacks or to calm brewing disputes.

In June, authorities filed 10 criminal charges against Humanist Association of Nigeria president and former Muslim Mubarak Bala on counts of making statements calculated to cause a breach of public peace by insulting religion, which carry a sentence of up to two or three years in prison per charge.  The government charged Bala with deliberately posting “blasphemous statement(s)” to his social media account, thus “insulting the Holy Prophet of Islam, … [and] the entire followers of Islamic religion in Kano State, calculated to cause breach of public peace.”  The Kano State prosecutor said the government feared Bala’s statements would incite mob violence.  After Bala posted statements on Facebook that state officials in Kano called “inflammatory and disparaging” towards Islam, police arrested him at his home in Kaduna State in April 2020 and transferred him to Kano State, where authorities imprisoned him without charge.  Bala’s attorneys, NGOs, secular humanist groups, and others stated they believed he was arrested for his comments on Islam.  According to Kano State Attorney General M.A. Lawan, when prosecutors indicted him in June, Bala was not charged with blasphemy under sharia because authorities did not consider him to be a Muslim.  In December 2020, a Federal Capital Territory High Court ordered Bala’s release, but Kano State authorities did not release him because of what the authorities said was confusion over the federal court’s jurisdiction in ruling on Bala’s detention.  Bala remained in detention at year’s end.

In January, the Kano State High Court acquitted 17-year-old Omar Farouq, whom a Kano sharia court had convicted of blasphemy in 2020 and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.  The High Court ruled that Farouq lacked adequate legal representation during his sharia court trial.

Also in January, the Kano High Court remanded to the same Kano sharia court the case of Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, whom the sharia court had convicted of blasphemy against Islam and sentenced to death in 2020.  The High Court remanded this case to the sharia court for retrial, citing a lack of evidence presented.  At year’s end, an appeal by Sharif-Aminu against the order for a new trial and seeking dismissal of the case was pending.

In February, Kano State authorities banned well known Muslim cleric Sheikh Abduljabbar Nasiru-Kabara from preaching following complaints from the Kano Ulama Council that his sermons would disturb the peace.  In July, after he participated in a televised, three-hour debate in which he expounded on his religious views, Kano State authorities detained Nasiru-Kabara and charged him with blasphemy, saying statements he made during the broadcast insulted Islam.  Authorities also ordered the closure of his mosque and affiliated religious schools and prevented his followers from protesting and carrying out the community’s annual Mauqibi religious festival procession.  At year’s end, Nasiru-Kabara remained in detention, and his trial had not yet been scheduled.

At year’s end, Muslim cleric Abdul Inyass remained imprisoned pending an appeal of the death sentence he received following his blasphemy conviction in 2016.  The Kano Sharia Court barred the public from his trial after a mob razed the courthouse following Inyass’ arraignment in September 2015.

According to the Chief Judge of the Kano High Court as well as the Chief Registrar of the Sharia Court in Kano, the secular court system has always vacated death sentences for blasphemy in that state on appeal.  The Chief Judge said that a death sentence for blasphemy helps to assuage mobs who might seek to lynch the offending individual, keeping public peace while enabling the individual to quietly move out of the state.

There were reports that Hisbah Boards detained, abused, harassed, or intimidated individuals while enforcing their respective state’s sharia penal code.  In January, Hisbah officials in Kano State reportedly arrested barber Elija Ode for giving a customer a “blasphemous” haircut before later releasing him, stating the accusation had been a “misunderstanding.”  In July, a Kano Hisbah group arrested five Muslim men on “suspicion of homosexuality,” a crime punishable by caning, imprisonment, or death by stoning.  The accused were tried, convicted, caned, and released within two weeks.

During the year, the Kano State Films and Censors Board (KSFCB), a government organization responsible for regulating music and film, began requiring poets and singers to obtain a license to perform all new materials.  It also took into account the views of Kano’s Ulama Council, an informal gathering of respected Muslim clerics representing each of Kano’s various Muslim groups, to which the state government often defers on matters that could affect public peace.  In June, Kano State authorities arrested Ahmad Abdul for allegedly insulting Allah in a song he released without vetting it with the KSFCB.  Authorities subsequently released him after he apologized for circumventing the KSFCB.

In May, after an internal dispute among members of the local Muslim community over the installation of a new imam, the Osun State government closed the Inisha Central Mosque to forestall, according to the state government, a religious sectarian crisis from which the government feared violence.  The government reopened the mosque in July.

CSW reported that in October, the Kaduna State government demolished 263 buildings in the predominantly Christian Gracelands community in Zaria, including six churches, a school complex, and homes.  According to CSW, state authorities said the land belonged to an aviation college, but community members said state authorities had granted them certificates of ownership for the land more than 20 years earlier in most cases and that they had been paying all required taxes.

Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them.  For example, they stated the Kaduna State Town and Urban Planning Law only allowed the construction of houses of worship in authorized nonresidential areas to prevent the conversion of private homes into houses of worship.  Representatives of both religions complained the law is implemented unevenly and in a biased manner.

In April, CAN President Ayokunle accused President Buhari of “Islamizing” the country through judicial appointments to courts of appeal, stating that out of 20 judges recommended, 13 were from the north and seven from the south.  In a statement, the CAN leadership called for “serious adjustments” on already executed appointments, stating that “Under the watch of President Buhari, especially throughout his first term, the judiciary was literally an appendage of Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs [NSCIA] because its members were in charge of its affairs.”  The NSCIA called CAN’s statement “scurrilous propaganda.”  According to the NSCIA, there were 70 appeals courts justices (JCAs) – 34 from the north and 36 from the south – and that the three geopolitical zones of the south had two Muslim JCAs, while the zones of the north had 15 Christians.

In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed.  The law was passed originally at the urging of the Catholic and Anglican churches to curtail what they saw as a trend of extravagant funerals.  The Anglican Church later stated the final text of the law had been enacted without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.

Violence erupted in March when the Kwara State Governor confirmed all female Muslim students could wear the hijab in Christian-owned but state-run “grant aid” schools, per a Court of Appeal decision.  Following the announcement – which came after some Christian schools in the state had said the hijab violated their uniform policies – 10 state Christian schools closed for a week in protest.  When they reopened on March 17, five persons were injured in Christian-Muslim clashes when the Baptist Secondary School and Cherubim and Seraphim College prevented Muslim students wearing the hijab from entering.  According to local press reports, Muslims attacked these schools and their collocated churches in the Sabo Oke area of the state capital, Illorin, in retaliation, breaking windows and causing minor damage.

The Judaism Fellowship Initiative of Nigeria, representing more than 50 Nigerian Jewish and Judaic-oriented congregations, requested the government organize and facilitate pilgrimages for Jews to Jerusalem as the National Hajj Commission does for Muslims to travel to Mecca and state and federal government Christian Pilgrims Welfare Boards do for Christians to Jerusalem, parts of Jordan, and Rome.

While the CAMA law enacted in 2020 allowing the government to intervene in the management of private entities neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations, nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations continued to express concern about the law.  CAN and the NIREC continued to state that the law might allow the government to exert administrative control over smaller religious organizations that are organized as NGOs or as small religious schools with high tuition costs that are not legally considered charities.  They said such state control would infringe on constitutional rights of association and freedom of religion, although no such cases were reported during the year.  According to some legal scholars, the law was enacted to counter fraudulent NGOs that have served as fronts for money laundering or other criminal behaviors.  CAN sued the federal government over the law in February, and the case remained in litigation at year’s end.

State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes.  In February and March, prominent Muslim and Christian leaders organized by the Kaduna State Peacebuilding Commission led peacebuilding efforts following ethnic clashes in Kaduna State.

The community in Yelwan Shandam in Plateau State completed rebuilding the JIBWIS mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004, and the mosque began operation in February.

In April, Akwa Ibom State authorities banned the use of state schools for church services after school authorities complained church attendees did not clean up following their services.  Smaller Christian churches had often used the schools for worship services on Sundays but reverted to gathering in private homes or outdoors in compliance with the ban.

In April, the Bauchi State Interfaith Preaching Council indefinitely suspended Muslim cleric Malam Abubakar Idriss for preaching what it deemed incitement against rival ethnic groups.

President Buhari and Vice President Osinbajo regularly condemned attacks on places of worship and those attempting to exploit religious differences.  Buhari regularly consulted with key Muslim and Christian leaders and celebrated both official Christian and Muslim holidays.  In a statement on February 15, Buhari appealed to religious and traditional leaders as well as governors and other elected leaders across the country to “join hands with the Federal Government to ensure that communities in their domain are not splintered along ethnic and other primordial lines.”  Reacting to intercommunal violence stemming from conflict over resources in the South West region, in a statement on February 15, Buhari stated that his “government will protect all religious … groups, whether majority or minority, in line with its responsibility under the constitution.”  Buhari again directed his Chief of Staff Gambari to lead a dialogue in each of the country’s geopolitical zones with state, local, traditional, religious, and security leaders.  According to media reports, Gambari stated that he met with senior Christian and Muslim leaders, for example, CAN in September and NIREC in October, to address what the reports described as infringements on religious freedom and demonstrate the country’s high level of interreligious collaboration.  In a meeting with supporters on June 30, Buhari said about the country’s rising insecurity, “Our problem is not ethnicity or religion.  It is ourselves.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to government services, NGOs, media, academic, and other observers, the level of insecurity driven by rising criminality worsened during the year.  Because issues of religion, ethnicity, land and resource competition, and criminality are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely, or even primarily, based on religious identity.  Numerous fatal clashes continued to occur throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders.  There were also incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim herders and Christian or Muslim farmers in the North West region.  In addition, criminal groups continued to commit crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in the North West, North Central, and South East regions.  According to security experts, the criminal activity in these regions increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year.  Media reported on at least six attacks by bandits or armed criminal gangs on religious sites, including mosques and churches.  Multiple academic and media sources said banditry and ideologically neutral criminality, rather than religious differences, were the primary drivers of violence in the North West region.  Christian organizations, however, said clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, because they were viewed as soft targets who often traveled conspicuously without security in the evenings, were typically unarmed, had access to money, and generated significant media attention.  While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders.  Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom.  According to data ACLED cited on its website, there were 3,699 civilian deaths from the violence during the year, compared with 2,455 in 2020.

In May, Mercy Corps released a report entitled, Fear of the Unknown:  Religion, Identity, and Conflict in Northern Nigeria, which reported on the religious attitudes of northerners it surveyed to gauge the perceived influence of religious actors, beliefs, and identities in violent conflict in the north.  The report, based on in-depth interviews of 165 persons and a survey of 750 persons in 15 communities in Kano and Kaduna States, concluded only some violence in the north had been interreligious in nature and that Muslims and Christians were both perpetrators and victims.  According to the report, “Since 2016, deaths from conflicts over religious issues have waned relative to the number of people killed by criminal violence and conflicts over land and cattle grazing.  While deaths from inter-religious violence increased in 2020, they still paled in comparison to those caused by crime and resource conflicts.  These trends were confirmed in interviews and surveys.  Equally important, interreligious violence has been perpetrated by, and on, both Muslims and Christians.”  The report stated, “Christians appear to have suffered more attacks on average, and likely as a result, they were more likely to report feeling victimized.  Yet a majority of Muslim and Christian respondents said that members of both faiths are responsible for violence in their area, as opposed to pinning blame solely on one side.”  The report stated that conflict data from multiple sources indicated that in the previous decade “only nine percent of attacks explicitly targeted or were carried out by religious groups, and only 10 percent of fatalities were ascribed to conflicts over a religious issue.”  The report found that the more religious persons were, the less likely they were to support or engage in violence.  It stated that, “rather than religious belief or animus, we find that intercommunal violence is largely driven by insecurity and a lack of trust between ethno-religious groups competing for political power and control over natural resources.”  While religion, according to the report, was usually not a direct cause of conflict, political and religious leaders, as well as the public, appealed to religious identity and solidarity to motivate persons to take action and to garner support to advance political, economic, or personal objectives.  In addition, the Mercy Corps report stated religious leaders were important in both fomenting violence, by politicizing and emphasizing religious identity, and preventing it, by resolving disputes and promoting peace.  The report also stated that “for a minority of northern residents… religious freedom remains a concern,” if indirectly, because fear of attacks created a fear of, or reluctance about, gathering in religious communities and “exacerbates tensions and mistrust between religious groups – the primary pathway to intercommunal conflict in the north [emphasis in the original].”

Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders.  According to the ICG, the causes of the North West turmoil were complex and interrelated, saying that “Environmental degradation and rapid population growth have aggravated resource competition between herders and farmers.  Disputes over land and water prompted both herders and farmers to form armed self-defense groups, fueling a cycle of retaliatory violence that has taken on a communal dimension.”  Several international and domestic experts stated that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought foreign transhumance (movement of livestock) groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they were unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups.

Citing witnesses, media and NGOs such as CSW reported that on September 26-27, Muslim herdsmen killed at least 49 persons and abducted 27 in attacks on communities in three Local Government Areas in Kaduna State.  According to the reports, most of the victims were Christian.  In Kacecere village in southern Kaduna, eight persons were killed and six injured on 27 September; in Gabachuwa community in southern Kaduna, one person died, an unknown number were injured, and 27 members of Evangelical Church Winning All were abducted on 26 September; and 40 persons were killed and eight injured and 20 homes burned down in an attack on Madamai and Abun villages on 26 September.  A Catholic priest who witnessed the attack on Madamai and Abun described it as “well coordinated” and “a massacre against the natives.”

On June 2, Christian Post reported that Fulani herdsmen killed Pastor Leviticus Makpa and his three-year-old son in their home.

Morning Star News reported that individuals, which it described as “suspected Fulani herdsmen,” kidnapped and killed Reverend John Gbaakan Yaji, a Catholic priest of the Minna Diocese, on January 15, during a return journey from Benue State.  His brother, who was travelling with him, was also kidnapped, and his whereabouts were unknown.

On July 16, Religion News Service reported that bandits killed 33 persons and burned down four churches and hundreds of homes in Kaduna State.

On August 14, Christian ethnic Irigwes youths attacked a convoy of five buses carrying Muslims from Bauchi State to Ondo State as it passed north of the Plateau State capital, Jos, killing as many as 27 and injuring 14 people.  According to local media, the attack heightened existing communal tensions and led to further clashes elsewhere in Jos and neighboring communities.  Authorities subsequently arrested 20 suspects, but there was no further information on the status of the case at year’s end.

According to media reports, armed bandits killed 10 worshippers at a mosque in Yasore, Katsina State on the evening of October 5.

Also in October, bandits attacked a village in Kaduna, killing 17 and kidnapping 18 as they exited the mosque from early morning prayers.  Police killed one suspected perpetrator.

On May 24, the newspaper Christian Post reported that bandits shot and killed eight Christians and burned down a church and several homes in Kaduna State.

On September 29, NGO International Christian Concern reported that Reverend Yohanna Shuaibu, the chair of CAN in Kano State, died from wounds he suffered during a mob attack.  The mob, which also burned down the pastor’s church, school, and home, reportedly believed that Shuaibu had played a role in converting to Christianity from Islam a man who had recently killed his sister-in-law.  According to CAN and media reports, authorities arrested and charged six persons in connection with the killing.

According to ICG, on October 25, gunmen killed at least 18 worshippers and reportedly abducted 11 during early morning prayers at a mosque in Mashegu Local Government Area in Niger State.  ICG reported that on December 8 at a mosque in the same area, an armed group killed between nine and 16 persons and injured 12 others during early morning prayers.

On October 31, according to press reports and the ICG, suspected bandits occupied the Emmanuel Baptist Church, Kakau Daji in Chikun Local Government Area, Kaduna State during Sunday services, killing two parishioners, wounding several, and kidnapping 65.  The abductors reportedly demanded 99 million naira ($244,000) for the kidnapped parishioners, whom they released on December 4.

There were numerous attacks against schools in which armed groups kidnapped schoolchildren for ransom, which religious leaders stated impacted the broader activities of their religious communities.  According to analysts, these kidnappings generally had a financial motive.

For example, in July, armed kidnappers abducted more than 120 students from Bethel Baptist High School in Kaduna State.  The kidnappers demanded 500,000 naira ($1,200) ransom for each student.  Subsequently, some students were either released or escaped from the kidnappers.  In May, according to press reports, armed kidnappers abducted 136 students from an Islamic school in the town of Tegina in Niger state, killing one person and demanding an unspecified ransom.  In August, the school’s principal told Reuters the kidnappers had called him and said six of the kidnapped students had died of illness.

On November 29, authorities in Zamfara State announced that the state’s Christian community had received a letter from a group of bandits threatening “ferocious attacks” unless all churches in the state were permanently closed.  In response, CAN directed its constituent churches to hold services only during daylight hours as an interim measure from December to end of February, while calling on the Buhari administration to ensure the protection of Christians in Zamfara and their religious freedom.  Media reported some Zamfara Christians were contemplating relocating to other parts of the country.  Police authorities in Zamfara said they created a special squad to patrol and protect Christian worshippers, especially on Sundays, and had deployed plain-clothes personnel for intelligence gathering to find those behind the letter.

CSW stated in November that Christian families in states that have implemented sharia continued to face abuses, including the abduction, forced conversion, and forced marriage of underage girls and reported it was assisting seven families whose underage daughters were abducted by members of their local communities.  In three cases, the local authorities in Rogo in Kano State were reportedly collecting dowries on behalf of prospective suitors and offering them marriage “at no cost” by January 2022.  Local media reported three Muslim men abducted and forcibly converted to Islam three Christian girls from Nariya village in Garko Local Government Area, Kano State.  The girls were in Hisbah protective custody at year’s end, while the Kano State chapter of CAN took the matter to the Kano State High Court for the girls’ return to their families.

On August 23, CAN President Ayokunle decried the violence and the government’s lack of adequate response by saying, “Stopping killing of the innocent by the criminals cannot be done by merely issuing press statements and holding periodical meetings with the security chiefs by the president.  Until the government shows the political will by arresting and bringing the culprits to book, the shedding of innocent blood will not cease.  We charge the Federal Government to fix the security challenges or throw in the towel.”  On December 9, the Sultan of Sokoto cautioned assembled religious leaders about the reach of their influence at the quarterly NIREC meeting, stating, “We have to be careful in the way we handle, say and do things as religious leaders.  We are not political leaders.  Therefore, we have to be wary of what we say, where and how we say such things, because our followers will definitely believe in what we say.  They will believe and feel that it is from the Holy Koran or the Holy Bible.  We cannot go on telling things to people without thinking that they will believe.  We cannot go on saying things that we know we don’t have full knowledge of.”

In June, local media reported Tiv and Jukun communities, both of which are Christian, clashed over land and water resources, often razing churches in Benue and Taraba States.  After a pastor and his wife were killed in predominantly Jukun Tunga village, Taraba State, the predominantly Tiv neighboring village of Maigoge was attacked and its church burned.

The Enugu State government completed the rebuilding of two mosques that were destroyed during protests in 2020 in the state, and the mosques reopened.

A Pew Research Center study from 2018 found that more than 80 percent of self-identified Christians in the country said they attended worship services at least once per week.  According to both Christian and Muslim religious organizations such as CAN and the Society for the Support of Islam, Nigerians attended prayers and services regularly, even in areas of conflict.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Secretary of State raised religious freedom issues with government officials in a visit in November, as did embassy and consulate general officials throughout the year.  Issues included the resolution of widely publicized blasphemy cases and the role of religious leaders in peacebuilding and social trust, and societal abuses affecting religion.  They met with officials including President Buhari, Vice President Osinbajo, Presidential Chief of Staff Gambari, cabinet secretaries – including Attorney General Malami, Foreign Minister Onyeama, Minister of Interior Aregbesola – and National Assembly members.  U.S. officials also addressed religious tensions and efforts to bring religious groups together with several state governors – including the governors of Kaduna, Kano, Benue, Nasarawa, Taraba, Borno, Plateau, Akwa Ibom, Enugu, and Abia States – and other government officials throughout the country.  They discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence, combat insecurity, and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance.

Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations.  On November 19, the Ambassador and the Secretary of State engaged with religious leaders on societal and religious issues surrounding the country’s insecurity.  The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups, including CAN, the Society for the Support of Islam, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna, and others throughout the year.  In January, the Ambassador met with the Sultan of Sokoto, Sa’ad Abubakar III, the most senior Muslim leader in the country and head of NIREC, and other prominent religious leaders at an interfaith dialogue.  In March, the Ambassador met with Muslim, Christian, and International Society of Krishna Consciousness leaders in Plateau State to discuss ongoing peacebuilding efforts in that region.  In April, the Ambassador spoke at the Cardinal Onaiyekan Foundation for Peace, a Catholic civil society organization, on the role of women and religion.  In August and September, senior embassy officials talked to the Taraba State Interreligious Council about its efforts to promote peace and understanding within religious communities in ethnically diverse Taraba State.  Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives regarding the main drivers of conflict in the country.

The embassy continued to fund peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna and Plateau.  The programs trained leaders in farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts, such as the development of early warning systems that could alert law enforcement and other authorities in advance of communal attacks.  “Peace ambassadors” from embassy-funded projects continued to work to bridge the gap between victims, traditional/religious leaders, and the security apparatus in Kaduna State.

The embassy addressed conflict among targeted at-risk communities by facilitating dialogues between aggrieved parties, promoting respect for religious freedom, and training community and religious leaders to peacefully resolve disputes.  Nine embassy-funded activities strengthened engagement and reduced tensions related to farmer-herders and other conflicts in Borno, Adamawa, Yobe, Benue, Delta, Kaduna, Kano, Katsina, Kogi, Plateau, and Taraba States.

The embassy continued to fund interfaith dialogue training for leaders in six North West and North Central states.  The embassy awarded five small grants to faith-based and community organizations to support reconciliation in communities, primarily in the North Central region, experiencing ethnoreligious violence.

The Secretary of State determined that Nigeria did not meet the criteria to be designated as a Country of Particular Concern for engaging in or tolerating particularly severe violations of religious freedom or as a Special Watch List country for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 when such designations were announced on November 15, 2021.  Nigeria had previously been designated as a Country of Particular Concern in 2020 and a Special Watch List country in 2019.

Pakistan

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, “trueislam.com,” 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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting congressional delegations and senior U.S. officials, including the Deputy Secretary of State, engaged government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including 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 blasphemy law reform, laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims, the need to better protect members of religious minority communities, sectarian relations, and religious respect.

Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to collect information on religious freedom abuses not covered in the media, stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities, and continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence.  They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect among religious groups and enhance dialogue.  The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms throughout the year.  On July 5, the American Muslim and Multifaith Women’s Empowerment Council, in collaboration with local interfaith leaders, convened U.S. and Pakistani faith leaders from the Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Baha’i, Christian, and transgender communities in Karachi.  In his opening remarks, the Consul General in Karachi expressed the U.S. commitment to support religious minority rights as a bulwark against intolerance and emphasized that religious freedom is integral to a vibrant democratic society.

The embassy and consulate general sponsored outreach activities such as speakers and workshops to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders.  The embassy and consulates general in Lahore, Karachi, and Peshawar held several events to promote religious freedom.  On October 28, the consulate general in Lahore arranged a webinar featuring a prominent scholar from the International Islamic University in Islamabad to promote tolerance and religious harmony.  The consulate general also collaborated with Michigan State University to fund an exchange program for female Ulema religious scholars to deepen understanding and appreciation of diverse interfaith traditions.

An embassy-supported activity aimed at community resilience continued to implement small grants programs to engage diverse stakeholders including community and religious leaders, government officials, university administrators, youth, and women to identify and remove hateful materials and promote peace, tolerance, and acceptance among diverse communities in Karachi, northern Sindh, and southern Punjab.  The embassy supported multiple activities engaging provincial ministers from Punjab and legislators from Punjab and Sindh Provinces to promote tolerance and diversity and mitigate religious intolerance.  An embassy-supported project focused on increasing the individual capacity of religious leaders, elders, and youth from different religious backgrounds to promote interfaith peace and cohesion in their communities.  These efforts aimed to address religious divisions by enhancing mutual understanding, integration, and collaboration among communities representing different religious schools and religious groups.

On November 15, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom and issued a waiver of the sanctions that accompany the designation in the national interests of the United States.

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.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, as well as embassy and consulate officials, engaged Saudi leaders and officials at all levels on religious freedom and tolerance issues.  Embassy officers raised religious freedom principles and cases with the HRC, the National Society for Human Rights, members of the Shura Council, the National Committee for Interreligious and Multicultural Dialogue, the MFA, the MWL, the Ministry of Education, and other ministries and agencies during the year.  Senior U.S. officials pressed the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.

In meetings with government officials, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and restrictions of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to inquire about the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns with members of religious minority communities, including Shia and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.  Embassy officials attended or sought access to a number of trials related to religious freedom.  The embassy and Department of State officials also engaged Saudi officials regarding these detainees.

Embassy representatives also met with non-Islamic religious leaders to discuss their ability to gather and practice their faith.  Embassy officials engaged regularly with like-minded partners and with religious leaders and participate in interfaith discussions and express support for the principles of tolerance and interfaith comity.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  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.

Turkey

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as a secular state.  It provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds.  The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), a state institution, governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam; its mandate is to enable the practice of Islam, provide religious education, and manage religious institutions.  According to media, some members of the Uyghur Muslim community expressed fear that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was attempting to pressure the government to change its policy of not deporting members of the Uyghur diaspora community to the PRC.  According to media and public government statements, the government generally showed willingness to protect Uyghur Muslims in the country, did not deport any Uyghurs to the PRC during the year, and consistently denied plans to change this policy.  In July, media reported nine Kurdish Sunni imams were arrested, charged with terrorism related offenses and for preaching in Kurdish, and then released.  The lawyer representing the imams told media he believed his clients’ “freedom of religion and belief has been openly violated” because they could not preach in their chosen language.  In March, government media regulator Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTUK) fined independent television broadcasters for “insulting society’s religious values,” which independent Turkish media stated was a common means of retaliation against media organizations critical of the government.  In March, the Constitutional Court upheld a regional court decision sentencing a journalist to seven months in prison for tweets “insulting religious values.”  Government officials continued to use antisemitic rhetoric in speeches.  In May, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated that Israelis were “murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old.  They are only satisfied with sucking their blood.”  The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim religious minorities, especially those not recognized under the government’s interpretation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which includes only Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians.  Media and nongovernmental organizations reported continued entry bans and deportations of non-Turkish citizen leaders of Protestant congregations.  The government continued to restrict efforts of minority religious groups to train their clergy domestically, and the Greek Orthodox Halki Seminary remained closed.  In January, an Armenian Christian parliamentarian condemned the demolition of a 17th-century Armenian church in Kutahya that had been protected under local law.  Construction of a new Syriac Orthodox church in Istanbul continued, according to the Syriac Orthodox Metropolitan Office.

According to media reports, isolated acts of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries continued.  In February, media reported that unidentified individuals vandalized the gate of the Jewish cemetery in Akhisar District of Izmir.  According to media, in March, police opened an investigation of a fire set at the gate of the historical Kasturya Synagogue, located in Ayvansaray District in Istanbul.  Media reported that three men videotaped themselves dancing atop the gates of Surp Tavakor Armenian Church, causing damage to the gate’s crucifix, in Istanbul’s Kadikoy District on July 11.  Government officials condemned the men’s actions; authorities subsequently detained and then released them.  In December, the three suspects were indicted and charged with “insulting religious values.”  Judicial proceedings continued through year’s end.  In September, media reported unidentified individuals vandalized Kurdish Alevi homes with graffiti that read, “Kurdish Alevi get out,” in the province of Mersin.  Antisemitic discourse and hate speech continued in social media and the print press; in August, some social media personalities and journalists linked the devastating wildfires spreading through the country to a foreign rabbi living in the country.  On June 18, media reported that representatives of the Jewish community filed a criminal complaint against the head of a health and social services business after he tweeted that those protesting at Bogazici University “are all dishonest… You are all a traitor.  You are all a Jew.”

On October 25, the U.S. President met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.  According to the White House press release, they discussed the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right.  The Secretary of State also met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, tweeting afterwards, “We value our partnership with the Orthodox Christian community worldwide and religious minorities in Turkey and the region.”  The U.S. Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate officials continued to emphasize to government officials the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law.  On May 18, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement condemning President Erdogan’s antisemitic rhetoric.  U.S. officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups and make progress on property restitution.  Senior U.S. officials, including the Secretary of State, continued to call on the government to allow the reopening of Halki Seminary and to permit the training of clergy members from all communities in the country.  In May, during a visit to Istanbul, the Deputy Secretary of State met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.  The Deputy Secretary also visited St. George’s Cathedral.  Embassy and consulate officials continued to hold meetings with a wide range of Islamic religious leaders and religious minority community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Baha’i, and Chaldean Catholic communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discrimination against members of any religious group.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 82.5 million (midyear 2021).  According to the Turkish government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 78 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni.  Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members are 0.2 percent of the population, while the most recent public opinion surveys published in January 2019 by Turkish research and polling firm KONDA Research and Consultancy suggest approximately 3 percent of the population self-identifies as atheist and 2 percent as nonbelievers.

Leaders of Alevi foundations estimate Alevi Muslims comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population.  KONDA Research and Consultancy estimates the Alevi community at approximately 6 percent of the population, almost 5 million individuals.  The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population.

Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities, as well as in the southeast.  Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (including migrants from Armenia), 25,000 Roman Catholics (including migrants from Africa and the Philippines), and 12,000-16,000 Jews.  There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs), 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits), and 10,000 Baha’is.

Estimates of other groups include 7,000-10,000 members of Protestant and evangelical Christian denominations, 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, fewer than 3,000 Chaldean Christians, fewer than 2,500 Greek Orthodox Christians, and fewer than 1,000 Yezidis.  There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Maronite Christians.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) estimates its membership at 300 individuals.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship.  It stipulates individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion.”  It also prohibits “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.

The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates Islamic matters.  According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam; educate the public about religious issues; and administer mosques.  The Diyanet operates under the Office of the President, with its head appointed by the President and administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties.  The Diyanet has five main departments, called high councils:  Religious Services, Hajj and Umrah Services, Education, Publications, and Public Relations.  While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.

Blasphemy is outlawed under the penal code, which provides punishment for “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs, and criminalizes “insulting values held sacred by a religion.”  Insulting a religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.

The penal code prohibits religious clergy from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties.  Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law.

Although registration with the government is not explicitly mandatory for religious groups to operate, registering a group is required to request legal recognition for places of worship.  Gaining legal recognition of a place of worship requires permission from the municipalities for the construction or designation of a new place of worship.  It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the central government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law.

Interfering with the service of a religious group is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison.  Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to recognized religious groups.

The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.

Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection.  A government policy allows individuals to pay a fee of 43,151 Turkish lira ($3,300) instead of performing full military service; however, they are required to complete a three-week basic training program.  Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and, if convicted, could be subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.

The leadership and administrative structures of religious communities do not have a legal personality, leaving them unable to directly buy or hold title to property or press claims in court.  Communities rely on separate foundations or associations governed by individual boards to hold and administer assets and property.

A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law.  Non-Muslim citizens direct these longstanding foundations; 167 continue to exist, the majority of which are associated with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish communities.  In practice, a religious group formed after 1935 may successfully apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious.  There are six Protestant foundations (four existing before the passage of the 1935 foundation law), 36 Protestant associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.

The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all foundations, and it assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational charter.  There are several categories of foundations, including religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.

If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to rule it is no longer operational and transfer its assets to the state.  Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under a state of emergency, during which the government may close foundations by decree.

A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties, as well as from donations.  The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level.

Several religious communities have formally registered corresponding associations.  Associations must be nonprofit and receive financial support only in the form of donations.  To register as an association, a group must apply to the provincial governor’s office with supporting documentation, including bylaws and a list of founding members.  A group must also obtain permission from the Ministry of Interior as part of its application if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is a founding member; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of its residence permits.  If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change them to meet the legal requirements.  Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials for actions deemed to violate the organization’s bylaws.  A court order may close an association, and the Ministry of Interior may temporarily close an association or foundation and apply to a court within 48 hours for a decision on closure.  Otherwise, the government may close associations and foundations by decree under a state of emergency.  The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.

By law, prisoners have the right to practice their religion while incarcerated; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship.  According to the law, prison authorities must allow visitation by clergy members of registered religions and allow them to offer books and other materials that are part of the prisoner’s faith as long as the prisoner is a member of a registered religion.

The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public and private schools at all levels starting with fourth grade, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction, which falls under the authority of the Office of the President.  Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through 12.  Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes.  Atheists, agnostics, Alevis or other non-Sunni Muslims, Baha’is, Yezidis, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Confucians, Taoists, and Buddhists, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card are rarely granted exemptions from the classes.  Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.

The government issues chip-enabled national identity cards that contain no visible section to identify religious affiliation.  The information on religious affiliation is recorded in the chip and remains visible to authorized public officials as “qualified personal data” and protected as private information.  Previously issued national identity cards, which continue in circulation, contain a space for religious identification with the option of leaving the space blank.  The new cards include the same options for religious identities as the older cards:  Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, “no religion,” or “other/unknown.”  Baha’i, Alevi, Yezidi, and other religious groups with known populations in the country were not options, requiring individuals of other religions or no religion to leave the category blank or to state “other/unknown.”

According to labor law, private and public sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on religion.  Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court.  If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the reversal of the employment decision.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with one reservation regarding Article 27, which states individuals belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities “shall not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.”  The reservation asserts the right “to interpret and apply the provisions of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in accordance with the related provisions and rules of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey and the Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923 and its Appendixes.”

Government Practices

On July 4, a court sentenced Syriac Orthodox priest Father Bilecen (also known as Father Aho) to 25 months in prison for “aiding a terrorist organization.”  According to the Province of Mardin Public Prosecutor, local gendarmerie arrested Aho and two other Syriacs in 2018 for providing bread and water to members of the U.S.- and Turkish-designated terror organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) who visited the 1,500-year-old Mor Yakub Monastery in Mardin Province.  According to Aho, he provided food and water to the individuals in question because his religion “commanded” him to help others, stating he acted “out of my belief, not out of help to any organization.”  The case was pending appeal at year’s end.

On July 11, media reported nine Kurdish Sunni imams were arrested, charged with terrorism-related offenses, and then released seven days later.  Authorities detained the nine imams along with 19 others during a counterterrorism operation.  Media reported the charges for arrest also included preaching sermons in Kurdish.  The nine imams were reportedly asked why they had deviated from the mandatory Diyanet-approved Friday sermon (khutbah) and why they delivered the sermon in Kurdish.  While by law the Diyanet’s mandate is to govern and coordinate all matters of Islamic practices, teachings, and beliefs, the law does not forbid preaching in Kurdish.  The lawyer representing the imams told media that he believed his clients’ “freedom of religion and belief has been openly violated,” since they were not able to practice in their chosen language.  One of the imams told media, “God gave us this language.”  According to media, authorities released the imams under travel restrictions.  The case continued through the year’s end.

The country continued to host a large diaspora community of ethnic Uyghur Chinese Muslims.  The PRC continued to seek the forcible repatriation of some Uyghur Muslims from Turkey; however, local Uyghur community sources said they knew of no cases of deportations of Uyghurs to the PRC during the year.  During the year, members of the Uyghur community expressed concern regarding an extradition treaty the government signed with the PRC in December 2020.  By year’s end, lawmakers had not debated or ratified the treaty.  According to media and public government statements, the government generally showed willingness to protect Uyghur Muslims in the country, did not deport any Uyghurs to the PRC during the year, and consistently denied plans to change this policy.  According to media, Uyghur individuals whom police detained in counterterrorism security raids and subsequently released expressed fear that they were targeted because of PRC pressure on the country.  During Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s March visit to Ankara, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told media he “conveyed [their] sensitivity and thoughts on Uyghur Turks.”

In March, the Constitutional Court ruled a lower court had infringed on journalist Hakan Aygun’s rights following his arrest for a March 2020 social media post in which he used a religious pun to criticize a government Twitter campaign soliciting donations; authorities freed Aygun in May 2020.  The Constitutional Court awarded him compensation of 40,000 lira ($3,100) for his wrongful arrest.  His case with the local court that sentenced him to seven months and 15 days in prison for “insulting the religious values adopted by a section of the population” was pending appeal at year’s end.

Also in March, government media regulator RTUK fined independent television broadcasters Halk TV and TELE1 for “insulting society’s religious values,” which independent media stated was a common means of retaliation against media organizations critical of the government.  In another case, RTUK fined TELE1’s program “18 Dakika” (18 Minutes) for using the term “Islamic terrorism” on its program.

In March, the government announced its Human Rights Action Plan, to be implemented within two years and which included several reforms for religious minority communities, including provisions to hold General Directorate of Foundation elections.  Elections, however, were not held by year’s end, and the plan did not become law.  Representatives from religious groups reported no change in interactions with the government following the plan’s announcement.

The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups:  Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians.  The government continued not to recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Chief Rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court.  These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, overseen by separate governing boards, to hold and control individual religious properties.

According to a Seventh-day Adventist source, during the year, the government compensated at least one of six Seventh-day Adventist adherents for its refusal to allow the Seventh-day Adventists to establish a foundation.  The source said the compensation was in line with a European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) 2010 ruling that found the government had violated the European Convention on Human Rights, which provides for freedom of assembly and association, when the government refused to allow the establishment of the foundation.  The court ruling required the government to pay six members of the congregation in Istanbul a total compensation of 8,724 euros ($9,900).

The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations.

In December, media reported Archbishop of Armenian Catholics in Turkey Levon Zekiyan led the first Mass in Surp Hovsep Armenian Catholic Church in Diyarbakir in nearly a century.  The building had been damaged during clashes between police and Kurdish demonstrators in the city in 2015.  Restored by the General Directorate of Foundations, the church will be used by Dicle University for 10 years as a cultural center under the condition that the Armenian Catholic community retain the right to use the church on demand.

In September, media reported the Assyrian community, with bureaucratic assistance from the GDF, reopened Mor Dimet Church in the southeast province of Mardin after 30 years of inactivity.  The church was abandoned in the height of tensions in the region in 1980s and early 1990s.

On August 15, for the first time in six years, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, whom the government continued not to recognize as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, presided over the Divine Liturgy at Sumela Monastery.  This was the second time the government granted the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate permission to hold its annual August 15 service at the fourth-century monastery since suspending services in 2015 for restoration.  During the liturgy, the Patriarch thanked President Erdogan and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism for allowing the ceremony to take place and for caring for the space.

According to media reports, in January, the private owner demolished the 17th century Church of Surp Toros in the eastern province of Kutahya.  Although the place of worship had been deconsecrated and abandoned since 1915, Garo Paylan, an Armenian Christian member of parliament for the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), condemned the act.  Although used as a film set and a wedding hall, the centuries-old former Armenian church had been classified as an “immovable requiring protection” by the Kutahya Regional Board of Cultural Heritage Protection.  Paylan stated authorities remained indifferent to the Armenian community’s calls for the church’s restoration or, at least, its use as a cultural center, and he referred to a statement by President Erdogan that there would be no interference with the belief or worship of anyone.

On August 10, Minister of Culture and Tourism Mehmet Nuri Ersoy presented 12 recovered icons stolen from local historical churches to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I in a ceremony held at the Canakkale Troy Museum in the northwestern part of the country.  The 12 artifacts, including depictions of Jesus, Christian saints, and a crucifix, were reportedly stolen from several historical churches on Bozcaada (Tenedos) Island in the Aegean Sea.  Ersoy said the items were recovered in a multinational antismuggling operation that seized more than 4,000 items before they left the country.  Ersoy emphasized the government’s determination to combat trafficking in antiquities and cultural artifacts.

In August, media reported the restoration of Surp Yerrortutyun Armenian Church (known in Turkish as Uc Horan) in Malatya was complete.  The building, which will serve as both a church and a cultural center, hosted its first Mass in decades on August 29.  The Malatya Metropolitan Municipality financed part of the restoration.

Multiple Protestant church representatives continued to report bureaucratic difficulties in registering places of worship.  According to the Protestant Church Association headquartered in Ankara, it did not attempt to register any church during the year, and it reported no progress on the fewer than 10 registration requests it had made in previous years.  Church representatives said they were obliged to continue meeting in unregistered locations for worship services because local officials did not approve registration applications and continued to impose zoning standards on churches, including minimum space requirements of at least 10,764 square feet, a requirement generally not imposed on mosques.  Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, which they permitted to build worship facilities in malls, airports, and other smaller spaces.  Additionally, some Protestant churches reported local authorities did not allow them to display crosses on the exterior of their buildings.

The government continued in larger prisons to provide incarcerated Sunni Muslims with mesjids (small mosques) and Sunni preachers.  Alevis and non-Muslims did not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons; however, clergy of other religious groups were permitted to enter prisons with the permission of the public prosecutor to minister to their adherents as long as doing so was not considered a threat to a facility’s security.

The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect” and did not recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis), despite a 2018 ruling by the Supreme Court of Appeals that cemevis are places of worship.  In March 2018, the head of the Diyanet had said mosques were the appropriate places of worship for both Alevis and Sunnis.  On February 14, Istanbul Sariyer District municipal authorities, after eight years of deliberation, denied house of worship status to Imam Huseyin Cemevi in Sariyer District without providing a justification.

On June 18, media reported the country’s first museum dedicated to Alevi culture, ritual, and practices and affiliated with the provincial government opened in Tunceli, a Kurdish majority city located in the eastern part of the country.

On February 18, the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ruled to stop a project of the Ministry of Environment and Tunceli Governorship to develop Munzur Springs, considered sacred by the Alevi community, in eastern Tunceli Province.  Alevi community members and human rights groups had strongly opposed the eight million lira ($617,000) project, which planned to develop the springs into a tourist recreation area.  Lawyers representing the community filed the lawsuit with the Council of State in August 2020.

The GDF continued its restoration of the Surp Giragos Armenian and Mar Petyun Chaldean Churches, both in Sur District, Diyarbakir.  During the year, the government again did not pay restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK.

During the year, the government did not return properties seized in previous decades; it last returned properties in 2018, specifically 56, to the Syriac community.  Representatives from various communities said they continued to pursue property returns through appropriate legal and government channels.  The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to report these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities.  Due to their legal status, recognized religious foundations remained eligible to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.

Many public buildings, including universities, continued to maintain small mosques.  In 2017, the Ministry of National Education issued a regulation requiring every new school to have an Islamic prayer room.  The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis.  Alevi leaders reported the approximately 2,500 to 3,000 cemevis in the country were insufficient to meet demand.  The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.

News outlet T24 reported on April 16 that a middle school teacher in Amasya was under investigation for his answer regarding a question about the Prophet Muhammad.  According to the report, during a class on fighting addictions, a student asked the teacher’s opinion about the Prophet sleeping two hours during the day.  The teacher commented that such habits change over time and depend on many factors.  The student’s parents, after learning about the conversation, filed a complaint that resulted in an investigation over whether the teacher’s comments insulted religious values because they believed the teacher had indirectly questioned a behavior of the Prophet Muhammad.  The teachers’ union Egitim-Sen described the incident as an example of the pressures and intimidation teachers faced.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

Religious communities, particularly Alevi Muslims, continued to raise concerns regarding several of the government’s education policies.  At year’s end, the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ECtHR ruling that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom.  The ECtHR denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to Alevi religious convictions.  Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2013 after the ECtHR decision, but Alevi groups stated the material was inadequate and, in some cases, incorrect, and that teachers often ignored it.  They continued to call on the government to implement the ECtHR decision.

Non-Sunni Muslims and nonpracticing Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives dealing with different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their new identification cards listed their religion as Muslim.  Reportedly, because only Christian and Jewish children could opt out of the religion course, teachers assumed all other students were Muslim and thus required to take the course.  The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups, including Alevis and members of Christian denominations, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups, such as some educational texts referring to Alevi beliefs as mysticism.  In June 2019, the Istanbul 12th Regional Administrative Court accepted an Alevi parent’s appeal for his son’s exclusion from the compulsory religious course.  The case was still pending at year’s end.

The country’s education materials in mandatory religion classes were discriminatory against religions other than Islam, according to a March study within the “Project for Supporting Diversity and Freedom of Religion and Faith in Turkey’s Education System.”  The project was cosponsored by the Association for Monitoring Equal Rights, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee, and with support from the Dutch embassy.  The project aims to contribute to the harmonization of legislation and practice in Turkey in accordance with international human rights standards by producing information through human rights-based monitoring of the right to freedom of religion or belief in schools.  According to the study, the curriculum did not include teachings about non-monotheistic faiths and only referred to Christianity and Judaism briefly in the context of their followers in the Arab Peninsula before the emergence of Islam.  The report also stated that some of the expressions in the curriculum were so biased that they effectively disrespected other religions, noting a phrase that read, “The only religion accepted by God is Islam.”

The government continued to provide funding for public, private, and religious schools teaching Islam.  It did not do so for minority schools the government recognized under the Lausanne Treaty, except to pay the salaries for courses taught in Turkish, such as Turkish literature.  The minority religious communities funded all the schools’ other expenses through donations, including from church foundations and alumni.

Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations continued to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education.  Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend.  Because the government continued to classify legal migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” they were ineligible to receive diplomas from these schools.  The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages.

During the year, media reported that parents continued to protest the conversion of Ismail Tarman Middle School into an imam hatip school, a vocational religious school to train government-employed imams.  In 2020, the parents petitioned to stop the conversion of the school.  While the parents successfully argued that five imam hatip schools were already available in their district and four courts – two local administrative and two regional administrative courts – ruled in their favor to prevent the conversion, the Ministry of National Education did not adhere to the court decisions and the school continued to operate as an imam hatip school.

Several Alevi foundations again requested the end of a continuing program that takes school children ages six to 13 to local mosques for religious instruction during their two-week winter break.  The voluntary Ministry of National Education program, begun in 2018 for 50,000 children drawn from each of the 81 provinces, continued for a fourth year.

On September 21, media reported a religious studies teacher at Martyr Ali Ihsan Okatan Secondary School in Ankara’s Mamak District was under investigation for remarks he made in the classroom.  According to the reports, the teacher asked Alevi students to identify themselves, then asked, “Why don’t Alevis pray?  Why don’t Alevis fast?”  The reports also stated that he said, “We do not like Ali.”  Ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) spokesperson Omer Celik said the case was being investigated.  On the floor of parliament, opposition party Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Istanbul Deputy Zeynel Ozen called for the teacher to be dismissed.  The National Ministry of Education issued a statement saying, “An investigation has been initiated by our ministry regarding the alleged incident between a religious culture and ethics teacher and some students in a district of Ankara.  The process is being followed closely.”  There were no further developments by year’s end.

According to press reports, in his October meeting with President Biden, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I raised the importance of the Turkish government allowing Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to again enable the training of Greek Orthodox clergy in the country.  As of year’s end, there were no further developments concerning the plan to open an Islamic educational center on the same island (Halki) as the shuttered seminary.  A 1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the Halki Seminary’s closure.  Amendments to the constitution in 1982 allowed for the establishment of private institutions of higher education but also placed significant restrictions on these institutions, and the Halki Seminary was not permitted to reopen and operate under its traditions and preferences.

The government continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clergy inside the country.  The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates remained unable to train clergy within the country.

Multiple reports continued to state Protestant communities could not train clergy in the country and therefore relied on foreign volunteers to serve in leadership capacities.  Local Protestant communities stated they aimed to develop indigenous Turkish leaders in their congregations because it was becoming increasingly difficult to rely on foreign volunteers.  Several Protestant clergy, including evangelical Christian pastors, conducted religious services while resident in the country on long-term tourist residence permits.

Protestant community sources also said some of the deportations and entry bans during the year targeted foreign citizen members of the community who had lived legally as long-term residents in the country for decades and who previously had not experienced any immigration difficulties.  According to community members, these immigration procedures also affected a local community’s ability to raise funds for local churches because foreign clergy members attracted individual donations and support from church communities in their countries of origin.  Some individuals with entry bans or resident permit denials requested review of their immigration status through the country’s legal system.  None of the cases reached conclusion by year’s end and could take several years to resolve due to the complexities of, and backlog in, the judicial system, according to media reports.

Monitoring organizations and media outlets, including Middle East Concern, International Christian Concern, World Watch Monitor, Mission Network News, and Voice of the Martyrs, continued to report entry bans, denial of residency permit extensions, and deportations for long-time residents affiliated with Protestant churches in the country.  In 2019, the Ministry of Interior’s Directorate for Migration Management announced that as of January 1, 2020, the government would deny extension requests to long-term residents for tourist purposes in the absence of another reason to request a residency permit (i.e., marriage, work, study).  Observers reported that at year’s end, there were 41 pending immigration court cases, including residency permit denials and entry bans, of which 20 were new cases.  Observers reported there were at least two dozen evangelical Christian residence permit court cases pending as of year’s end, including eight at the Constitutional Court level.  Recipients of bans and denials most frequently cited security codes that denoted “activities against national security” and “work permit activities against national security.”  While similar measures occurred in previous years, multiple groups said they perceived a stagnation in the number of removals and entry bans during the year.

In August, media associated with the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) reported concerns about the situation of evangelical Christians in the country, including deportations and reentry bans.  In its March report to the UN Human Rights Committee, WEA said, “Since 2019, there has been a systematic campaign to label foreign Protestants as security threats.  None of the Christians denied permits or expelled has been convicted of committing any specific crimes.”

In February, media reported that a foreign pastor, along with the NGO Alliance Defending Freedom International (ADF), filed an application with the European Council on Human Rights accusing the government of religious persecution for the pastor’s 2018 deportation and subsequent reentry ban for publicly evangelizing in the streets of Istanbul.  According to media and ADF, the pastor was not allowed to reenter Turkey in 2018, where he had lived for 19 years.

The Armenian-Turkish newspaper Agos reported in March that an Ankara administrative court ruled a 2013 government circular cancelling elections for boards of minority religious foundations was illegal, and the government appealed the ruling.  The last foundation board election was held in 2011.  During the year, members of religious communities continued to report they were still unable to hold elections for the governing boards of their foundations, which remained an impediment to managing their affairs.  They said when board members died, retired, or left the country, foundation boards had a more difficult time fulfilling their duties and ran the risk of eventually not functioning without new members.  Religious communities expressed concern that if boards reached the point of no longer functioning, the government could then declare the foundation defunct and transfer its properties and other assets to the state.

The government continued not to recognize Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I as the leader of the world’s approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so.  The government’s position remained that the Ecumenical Patriarch was only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population.  The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch, and it continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011 stopgap solution intended to widen the pool of candidates eligible to become the next patriarch.  The government continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens.

The decision by the Church of Jesus Christ to remove its volunteers and international staff from the country remained in effect throughout the year.  In 2018, the Church cited safety concerns as the reason for the removal.  According to local members, some followers stayed away from church because they feared retribution and discrimination.  Some said they had lost their jobs, including in the public sector, because of their faith, and they experienced difficulties in finding new employment.

The government paid partial compensation to the Alevi Cem Foundation in lira, based on the 2017 euro exchange rate, amounting to 39,010 euros ($47,900) after the ECtHR rejected the country’s appeal to reduce the 54,400-euro ($66,700) compensation it was obligated to pay the Alevi Cem Foundation in February 2019.  The Cem Foundation filed a court case to receive the remainder of compensation and interest.  The case continued at year’s end.  The Cem Foundation took the government to the ECtHR in 2010 for discrimination for not paying the electric bills of Alevi places of worship, a service provided for mosques.  The government appealed for a fee reduction to 23,300 euros ($28,600).  In November 2018, the Supreme Court of Appeals ruled cemevis were places of worship and therefore should receive the same benefits as Sunni mosques, including being exempt from paying utility bills.  Alevi organizations continued to call on the government to comply with the ruling.

The Diyanet continued to regulate the operation of all registered mosques, and it paid the salaries of Sunni personnel.  The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups.

On July 24, the first anniversary of the Hagia Sophia’s (known as Ayasofya in the country) reconversion from a museum to a mosque, Diyanet head Ali Erbas led prayer in the building.  Originally the principal church of the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia became a mosque in 1453 and then a museum in 1935.  In July, UNESCO stated its “grave concern” about the reconversion, specifically how it might impact the “Outstanding Universal Value of the property.”  It also said it “deeply regrets the lack of dialogue and information” concerning the government’s change in the status of the Hagia Sophia and Kariye (also known as Chora) Museum.  UNESCO requested the government submit a report by February 2, 2022 “on the state of the conservation of the property.”  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in response that ministry officials were in contact with UNESCO since the very beginning of the process in an “open and undisrupted” manner.  The ministry said UNESCO’s concern was “biased,” and that the usage of the Hagia Sophia and the Kariye Museum was a matter for the country alone to decide.  The ministry emphasized that the country would protect the monuments’ “historical, cultural, and spiritual value.”

The opening of the Chora Museum as a mosque did not occur by the end of the year because of continuing restoration.  Announced to open in October 2020 as a mosque, the museum, famed for its mosaics and frescos depicting Christian imagery, was originally constructed and repeatedly renovated as the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Savior in the fifth century and then converted into the Kariye Mosque in 1511 before becoming a museum in 1945.

The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant Christian sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island, and the House of the Virgin Mary near Selcuk.

The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and kill its pastor in 2013 continued through year’s end.  Reportedly, the delay in the trial was in part attributable to the alleged involvement of security forces in the assault.

On April 14, media reported the Suspicious Deaths and Victims Association’s findings that said 80 percent of those who died while conscripted in the military were either of Alevi or Kurdish origin.  The association’s chief, Riza Dogan, estimated that between 2000-2020, more than 3,000 conscripts had died.  The association is comprised of relatives of the deceased conscripts.

The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and to fund their construction through municipalities.  According to the Diyanet’s most recent published statistics, there were 89,445 Diyanet-operated mosques in the country in 2020, compared with 89,259 Diyanet-operated mosques in 2019.  Although Alevi groups were able to build some new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction and maintenance, with some instances of municipalities providing this support.

Construction of a new Syriac Orthodox church, Mor Efrem, in Istanbul was delayed, but work continued, with completion expected in spring 2022.  Once completed, it will be the first newly constructed church since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.  The approximately 18,000-member Syriac Orthodox community in Istanbul continued to use churches of other communities, in addition to its one existing historic church, to hold services.

During the year, the government allocated 350,000 lira ($27,000) for religious minority publications, including newspapers, compared with no funding in 2020.

Jewish citizens again expressed concern about antisemitism and security threats.  According to members of the community, the government continued to coordinate with them on security issues.  They said the government measures were helpful and the government was responsive to requests for security.

On March 28, during a meeting in Diyarbakir with Islamic NGOs, Diyanet President Ali Erbas said, “Let’s protect our children from ideologies other than Islam and various organizations and structures that promote disbelieving, atheism, deism, and Zoroastrianism.”  The Atheism Association subsequently sued Erbas for putting the lives of nonbelievers in danger and “inciting hatred and enmity in the public.”  The case continued through year’s end.

During the year, President Erdogan and other government officials, including Diyanet officials, made public remarks toward religious minorities that these minorities considered insulting, including antisemitic remarks, in official rhetoric.  In May, President Erdogan stated that Israelis were “murderers, to the point that they kill children who are five or six years old.  They are only satisfied with sucking their blood.”  Also in May, Mufti Saban Soytekinoglu in the western province of Duzce said that most Greek immigrants from Thessaloniki were not Muslims but “secret Jews.”  He also accused Jews of having orchestrated 2013 Gezi Park protests against the proposed urban development plan for the park.

According to media reports, on February 9, Dr. Ahmet Seref Demirel, a medical doctor at the public Istanbul University Faculty of Medicine, was sentenced to eight months in prison for telling his Alevi patient during a medical exam that “All Alevis are terrorists.”  His sentence was in accordance with a penal code article on inciting public hatred.

In December, President Erdogan issued a statement wishing a Happy Hanukkah to the country’s Jewish citizens and said, “Our region has for thousands of years been a home to different cultures, all of which are very valuable.”  He emphasized that everyone should be able to “practice their beliefs and traditions freely without any discrimination, regardless of their religion, language, or ethnic origin.”  Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu issued a statement on social media wishing the Jewish residents of Istanbul a Happy Hanukkah.  Also in December, the Jewish community in Istanbul held its first outdoor menorah-lighting ceremony, at which Chief Rabbi Ishak Haleva spoke to a crowd of nearly 200 persons, including government officials and district mayors.

On March 27 and September 6, President Erdogan sent messages to the Jewish community celebrating Passover and Rosh Hashanah.  The messages described unity as well as cultural and social diversity as one of the country’s most important assets and recognized the contributions of Jews “to develop, strengthen, and attain the goals” of the country.  In April, he released an Easter message stating, “Sharing our Christian citizens joy on Easter, I strongly believe that such features of ours as unity and solidarity, which form the basis of our nation, will forever be passed on from one generation to another.”

Renovations continued on the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Izmir, scheduled to reopen in early 2022 as both a synagogue and a museum.  According to Izmir Jewish community leaders, the synagogue, plus several other Jewish sites nearby, would form part of a “Jewish Museum” project, some of which still required reconstruction.  The project received funding from the municipal government and through international grants.

In May, President Erdogan hosted an iftar at the Presidential Palace during Ramadan with the leaders of the main minority religious groups, including Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Assyrian, Roman Catholic, and other minority religious groups, to discuss issues such as a potential new constitution and the process of returning properties of minority foundations.

On January 27, the Directorate of Communications of the Presidency launched the website weremember.gov.tr, dedicated to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and the Rwanda, Cambodia, and Srebrenica genocides.  Government statements highlighted the country’s history of helping Jews escape Nazi persecution, its status as a cosponsor of the 2005 UN resolution designating January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and they noted the country’s resolute stance “against these hate-based phenomena and all kinds of discrimination,” including antisemitism.  In February, the government for the sixth consecutive year commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma, a ship that sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942.  The governor of Istanbul, Chief Rabbi Haleva, other members of the Jewish community, and members of the diplomatic community attended the commemoration.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were continued media reports of vandalism of places of worship and cemeteries, including a growing number of instances of vandalism of Christian cemeteries.  On July 12, media reported three men videotaped themselves dancing atop the gates of Surp Tavakor Armenian Church in Istanbul’s Kadikoy District on July 11, causing damage to the gate’s crucifix.  Police detained all three before releasing them.  In December, the three suspects were indicted and charged with “insulting religious values.”  President Erdogan condemned the incident, saying “We will monitor the case until the end.  It is not possible to tolerate such indecency, impertinence.”  Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu termed the act “disrespectful.”  Soylu and Istanbul Governor Ali Yerlikaya called Armenian Patriarch Sahak Masalyan to express sympathy and assure him the perpetrators would be punished.

In January, authorities arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to a 16-month prison term the individual who in May 2020 tore the cross from the gate of the Armenian Surp Krikor Lusaravic Church in Kuzguncuk District, Istanbul.

In April, International Christian Concern reported the looting, including removal of frescoes, of a Byzantine-era Greek Orthodox church in Samsun.

On January 24, media reported unidentified individuals vandalized five Alevi homes in Yalova with “Alevi” graffiti painted in red.  On August 27, media reported Alevi homes in Adana were marked with x’s.  On September 11, media reported unidentified individuals vandalized Kurdish Alevi Muslim homes in the province of Mersin, writing graffiti that read, “Kurdish Alevi get out.”

Some news outlets published conspiracy theories involving Jews.  In August, some social media personalities and journalists linked devastating wildfires spreading through the country to a foreign rabbi living in the country.  Media outlets also continued to blame the country’s economic difficulties and the genesis and spread of COVID-19 on Jews.

On June 18, media reported that representatives of the Jewish community had filed a criminal complaint against the head of a health and social services business after he tweeted that those protesting at Bogazici University “are all dishonest… You are all a traitor.  You are all a Jew.”  The case was pending at year’s end.

According to Jewish community representatives, confronting hateful discourse through print and social media was the most effective way to combat antisemitism.  They said antisemitic messages and hate speech in social and print media were pervasive and often went unquestioned.  They added that societal hostility toward Jews sometimes manifested in acts of vandalism directed at Jewish places of worship and cemeteries.  In February, media reported unidentified persons vandalized the gate of the Jewish cemetery in Akhisar District, Izmir.  According to media, in March, police opened an investigation on a fire set at the gate of the historical Kasturya Synagogue, located in the Ayvansaray District in Istanbul.  The Kasturya Synagogue was built in 1893 and demolished by unknown individuals in 1937 after Jews living in the neighborhood left the country.  Only the historical gate remained.  There were no developments in the investigation by year’s end.

According to media, in May, unidentified individuals hacked the website of Salom, the sole newspaper serving the Jewish community.  Authorities had not apprehended the hackers by year’s end.  According to media reports, the social media site Clash Report, which usually posts about armed conflict, said Jews were “overrepresented in the Biden cabinet.”

On January 28, media reported the Armenian Catholic Surp Krikor Lusavoric Church in Bursa Province was for sale by an unidentified private seller.  According to media, after the Armenian genocide in 1915, the church passed into private hands.  Spiritual leader of Armenian Catholics Levon Zekiyan told media his community “cannot afford to buy the church.”  By year’s end, the property had not been sold.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 25, the President met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I at the White House.  According to the White House press release, they discussed the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental human right as well as efforts to confront climate change and steps to end the global COVID-19 pandemic.  The Secretary of State also met with the Patriarch, tweeting afterwards, “We value our partnership with the Orthodox Christian community worldwide and religious minorities in Turkey and the region.”

The Ambassador, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss religious freedom issues, including religious education.  They underscored the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and equal treatment under the law, and of condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups.  They sought government representatives’ responses to specific claims of religious freedom concerns raised by local religious communities and explored how best to collaborate between the governments of the two countries to protect and respect religious freedom.

On May 18, the Department of State spokesperson issued a statement condemning President Erdogan’s antisemitic rhetoric for his comments criticizing Israel during the spring clashes Israel and Hamas.

U.S. government officials urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups and raised the issue of property restitution and restoration.  Embassy staff continued to press for the restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.  Senior U.S. government officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki and allow all religious communities to train clergy in the country.  On July 29, the Department of State spokesperson stated, “Today marks 50 years since the Turkish Constitutional Court ruled that all institutions of higher education must either nationalize or close, resulting in the closure of the Theological School of Halki, a seminary of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The Halki Seminary had operated for 127 years, and its closing deprived the Ecumenical Patriarchate of a training school for Orthodox clergy in Turkey, its home for 1,690 years.  Since Halki’s closure, those wishing to become Orthodox clergy have been forced to go abroad for their training.  The United States continues to urge the Turkish government to respect the right to freedom of religion or belief as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and allow the reopening of the Halki Seminary.  Moreover, we call upon the government of Turkey to allow all religious groups to again train their clergy within the country.”

In May, during a visit to Istanbul, the Deputy Secretary of State met with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and underscored the U.S. commitment to religious freedom.  The Deputy Secretary also visited St. George’s Cathedral.

During his October 25 meeting with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Secretary of State reaffirmed that the reopening of the Halki Seminary remained a continued priority for the U.S. government.

Senior U.S. embassy, consulate general, and consulate officials regularly engaged virtually and to the extent possible in-person with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns, including religious foundation elections, education, and property, and to promote interreligious dialogue.  Officials from the embassy and consulates general engaged with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, and Church of Jesus Christ religious groups, among others, throughout the country and throughout the year.

In August, high level embassy officials visited Hagia Sophia (known as Ayasofya Mosque) and found Orthodox Christian figurative art and iconography in the nave of the edifice remained covered, including outside of prayer times.  In November, embassy officials visited the Etz Hayim Synagogue in Izmir, where they talked with local Jewish community leaders about restoration progress on several historic synagogues.  In August, officials of the consulate general in Istanbul traveled to the city of Edirne, where they met with members of the local Baha’i community and visited Muslim, Jewish, and Bulgarian Orthodox historical sites.  In November, officials from the consulate general in Istanbul traveled to Bursa where they met with representatives of the Protestant and Jewish communities.  In conjunction with International Religious Freedom Day, embassy officials and officials from the consulate in Adana met with minority religious groups and majority Sunni faith leaders in Hatay on October 19, including representatives of the Arabic-speaking Patriarchate of Antioch Greek Orthodox foundation, the Roman Catholic Church, a Protestant (Korean Methodist-founded) congregation, and the Sunni Habibi Neccar Mosque.  They also visited the Turkish-Armenian village of Vakifli.  On October 20 in Iskenderun, officials from the consulate in Adana met with the head of the Hatay Jewish community and a Roman Catholic priest at the Cathedral of the Annunciation.  In all meetings, U.S. government officials emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom and respect for religious diversity.

The embassy and consulates general used Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to emphasize the importance of the inclusion of religious minorities, including messages under hashtags such as #DiniOzgurluk (religious freedom), on designated days that recognized and underscored the U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and human rights.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The constitution states that Islam is the country’s official religion.  It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals.  It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.  According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case.  The law prohibits blasphemy and proselytizing by non-Muslims.  An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions.  The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, in September designated four members of al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate, as terrorists.  Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, in August the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from Sharjah convicted of consensual extramarital sex, finding that local prohibitions were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.  In May, the public prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery.  In September, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai Community Development Authority (CDA) in anticipation of building a temple in Dubai on government-granted land at what will be the former site of the Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022.  In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition.  Dubai authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions gradually during the year.  Prayer halls were open to Muslim men throughout the year and authorities reopened prayer halls for Muslim women in June.  Authorities permitted all houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity in August.  Limits on capacity, however, remained stricter on places of worship than on businesses and entertainment venues.  According to leaders of some communities, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Muslim faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted.  COVID-19 related restrictions disproportionately impacted unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so because of social distancing regulations and closures.  Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion.  In December, the government announced that effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend, after previously following the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend.  Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious issues.  The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques with the stated purpose of limiting the spread of what the authorities characterized as extremist ideology.  Some Shia imams chose to follow Awqaf-approved guidance, while the Dubai-based Jaafari Affairs Council, charged with management of Shia affairs, issued additional instructions to Shia mosques.  Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered religiously extremist.  The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting religious extremism.  In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing the Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD) to license public and private prayer rooms and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.  Minority religious groups said the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population.  Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding, and many congregations lacked their own space.  During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first, purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site.  Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.

According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local emirate governments, although conversion from Islam was strongly discouraged.  Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however.  Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020.  In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services.  Local media reported minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.  In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), and incorporated it in Dubai.  In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai.  On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world.  Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government that is focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials on issues pertaining to religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated minority groups.  They met with representatives of minority religious organizations and community groups, including the Jewish and Baha’i communities, and different Islamic groups during the year.  In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.  Embassy and consulate general officials also regularly kept in contact with minority religious groups to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship.  Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.9 million (midyear 2021).  Approximately 11 percent are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports.  The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.

Of the estimated 89 percent of noncitizen residents, the majority comes from South and Southeast Asia.  Although no official statistics are available on the percentage of the noncitizen population who are Muslim or the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population is Shia.

Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census, the most recent, found 76 percent of the population to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other noncitizen religious groups, comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists and including Parsis, Baha’is, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews.  Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens.  The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, and 2 percent Buddhist, with the remainder belonging to other faith traditions.  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 125,000 atheists or agnostics, 72,000 Sikhs, and 49,000 Baha’is.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution designates Islam as the official religion.  It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.”  The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.  The constitution states that the country is an independent, sovereign, and federal state comprised of seven emirates.

The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years, a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600), and deportation in the case of noncitizens.  Individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers also face jail sentences and/or fines.

The law defines blasphemy as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship.  The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; but the penal code’s blasphemy provisions punish behavior viewed as contemptuous of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad or offensive to Islamic teachings.

The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims.

The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred.  Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams ($545,000) and imprisonment that generally ranges from five to 10 years or more.

The law criminalizes any form of expression the government interprets as blasphemous or offensive toward “divine recognized religions,” inciting religious hatred, or insulting religious convictions.  Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 dirhams to two million dirhams ($68,100-$545,000); noncitizens may be deported.  The law prohibits any form of expression, including through broadcasting, printed media, or the internet, that the government determines is contradictory to Islam as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive toward religions.

Federal law does not require religious organizations to register or obtain a license to practice, although the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions, such as opening a bank account or renting space.  Each emirate oversees registration and licensing of non-Muslim religious organizations, and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance; these procedures are not published by the emirate governments.  The federal government has also granted some religious organizations land in free-trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license that allows them some operational functions.  In Dubai, religious organizations are required to obtain a license from the CDA.  The governments of the emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai also require religious communities to obtain permits for certain activities, including holding public events, collecting donations, and worshipping in temporarily rented spaces, such as hotels.

The federal law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan.  Violations of the law are punishable by one month’s imprisonment or a fine not exceeding 10,000 dirhams ($2,700).  Most local authorities across the country grant exemptions allowing non-Muslims to eat during the day in malls, hotels, and some stand-alone restaurants.  In April, the governments of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi emirates issued guidelines lifting a requirement to install curtains or otherwise cover the front of restaurants as a precondition of serving food during Ramadan fasting hours.  The law prohibits Muslims from knowingly eating pork throughout the year.  Consumption of alcohol by non-Muslims is not criminalized at the federal level.  The government announced a series of legal reforms in 2020 decriminalizing the consumption of alcohol by Muslims at the federal level, while allowing each emirate to regulate “the use, circulation, and possession or trade of alcoholic beverages,” which may include a ban for Muslims at the local level.  The government of the Sharjah emirate bans all consumption of alcohol.

Federal law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.

Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools.  The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools.  In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes.  All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include teaching on Islam.  The government permits Christian-affiliated schools to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student – Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.

Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defaming any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure.  All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government.  Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education, and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry.  Each emirate’s government is responsible for administrative oversight of schools.

Land ownership by noncitizens is restricted to designated freehold areas.  This restriction is an impediment to most minority religious communities, which consist of noncitizens, that wish to purchase property to build houses of worship.

The antidiscrimination law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts or expressions the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion; this provides a legal basis for restricting events, such as conferences and seminars.  The law also criminalizes broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audiovisual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.  Violations of the law carry penalties of five years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to one million dirhams ($272,000).

According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies both sharia and civil law, depending on the case.  Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system.  In the case of noncitizens, or noncitizens married to citizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply rather than sharia in cases involving divorce and inheritance.  The federal law applies if either spouse is Emirati.  On November 7, the emirate of Abu Dhabi issued a decree allowing non-Muslims to apply civil law in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance, alimony, proof of paternity, and custody.

Sharia also applies in some criminal matters.  Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters.  When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties.  In these cases, judges generally impose civil penalties.  Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.  Amendments to the federal law in November 2020 repealed an article giving reduced (lenient) sentences in what are called “honor crimes,” and the law now treats “honor killings” as normal murder cases.

Federal legal reforms in 2020 also removed flogging from the federal penal code, limited the jurisdiction of sharia courts to deal with blood money cases, and removed penalties for adultery, cohabitation outside marriage, and consensual extramarital sex.  Local sharia laws and punishments regarding adultery and consensual extramarital sex, however, remain applicable.

Under the law, citizen and noncitizen Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish).  Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men.  Marriages between non-Muslim men and Muslim women are not recognized under the law.

Strict interpretation of sharia – which often favors the father – does not apply to child custody cases, and courts have applied the “best interests of the child” standard for several years.  According to sharia, a divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach 13 years of age and sons 11 years of age.  Women may file for continued custody until a daughter marries or a son finishes his education.  The father, deemed the guardian, provides for the child financially, while the mother, the custodian, provides day-to-day care of the child.

In custody cases involving noncitizens, UAE courts may apply the laws of the country of nationality of each child involved.  In December, a new personal status law for most expatriates went into effect in the emirate of Abu Dhabi that allows for joint custody agreements, civil marriages, birth certificates for children of unmarried parents, the equality of men and women as witnesses, and new alimony and inheritance laws.  The new law also allows for non-Muslim judges, creates a new court to hear these cases, and requires cases to be heard in both Arabic and English.  This new personal status law does not apply to Muslim citizens of countries that base their law on sharia, including the UAE.

The country’s citizenship law does not include religion as a prerequisite for naturalization.  Non-Muslim wives of citizens are eligible for naturalization after seven years of marriage if the couple has a child, or 10 years of marriage if the couple has no children.  There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim.  Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will.

Abu Dhabi’s Judicial Department permits Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for Christians and agnostics if the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate.  The government permits church officials to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the couple must also obtain the marriage certificate from the Abu Dhabi Judicial Department.  In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Abu Dhabi Department of Community Development (DCD) as officially recognized to perform these acts.

Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live.  Since 2020, personal status laws permit the general terms of a will to be dealt with according to the law of the country specified in the will or, in cases where a country is not specified in the will, the law of the deceased person’s country of nationality.  This is not applicable to property purchased in the UAE, however, which remains subject to UAE law.  Non-Muslims may register their wills with the Abu Dhabi judicial system to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights.  In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry, which may cover assets held in the UAE as well as abroad.  The DIFC Wills Service Center allows non-Muslim business owners and shareholders to designate an heir.  Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia.  There are courts for personal status and for inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.

The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations or that promote damage to national unity or harm public order, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.  Promoting these activities using any means, written or otherwise, is punishable with not less than 15 and no more than 25 years of prison.  The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam.  These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals.  Punishment may include up to life imprisonment and fines from 500,000 dirhams to one million dirhams ($136,000-$272,000).  Electronic violations of the law are subject to a maximum fine of four million dirhams ($1.09 million).  Abuse of religion to promote sedition and strife or to harm national unity and social peace is punishable with not less than 10 years imprisonment and a fine of not more than 500,000 dirhams ($136,000).

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 a number of organizations with political wings, including the Muslim Brotherhood, as regional and local terrorist groups.

The Fatwa Council, headed by the president of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, is tasked with presenting a clear image of Islam, including issuing general fatwas and licensing individuals to issue fatwas, train muftis, and conduct research, in coordination with the Awqaf, an independent federal legal authority that reports directly to the cabinet.  The Awqaf director general holds the title of Deputy Minister, and he and the Awqaf board of directors are appointed by the cabinet.  The Awqaf is responsible for managing domestic Islamic endowments, imam tutelage, education centers, publications, and general messaging.

Under the law, emirate and federal authorities concerned with mosque affairs are responsible for naming mosques, providing and supervising the needs of mosques and prayer spaces, including religious centers used by Shia Muslims, determining the timing of the second call to prayer, organizing religious lectures, and preparing sermons.  The law also defines acts prohibited in mosques, prayer spaces, and Eid musallas (open prayer spaces outside of mosques or prayer halls smaller than mosques) without a license, such as giving lectures or sermons, holding Quran memorization circles, fundraising, and distributing written and visual material.  The law further stipulates citizen applicants must be given first consideration for vacant positions at mosques.  The law prohibits those working in mosques from belonging to any illegal group or from participating in any political or organizational activities.

The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities.  Violations of the law are subject to a fine of no less than 50,000 dirhams ($13,600).  Under the cybercrimes law, the use of any information technology to promote the collection of any type of donation without a license is subject to a fine between 200,000 dirhams and 500,000 dirhams ($54,500-$136,000).

Individuals who donate to unregistered charities and fundraising groups may be punished with a three-year prison term or a fine between 250,000 dirhams and 500,000 dirhams ($68,100-$136,000).

In Abu Dhabi, the Awqaf is entrusted with overseeing Islamic religious affairs across mosques, sermons, imam tutelage, and publications.  Non-Islamic religious affairs fall under the mandate of the DCD, which regulates, licenses, and oversees non-Islamic houses of worship, religious leaders, religious events organized outside houses of worship, and fundraising activities across the emirate.  The Abu Dhabi DCD uses a three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship.  Under the system, instituted in 2020, the DCD issues licenses to houses of worship, permits to denominations seeking authorization to operate under the licensed house of worship, and visas to the religious leaders of these denominations.

The Dubai CDA is the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups.  The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events and monitors fundraising activities.  The law states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval.  Fines for noncompliance range from 500 dirhams to 100,000 dirhams ($140-$27,200).  Repeated violations may result in the doubling of fines, not to exceed 200,000 dirhams ($54,500).

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

Government Practices

During the year there were reports of persons held incommunicado and without charge because of their political views or affiliations, which often involved alleged links to Islamist organizations.  The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities.

Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist arrested in 2017, remained imprisoned at year’s end, following a 2018 court ruling upholding an earlier conviction under the cybercrime law of insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols.”  As of year’s end, the government had yet to announce the specific charges against Mansoor but said that he promoted “a sectarian and hate-filled agenda,” as well as other accusations.  In July, the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated that authorities held Mansoor in solitary confinement and removed his clothes, mattress, blanket, and toiletries from his cell.  Authorities reportedly denied him access to lawyers, granted only a limited number of family visits, and subjected him to death threats, physical assault, government surveillance, and inhumane treatment while in custody.

The government, having designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization in 2014, continued to restrict the activities of organizations and individuals allegedly associated with al-Islah, a Muslim Brotherhood affiliate.  According to HRW, in September, the government designated four members of al-Islah, all living in self-imposed exile, as terrorists:  Hamad al-Shamsi, Mohammed Saqr al-Zaabi, Ahmed al-Shaiba al-Nuaimi, and Saeed al-Tenaiji.  The designation included asset freezes, property confiscations, and criminalizing communications with their families.  The four men told HRW that authorities threatened their families with prosecution for “communicating with terrorists.”  The men learned of their designations only after the Cabinet of Ministers issued the decision.

Despite changes to federal laws removing penalties for adultery or consensual extramarital sex, local sharia laws and punishments remained applicable.  A member of the Sharjah Consultative Council reported that in August, the Supreme Federal Court rejected the appeal of a woman from the Emirate of Sharjah convicted of having consensual extramarital sex, finding that local emirate laws were still applicable, even in the absence of any federal penalty.

Police and courts continued to enforce laws prohibiting sorcery.  In May, local press reported Dubai customs authorities prevented five attempts in 2020 to smuggle material local authorities believed were related to witchcraft and sorcery, including books, knives, talismans, amulets, containers of blood, and animal skins and bones, compared with 22 attempts in 2019.  In May, the federal prosecutor’s office released a video on social media highlighting the penalties for acts of witchcraft and sorcery.  In addition, customs authorities occasionally denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery, black magic, or witchcraft.  In July, local media quoted a Dubai police official as saying that 80 percent of individuals seeking the aid of sorcerers were women, and that they likely “turned to sorcery” because they believed they had been bewitched.

Representatives of non-Islamic faiths again said registration and licensing procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates.  The federal government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but, according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in many groups having ambiguous legal status and created difficulties for them in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking and signing leases.  Religious groups said the bureaucracy was slow to conduct security checks and issue necessary visas.  The governments of individual emirates continued to require religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing formal places of worship, such as temples, mosques, or churches, or for holding religious services in rented spaces, such as hotels or convention centers.

The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint men to be Sunni imams (except in Dubai), based on their educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks.  According to the Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, except for those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees.

Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques.  All imams in Dubai’s more than 2,100 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens.  Dubai’s IACAD maintained more stringent qualification requirements for expatriate imams than for local imams, such as requiring them to demonstrate memorization of larger parts of the Quran, and starting salaries were much lower, a practice permitted under federal law.  Expatriate imams also could not obtain other employment without permission from the authorities.  Local communities said these additional requirements did not hinder their ability to find qualified imams.

The Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai and appointed by the Dubai ruler, continued to manage Shia affairs for the entire country, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring imams.  The council complied with weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.  Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques.  The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were technically eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request.  Shia sources said they doubted the government would provide funding in practice, and therefore did not seek it.

Ismaili Muslims continued to appoint their own community leaders.

One source said it was difficult for his church to access funds or receive an extension of its operating license under Abu Dhabi DCD’s new three-tier system of authorization for regulating non-Islamic houses of worship.  The source attributed these difficulties to it being a new system rather than a deliberate attempt by the government to discriminate against his church.

In September, the Church of Jesus Christ began consultations for official recognition from the Dubai CDA in anticipation of building a temple in the emirate on government-granted land at what will be the former site of Expo 2020 following that event’s conclusion in 2022.  Consultations remained ongoing and the Church of Jesus Christ had not yet submitted a formal application at year’s end.  Church officials toured the site in October.  The Church continued to maintain a chapel in Abu Dhabi.

In February, the Dubai CDA granted an official license to the Jewish congregation “Gates of the East,” making it the first and only Jewish congregation with CDA recognition.  Official recognition allowed the group to secure religious worker visas.  According to local sources, at year’s end, discussions between the congregation and the government on plans to build a physical synagogue in Dubai were ongoing, and the congregation continued to rent hotel rooms for worship.

Community leaders stated the tacit Abu Dhabi guidelines requiring non-Muslim religious leaders to work in the ministry full-time and be sufficiently credentialed in order to obtain a clergy visa continued to create difficulties for religious leaders who served their congregations on a volunteer or part-time basis or who did not have a theology degree.  Under the system, licensed Abu Dhabi-based houses of worship independently vet these denominations and their religious leaders and formally recommend to the DCD whether it should issue a permit to the denomination.  Some religious community members stated the system discriminated against smaller and less recognized denominations and forced them to either end operations or join with other denominations.

Within prisons, authorities continued to require Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services, and non-Muslims reported some pressure to attend ostensibly nonmandatory lectures and classes about Islam.  Some Christian clergy stated incarcerated Christians did not have worship spaces.  They said that when authorities granted them prison access, authorities permitted them to take Bibles to the prisoners.  In several emirates, authorities did not allow Christian clergy to visit Christian prisoners.

The government continued to permit Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private but not in public.  There were no public processions in Dubai or the northern emirates, where the majority of the country’s Shia population resides.

The government continued to maintain COVID-19-related restrictions on gatherings for religious purposes throughout the year.  From January to June, religious venues operated at 30 percent capacity.  In Dubai, only men were allowed to attend mosques during this time.  In June, Dubai authorities permitted women’s prayer halls for Muslims to reopen, also at 30 percent capacity.  In August, authorities permitted houses of worship to return to 50 percent capacity.  During the same period, the Dubai government allowed entertainment and sporting events and social activities to operate at 60 percent capacity, entertainment venues (e.g., museums and cinemas) and restaurants to operate at 80 percent capacity, and business events and hotels to operate at 100 percent capacity.  In September, the government increased the allowed capacity at houses of worship throughout the country, and further increased it in November.  At year’s end, capacity in worship spaces was limited by the congregants’ ability to maintain mandatory social distancing.

According to representatives of various religious groups, restrictions on the number of attendees per religious service put undue burdens on non-Islamic faiths due to the limited number of houses of worship non-Muslim communities were permitted.  According to religious community leaders, Dubai authorities conducted regular inspections to ensure adherence to COVID-19-related restrictions.  Religious community leaders stated Dubai authorities required them to report the number of COVID-19-positive cases in their congregations.  Federal regulations designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission continued to prohibit practices affecting Christian churches, such as receiving communion.  Christian sources said they understood the need for such precautions.  In November, authorities in Abu Dhabi permitted women to attend Friday prayers again at the Grand Mosque.

The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.

Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings or in private facilities or homes and provided they observed the prohibition on proselytizing.  While the government did not generally allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public, there were reports of government-sanctioned exceptions.  In November, leaders of the Hindu community attended a ceremony marking the placement of carved stones as part of the ongoing construction of Abu Dhabi’s Hindu temple, expected to be completed in 2023.  The ceremony included a religious blessing of the site.  The Jerusalem Post reported that on November 28, UAE resident Rabbi Levi Duchman lit a Hanukkah menorah and recited holiday blessings at the Israel pavilion at Dubai Expo 2020 (which opened in 2021, following a year’s delay).  Members of Dubai’s Jewish community held multiple public and private celebrations throughout the holiday.

Christian community leaders stated the Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) in Dubai fined both drivers and passengers of buses transporting worshipers to churches for lacking proper RTA permits.  Religious leaders said the rules and regulations were confusing, particularly the requirement to obtain permits from a government authority other than the CDA.

The Dubai Quran Award program continued to allow prisoners who memorized the Quran to have their sentences reduced or be granted amnesty.

In December, the government announced that, effective in the new year, the country would adopt a four-and-a-half-day workweek, with Friday afternoon, Saturday, and Sunday serving as the new weekend.  The country previously followed the Islamic workweek, which uses Friday and Saturday as its weekend.  As part of the change, the government said that Friday midday sermons and prayers would be held at 1:15 p.m., slightly later than the previous schedule.

The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain websites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including some Islamic sites.  The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including ones with information on Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.  International media sites, accessed using the country’s internet providers, contained content filtered by government censors.

Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection.  The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.  The government allowed local media to report on non-Islamic religious holiday celebrations, including service times and related community safety reminders.

Observers familiar with the media environment stated government officials warned journalists against publishing or broadcasting material deemed politically or culturally sensitive.  Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly since most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported.  Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

The Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they were administered by the IACAD.  On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.”  The Awqaf stated it continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website.  The Awqaf regularly held training workshops to instruct imams on sermon delivery and how to communicate values of moderation and tolerance.

The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior Sunni imams followed the Awqaf script for Friday sermons closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons.  Sermons sometimes dealt with contemporary topics; for example, in December, after President Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan appointed the board of directors of the country’s newly established National Human Rights Institution, sermons praised the country for its human rights record.  Other sermon topics reportedly included the power of contemplation, and prayer and piousness as keys to inner peace.  Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to use Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons.  Friday sermons were translated into English and Urdu on the Awqaf’s website and mobile application.

The Jaafari Affairs Council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.

The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas in Arabic, English, and Urdu.  Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues.  Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa.  Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the telephones at the fatwa hotline.  The Awqaf also operated an online “e-fatwa” service.

Authorities did not allow the importation or publication of some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials, such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad.  The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to texts it considered consistent with moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting a religion other than Islam.  The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation.  The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam.  The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.

Bookstores in the country carried pro-atheism, anti-organized religion titles by well-known authors in English and Arabic.  These stores also sold books on non-Islamic religions.

Customs authorities continued to review the content of imported religious materials and occasionally confiscated some of them.

In September, the Dubai Executive Council issued a resolution authorizing IACAD to license public and private Islamic prayer rooms, and prohibiting anyone from building, allocating, or modifying a space to be used as a prayer room without prior approval from IACAD.

The Jaafari Council continued to regulate Shia worship spaces.

The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis.  Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship did not keep up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population.  Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space.  Because of the limited capacity of official houses of worship, dozens of religious organizations and different groups shared worship space, sometimes in private homes.  In Dubai, overcrowding of the emirate’s two church compounds was especially pronounced, and routinely led to congestion and traffic.  Some smaller congregations met in private locations or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land.  Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property.  Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings.

Noncitizens, who generally made up the entire membership of minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship.  For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name.  The country’s Christian churches were all built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations.  Ajman and Umm al Quwain remained the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations continued to gather in other spaces, such as hotels, subject to COVID-19 capacity restrictions.  There was one Sikh temple in Dubai, built on land provided by the government within a religious complex shared with Christian churches, the same complex in which the new Hindu temple construction, expected to be completed in 2023, was underway.

The government did not always enforce the prohibition against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah displayed crosses on their buildings or had ornamental bell towers; none of them used the towers to ring or chime bells.

There continued to be no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place in hotels on the Sabbath and holidays.  During the year, Abu Dhabi began constructing the country’s first purpose-built synagogue as part of the larger government-sponsored Abrahamic Family House project, scheduled to open in 2022 and bring together a mosque, church, and synagogue to represent the three Abrahamic faiths on one site.  According to the Times of Israel website, in June, the government announced that the synagogue at the site would be named the Moses Ben Maimon Synagogue, after the 12th-century philosopher and rabbinical scholar Maimonides.  The mosque would be named Imam al-Tayeb Mosque, and the church St. Francis Church.

Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some unlicensed noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization.  Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.

Members of unregistered religious organizations stated that their organizations continued to face challenges in renting spaces at hotels in some circumstances.  In Abu Dhabi, the DCD continued to require religious functions at hotels be pre-approved and overseen by registered clergy.  The government permitted groups that chose not to register to carry out religious functions in private homes as long as these activities did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.  COVID-19-related restrictions, however, continued to disproportionately impact unlicensed religious organizations that normally congregated in cinemas and hotels but could no longer do so as a result of social distancing regulations and closures, although restrictions on public gatherings eased as the year progressed.

In Dubai, non-Muslim community members reported continued delays in obtaining permits from the CDA to worship in spaces outside of government-designated religious compounds.  Community representatives also reported restrictions on as well as confusion and uncertainty regarding CDA policies for obtaining licenses and event permits, which were not published by the CDA.  There were also reports of last-minute event cancellations affecting religious groups.

The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries.  Cremation facilities and associated cemeteries were available for the large Hindu community.  Non-Muslim groups said the capacity of crematoriums and cemeteries was generally sufficient to meet demand, although press reporting indicated some strains on capacity during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.  The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits.  The government allowed individuals from all religious groups except Islam to use the crematoriums.  Hindu temples also provided cremation services to non-Hindus.

Except in the judiciary and military, non-Muslim religious minorities did not serve in senior federal positions, while among Muslims, Sunnis predominated in these positions, reflecting the country’s religious demographics.

Abu Dhabi police directed private security personnel at several camps for laborers to surveil gatherings of laborers and report if they discussed security, social, or religious-related concerns.

Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on applications, although immigration officers said foreigners, including atheists and agnostics, had the option to leave the field blank.  School applications also continued to ask for family religious affiliation in order to distinguish between Muslim students, who were required to take Islamic studies, and non-Muslim students, who were exempt.  According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis.

Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside their places of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.  Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions.  The government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities.

Prominent government figures routinely acknowledged minority religious holidays and promoted messages of tolerance through various print and media platforms.  In September, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan extended New Year’s greetings to the country’s Jewish community on social media on Rosh Hashanah.  In November, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan publicly commemorated the Hindu festival of Diwali.

Media reported that in September, Minster of Tolerance and Coexistence Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak al-Nahyan spoke at the government-sponsored Eshraqat (“Radiance”) Festival in Abu Dhabi to students about “the role of education in preparing future generations with ethics and virtues who will renounce extremism and hate and promote the values of tolerance and coexistence.”

On November 16, the Minster of Tolerance posted to Twitter a “call for upholding the values of coexistence, tolerance, and humanity, and rejecting violence, fanaticism, and extremism for a better future for all mankind.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be strong cultural and societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam, particularly from family members.  Local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively.  Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Center for Islamic Culture reported 3,800 Dubai residents converted to Islam during the year, compared with 3,184 in 2020.  Ajman police reported in October that six inmates converted to Islam in the previous three months, for a total of 47 inmates in five years.

According to non-Muslim religious community representatives, there was a high degree of societal tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions, particularly for those associated with houses of worship officially recognized by the federal or local governments.

Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls, hotels, and major shopping centers.  Media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas festivities and Hindu festivals such as Diwali.

Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores, although bookstores generally did not carry the core religious works of other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.

Private and government-run radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.

In some cases, organizations reported that hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church services.  Local media reported minority groups, including registered religious organizations, encountered difficulties obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for new religious spaces.

There continued to be two Hindu temples, both predating the country’s independence, in Dubai.  There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities.

Construction of a new Anglican church in al-Mushrif, Abu Dhabi, remained stalled at 50 percent completion due to financial issues; the projected completion date was not clear at year’s end.

Following the opening of the first kosher restaurant in 2020, kosher food services continued to expand in Dubai.  In March, a second kosher restaurant opened in Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper, and a local company, led by a member of the country’s resident Jewish community, partnered with the established kosher kitchen to cater airline meals for Emirates and other airlines.

In February, Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the AGJC, incorporated in Dubai.  Rabbi Elie Abadie, the senior rabbi for the Jewish Council of the Emirates, led the group, along with its president, Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain.  According to press reports, the AGJC was creating a Jewish court to preside over issues of civil disputes, personal status, inheritance, and Jewish ritual.  It planned also to run the Arabian Kosher Certification Agency throughout the six countries.  On June 4, the AGJC hosted an in-person Shabbat dinner for diplomats and Emiratis in Dubai.  Rabbi Abadie, President Nonoo, and Alex Peterfreund of the UAE spoke about Jewish life in the Gulf and answered questions from Emirati participants about opportunities for Muslim and Jewish cooperation.

In June, a memorial exhibition on the Holocaust, which its organizers said was the first of its kind in the Arab world, opened in Dubai.  The “We Remember” exhibition at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum included first-hand testimonies of Holocaust survivors.  The museum hosted visits from local school groups beginning in November.

Expo 2020 Dubai featured a thematic week on “Tolerance and Inclusivity” from November 14 to 20.  The week highlighted the country’s efforts to support religious tolerance and included the launch of a “Global Tolerance Alliance,” announced by Minister al-Nahyan, and a “Global Interfaith Summit” that brought together various government representatives with local and regional religious leaders to discuss religious coexistence.

On April 8, Holocaust Remembrance Day (HaShoah), the Washington Institute for Near East Policy hosted a virtual forum about teaching the Holocaust in the Arab world.  Ali al-Nuaimi, the chairman of Hedayah, an organization partly funded by the government and focused on countering violent extremism, participated from its Abu Dhabi location.  In his remarks, al-Nuaimi said, “The older generation operated in an environment where speaking about the Holocaust was tantamount to betraying Arabs and Palestinians.  Public figures failed to speak the truth, because a political agenda hijacked their narrative.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers engaged government officials throughout the year on efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, and discussed licensing procedures and regulatory practices involving religious and religiously affiliated groups.

The Charge d’Affaires and embassy and consulate general officers regularly met with representatives of religious organizations and other groups associated with minority religious communities, including Jewish community and diaspora representatives and the Baha’i community, to learn more about issues affecting them as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to freely associate and worship; they discussed the ongoing efforts by different UAE-based groups to accomplish these objectives.  The Charge and embassy and consulate general officers also met with Islamic organizations.  In these meetings, U.S. officials discussed the promotion of religious tolerance and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

 

As part of its Ramadan outreach activities, the embassy hosted iftars in April and May with government, media, religious, business, and cultural figures.  Remarks by U.S. officials throughout the year encouraged efforts to build mutual understanding among different religions and cultures.  Embassy and consulate general officers also participated in minority religious celebrations, such as Jewish Shabbat services, and consulate representatives attended a Hannukah event on November 29 at the Crossroads of Civilizations Museum.

The USA Pavilion at Expo 2020 featured Thomas Jefferson’s Quran, on loan from the Library of Congress for its first overseas exhibition, to illustrate the long history of religious freedom in the United States.  The USA Pavilion also cohosted with the Israel Pavilion a screening of the documentary “Amen-Amen-Amen:  A Story of Our Times,” which highlighted the story of the Jewish community in the UAE and its presentation of a sacred Torah scroll to Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan in 2019.