The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.” The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites. Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom. NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim. Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area. Most roads were reopened by year’s end. Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS. Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain. Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members. They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas. Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities. Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.
According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014. In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.” The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”
Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil. Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers. In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad. Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property. In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad. According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood. Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies. In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses. Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses. Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.
The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects. Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities. The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority. Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.” The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16. On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.2 million (July 2018 estimate). According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim. Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population, while Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population. Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkomans the remaining 1 percent. Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country. Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.
Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR. The Christian population has declined over the past 16 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons. Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East. The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants. There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.
Yezidi leaders report most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced. Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary. According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad. Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR. The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa. Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians. According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil. The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 70 to 80 Jewish families reside in the IKR, though he noted that some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution. According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are fewer than six adult members of the local Jewish community.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of December, nearly 1.8 million persons remained displaced within the country. Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home. According to the IOM, as of May, approximately 67 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) population were Arab Sunni, 13 percent Kurdish Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 6 percent Turkoman Shia, 2 percent Arab Shia, 1 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christian, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkoman Sunni, Shabak Sunni, or Kurdish Shia.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation. It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.
The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam. The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists. According to the penal code, Jews may not hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military. The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.
The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief. Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions. The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.
Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and require administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape. Civil status law allows non-Muslim women to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.
The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government: Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish. Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property. All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. According to the government, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.
There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country: the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan. The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.
Outside of the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition. The law prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith. For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’i – including Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.
In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA. To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam. Eight faiths are registered with the KRG MERA: Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.
In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered 11 evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches: Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil. The KRG allows new Christian churches to register with a minimum of 50 adherents.
In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by Christian church leaders, which includes six evangelical Protestant churches. Registration with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders provides Christian churches and leaders with access to the KRG MERA and to the KRG’s Christian endowment.
The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other six registered religions.
The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups. The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings. The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (26 cents) for such crimes.
By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia. The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj. The council, attached to the Prime Minister’s office, organizes a lottery process to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas. Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel: 3.5 million dinars ($3,100) for Hajj travel by land, and five million dinars ($4,400) for travel by air. In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.
The constitution guarantees minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages. While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.” In the IKR, there are 56 Syriac and 21 Turkoman language schools. The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars. The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.
The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and endowments. Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith. The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court. In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between Muslims, and the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.
New national identity cards do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information. The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim. There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations. Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian. Without an official identity card, one may not register one’s marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services. Passports do not specify religion.
The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.
Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.
The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, and promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups. It forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”
The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of minority communities: five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit. Usually one of the COR rapporteur positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other a Turkoman. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities: five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.
Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR. Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies. The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.
The antiterrorism law of November 2005 defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.” Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process. Observers reported the current antiterrorism law did not allow for the right to due process and a fair trial. Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links but provided no corroborating evidence.
According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia. Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in late 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, displacement, and in some cases, violence from PMF and Iraqi security forces. Media outlets carried numerous reports of Shia PMF groups invading, looting, and burning the houses of Kurds, Sunni Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk Governorate. Kurds faced similar violence in Khanaqin, a majority Kurdish city in Diyala Governorate that also passed from KRG to central government control in 2017. Analysts stated that discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year. In August four Kurds, including a Peshmerga, were beheaded in Khanaqin by unknown attackers. The Kaka’i community in Daquq, Kirkuk Governorate, continued to suffer harassment and intimidation, which Kaka’i civil society groups said accelerated under PMF occupation of the area.
The religious status of children resulting from rape became a more prominent issue because of the number of minority children resulting from gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIS. Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services. Yezidi sources reported the number of these children range from several dozen to several hundred. They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers. According to Christian leaders, in some cases Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented. Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size. Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.
Representatives of minority religious communities said that, while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions. Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hunain Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District. The chair of the municipal council of Bartalla made public court documents from several cases involving militiamen charged with theft, harassment, and sexual harassment. Shabak Sunni leaders in Hamdaniya made similar allegations.
According to Christian and other minority community leaders, Shabak parliamentarians, including Qado, with the support of some other Shia elements within the central government in Baghdad, had directed the 30th Brigade to harass Christians to drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population and allow Shabak and other Shia Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers. Christians in Tal Kayf made similar claims that the nominally Christian but majority Sunni Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively sought to prevent and disrupt the return of the displaced Christian community to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town.
The Ninewa provincial government ordered that all district governments comply with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF martyrs of the war against ISIS as compensation for their loss. The order included those districts with Sunni and non-Muslim majorities. In September Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam issued an order suspending such grants in the historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change. Throughout the year, Behnam successfully resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya. Iraq’s National Investment Commission, under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, approved the building of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla. Pointing to a surplus of houses in Christian town centers, Christian community leaders alleged that virtually all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.
Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated by politics rather than religious discrimination. According to various NGOs, central government, and KRG sources, KRG security forces and ISF blocked major roads between the IKR and central government-controlled Iraq, including roads serving minority communities such as the roads between Dohuk and Sinjar, al Qosh and Tal Kayf, and Sheikhan and Mosul. The closure of these roads forced minorities to take long, circuitous detours, restricted their access to markets for their goods, and left them vulnerable to harassment and extortion at numerous checkpoints. After lengthy negotiations, the KRG and GOI opened most of these roads during the year, including the al Qosh-Tal Kayf and Shaykhan-Mosul roads in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December.
In June elements of the PMF Imam Ali Brigade refused to allow the Yezidi Sinjar District Council to return to Sinjar City from its temporary location in Mosul, even with an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister. In October a combination of PMF and popular protest again prevented the Yezidi mayor of Sinjar and the district council from returning to Sinjar. Christians reported continued harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the Shabak Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf.
According to multiple sources, some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers or family members of suspected members from their homes in several governorates. For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kataib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.
The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province. According to the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014 3,322 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS had been rescued or released, but 3,015 Yezidis were still missing as of October. Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times and subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence. The Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission reported in August that 600 Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, none of whom had been reported rescued by the end of the year. A Turkoman NGO, however, stated in December that more than 1300 Turkomans were still missing and said it had evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkoman women to Chechnya, Turkey, and Syria. The KRG MERA also reported that 250 Christians were rescued, leaving an estimated 150 missing.
In October the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi Affairs reported the KRG had paid more than $7 million in ransom and payments to middlemen to secure the release of approximately 2,000 Yezidis from ISIS since 2014. In July the Ninewa Provincial Council established two offices, one in Mosul and the other in Sinjar, responsible for investigating the fate of Yezidis still missing or held captive by ISIS. Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs.
According to Yazda, a global Yezidi organization, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership. In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging. The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, including evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties in changing their registration from Muslim to Christian if they were converts, or engaged in in proselytizing.
In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities. In July ISF forces and local police forcibly entered Mar Gorgees Syriac Catholic Church in Bartalla, cut the internet network of the church and adjacent cultural center, and destroyed the church’s internet server equipment. While authorities accused the church of unauthorized distribution of an IKR-based internet service to the Christian community in Ninewa Province, Syriac Catholic Church leaders said the action represented an attack on the church, and they accused the security forces of acting on behalf of a rival, politically connected internet provider.
The KRG MERA reduced the number of mosques delivering weekly Friday sermons from 3,000 to 2,000 by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods. MERA Spokesman and Director of General Relations Mariwan Naqshbandy said MERA was formulating a policy to produce and distribute pre-approved content for Friday sermons in MERA-funded mosques to prevent the spread of extremism. The KRG MERA banned eight imams from delivering Friday sermons, citing extremist ideology and incitement to violence. The imams continued to receive MERA salaries and were ordered to undergo a rehabilitation course to regain permission to preach in MERA-approved mosques. MERA also banned 10 books by well-known Islamic scholars because they encouraged violence and extremism. MERA also introduced a mandatory training program for new imams that included instruction on religious pluralism and tolerance and against extremist preaching and hate speech.
According to the international human rights NGO Heartland Alliance, KRG law protecting the rights of religious freedom was undermined by vague wording and did not provide implementation mechanisms or penalties for violations.
In September Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf said the central government had not opened an investigation into the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by the archbishop in 2017.
Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration. Estimates, including those cited by several Christian parliamentarians (MPs), the daily number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22. A director of an Assyrian NGO reported that four Syriac language schools closed in Dohuk due to lack of students. Some Yezidis and Christians maintained their own militias. Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units. Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units. Other minority leaders in the Ninewa Plain expressed hope that the Ministry of Interior would hire minorities to serve in local police forces to absorb and replace the minority militias in the region. Some leaders conducted recruitment drives to demonstrate the considerable interest among minority communities in joining police units, including among current members of minority militias; however, no local police positions were available at year’s end.
One of the remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad described the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric from both Muslim and Christian leaders. Although the sermons did not advocate for violence against the Jewish community, the community member expressed concern that more priests were including anti-Semitic rhetoric in their sermons, comparable to the anti-Semitic rhetoric often heard from some Muslims. He presented pictures of the continued desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the Shia-majority Sadr City section of Baghdad. The small community did not file any reports on the desecration with local authorities due to reported fear of retribution. Despite Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to speak out in favor of the return of Jews in a June 2 response to a follower’s question, the member of the Jewish community said Jews continued to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.
A group of IKR- and Ninewa Plain-based religious leaders from established apostolic Christian churches sent a letter to the IKR MERA director general of Christian affairs stating MERA made it too easy for new Christian groups to become established in the IKR. The letter accused the newcomers of damaging the churches’ relationship with the Muslim community by proselytizing, and demanded MERA provide the names of adherents submitted by the new churches. MERA refused to change the requirement for new churches to register but complied with the apostolic churches’ request to compile a list of adherents of evangelical and other Protestant churches. Apostolic church leaders said the list would allow them to remove from their rolls the names of former members now attending other churches so the apostolic churches would not be blamed for any proselytizing performed by former members now belonging to evangelical or other Protestant churches.
NGOs continued to state constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate them and no legislation proposed to repeal them. According to a December article on the website Al Monitor, Deputy Justice Minister Hussein al-Zuhairi stated during a dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Baha’i Faith was not a religion, emphasizing the government’s commitment to legislation prohibiting the Baha’i Faith.
The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation. Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities.
Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate. In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students. Christian religious education was included in the curricula of at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk. Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.
In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school. To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection. The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.
The government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, but some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates. Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction. Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction. By year’s end, schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance. Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom. Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for Muslim students.
The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students. The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students. The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies. The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education partnered with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes. The curriculum was still under development at year’s end.
The central government extended by one year the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010. They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.
There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in northern Iraq. For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes. The director general of Christian affairs in the KRG MERA said that of 59 long-pending property dispute cases between Christians and Kurds, the KRG courts had only ruled on five cases, although in four of the five they ruled in favor of Christian plaintiffs. In one such case in the Nahla Valley area of Dohuk , a court sentenced Kurds convicted of taking Christian-owned land to a three-month suspended sentence, a token fine, and a requirement the Kurds make a written pledge they would not encroach on the land again. The KRG MERA director general, however, said authorities made no attempt to follow up on the case, and some of the Kurds continued to occupy land the court ruled belonged to the Christian community. A land dispute dating from 2003 when the KRG seized 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of farmland near Ankawa owned by 220 Christian farmers for the construction of the Erbil International Airport remained unresolved.
Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects. The KRG spent approximately 2.5 billion dinars ($2.2 million) on the construction of an Armenian Apostolic church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, and another 500 million dinars ($439,000) on a community center for the Assyrian Church of the East. The KRG said in 2017 that it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil, a Baha’i religious and cultural center near Erbil, and a Zoroastrian temple in Sulaimaniya. According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry passed its recommendation for lands to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels, but by year’s end, no land had been allocated for any of the three projects. The Zoroastrian representative in MERA said Ministry of Municipalities officials had refused to implement the government directives for religious reasons.
While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM, a situation unchanged from the previous year. Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels. Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities. The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian. Although there are no reliable statistics, minorities stated they believed they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.
Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime. Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime. Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible. Some Sunnis said Sunnis were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts from the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.
Although the IKP has 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law does not restrict who may vote in quota seat races. Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority voters said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the nine minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government. Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.
Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against Yezidis by closing the Dohuk-Sinjar road and continuing to restrict commercial traffic after opening the road to passenger traffic in December. Yezidi activists reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care, primarily due to the road closure. Since the October 2017 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, although not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas. KRG security forces, ISF, and the PMF had closed the road between the neighboring Christian towns of Telskuf and Batnaya, slowing the return of IDPs. A local priest in Telskuf said KRG security forces refused requests from humanitarian organizations to pass through their roadblock to conduct relief and reconstruction work in Batnaya. Authorities reopened the Telskuf-Batnaya road in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December, but both roads remained closed to commercial traffic at year’s end.
Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Shabak Brigade. Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits. The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol. Community sources reported Muslim businessmen sometimes used Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.
On March 21, the tomb of a Kaka’i religious leader was destroyed by an explosion in Daquq, south of Kirkuk. A local Kaka’i NGO said members of the PMF were responsible.
Kaka’i leaders said the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk and converted them into mosques.
In observance of World Religion Day on January 21, the then speaker of parliament hosted 350 government officials, ethnic and religious leaders, and the international community in a celebration to urge interfaith dialogue and promote religious pluralism. Although representatives from several religious minorities welcomed the event, they said it was unlikely discrimination against their communities would end anytime soon.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Mass graves containing victims of ISIS continued to be found. According to KRG MERA’s Office of Yezidi Affairs, a total of 87 mass graves containing the bodies of over 2,500 Yezidis had been found in Sinjar District and other predominantly Yezidi areas of Ninewa Province since 2014. On November 6, UNAMI and the United Nations Human Rights Office released a report documenting the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar and cautioned there may be “many more.” The UN offices stated they believed the graves each held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies. On November 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.” Estimates available to the UN ranged from 6,000 to more than 12,000 victims buried in these graves.
According to the KRG MERA director general of Christian affairs, ISIS abducted 150 Christians from the Batnaya, Qaraqosh, and Tal Kayf areas in 2014; their fate remained unclear at year’s end.
In April Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria rescued a young Christian woman kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 from Qaraqosh. She said she was sold four times to different ISIS fighters, each of whom raped her and subjected her to torture and other forms of mistreatment.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On July 23, three gunmen who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil. Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they then killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion before police killed the attackers.
In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad. According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood. In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad. Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime. Others said the killers wanted to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.
There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but few reports of religious violence in the IKR. Non-Muslim minorities reported continued threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs. Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches. Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies. In regular Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses.
During May court proceedings, a judge demanded the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR MERA swear on the Quran before testifying. She refused and asked to swear on a copy of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathustra, but the judge did not allow it.
In June media continued to report political parties, criminal networks, and some militia groups seized more than 30,000 Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit with impunity, despite pledges by the prime minister’s office to open investigations into the seizures.
In December, in response to the central government’s announcement that Christmas would be an official Iraqi holiday, prominent Sunni cleric and self-proclaimed “Grand Mufti” of Iraq Abdul-Mehdi al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that Muslims should not take part in New Year celebrations or congratulate Christians during Christmas. Both the central government and the KRG Sunni Endowments rejected his fatwa and posted criticisms of it online.
Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura. There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan. Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment. According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior. Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment. According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts helped to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.
Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts.
Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate. Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.
In November the Catholic Patriarchs of the East held a four-day conference in Baghdad to bring attention to the challenges threatening the survival of Christian communities in the region. Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Sako, who hosted the meeting, said the patriarchs wanted to encourage “families to stay in our homeland keeping up our faith, identity, ethics, traditions, and language.” This was the first time the conference was held in the country. Catholic rites representatives included Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara al-Rahi, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Monsignor William Hanna Shomali, and Cardinal Sako, who delivered the opening speech.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and his predecessor former Prime Minister Haider Abadi, and through speeches and U.S. embassy coordination groups promoting religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.
On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act. The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS. Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of jobs, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns. Efforts included agreeing to recruit minorities in two Emergency Response Battalions, one for Sinjar and one for the Ninewa Plain, and reopening roads connecting persecuted religious communities to economic and urban centers. The embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards. U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, and medical supplies.
The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional Ministries of Education, Justice (which includes the functions of the former Ministry of Human Rights), Labor, and Social Affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights. They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights. On January 15, the Ambassador hosted an event to observe Religious Freedom Day that promoted religious pluralism and reconciliation. A wide range of representatives from the country’s many religious communities attended, including the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syrian Church, Assyrian Catholic Church, Coptic Church, as well as members of the Yezidi, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, and Islamic faiths (both Sunnis and Shia). On January 16, the embassy convened an interfaith dialogue with a former participant of two U.S.-sponsored exchange programs that focused on the promotion of religious diversity. On October 16, the embassy hosted the Deputy Secretary of State for a roundtable with representatives of Iraq’s minority religious communities.
The U.S. government continued to develop, finance, and manage projects to support all religious communities, with special emphasis on assistance to IDPs and returnees. As part of the continued commitment by the Vice President, Secretary of State, and the USAID Administrator to support ethnic and religious minorities, the United States announced over $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance to support these vulnerable communities in Iraq in October. This brought total U.S. assistance for this population to nearly $300 million since fiscal year 2017, implemented by both the Department of State and USAID. These efforts, implemented in close partnership with local faith and community leaders, included USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response program totaling $133 million, funding of approximately $37 million to clear explosive remnants of war, $8.5 million for social, economic, and political empowerment of minority communities, and $2 million for the preservation of historic and cultural sites. In July USAID also appointed a Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, based in Erbil, to oversee U.S. assistance for Iraq’s minority communities.
Senior advisors to the Vice President accompanied the Ambassador to the Ninewa Plain to discuss with community leaders how the United States could improve support to endangered minorities recovering from ISIS’ genocide campaign against them. In separate visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the USAID Administrator visited the Ninewa Plain and met with Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak leaders to assure them of the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities. The Ambassador, senior embassy officers, Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah, and the USAID Administrator’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs made regular visits to minority areas to meet with minority community leaders, religious leaders, and local and provincial authorities to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.
U.S. officials in Baghdad, Basrah, and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.
The Ambassador and the Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection. Embassy officials met religious leaders on a regular basis to discuss broader religious freedom issues and to demonstrate U.S. interest in and support for resolving issues with the provision of assistance. In particular, they met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.
The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion. The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts, while six of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such matters for their members. The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In December the attorney general ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus. The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public. Authorities released the two men two days later. The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary and stick to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons. An official committee chaired by the grand mufti regulated which Islamic clerics could issue fatwas. Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their true religious beliefs and practices. Members of unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages, the religious affiliation of their children, and renewing their residency permits. Security forces increased their presence in and protection of Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays, following an August 10 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian city of Fuhais. Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers.
Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media. Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue. Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some converts worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced. The government did not prosecute converts from Islam for apostasy, but some reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths freely and to promote interfaith tolerance, raising issues such as the renewal of residency permits for religious volunteers. The Charge and other embassy officers met with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to encourage interfaith dialogue. The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.5 million (July 2018 estimate). According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population and Christians 2.2 percent. Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered Muslim by the government). These estimates do not include migrant workers or refugees. According to the Ministry of Labor (MOL), there are approximately 670,000 migrant workers in the country, mostly from Egypt, South and East Asia, and Africa. Migrant workers from Africa and South and East Asia are often Hindu or Christian. There are more than 757,000 refugees in the country registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including approximately 670,000 Syrians and 67,000 Iraqis. The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim. Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality. The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion. It states the king must be a Muslim. The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and courts for non-Muslim for religious communities recognized by the government.
The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so. The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion. Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates. Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy. Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the presence of a will that states otherwise. Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution. The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Churches before converting a Christian to Islam, to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction. The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying Jordanians in a manner that violates their dignity, according to government statements.
Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.” Although these prosecutions may occur in the State Security Court, cases are usually tried in other courts. Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).
Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register. Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration. If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage (there is no provision for civil marriage). They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts. Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but may own property and open bank accounts. They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding. Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.
Nonrecognized religious groups lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff. Individuals may exercise such activities and as such may designate an individual to perform these functions on behalf of the unrecognized group, however. To register as a recognized religious group, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine. In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the minister of the interior and the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations. The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups: the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.
The law lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic. In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the Ministry of Interior as well, but have not been permitted to establish a court: the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptists. The government has continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government granted legal status to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.
The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance). In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries. Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task. Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.
According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments). Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs manages mosques, including appointing imams, paying mosque staff salaries, managing Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizing certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances. Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, which is headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and is in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.
Since 2017, the government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons. According to the law, Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from Ministry of Awqaf employment. In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month, or be given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).
The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless officially authorized by an official committee headed by the grand mufti in the General Ifta’ Department. This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf with the rank of mufti being equal to that of a minister.
The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200).
By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out. Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction. The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but legally including religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) with the right to establish their own schools provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.” In order to operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards. The Ministry of Education does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship. In several cities, recognized Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity. The schools are open to adherents of all religions.
Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools, but it is optional for non-Muslims. Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in his or her final year of high school, which includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran. Islamic religion is an optional subject for university entrance exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum or for Muslim students following international curricula.
The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other recognized religious communities. According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts. Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts. A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court. Per the constitution, matters of personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities. Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities. According to the law, members of recognized denominations lacking their own courts must take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court. There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups. Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.
The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Muslim religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal. The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Muslim religious (known as ecclesiastical) courts. All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.
According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf. Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.
Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status. Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.
According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal. If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert for their marriage to remain legal. There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups. Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.
Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father. Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife loses custody of the children when they reach seven years of age. In December an amendment to the Personal Status Law was passed, stipulating that mothers should retain custody of their children until age 18. The new amendment contains no mention of religious affiliation. Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion. In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise. All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.
National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records. Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion. Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their families as their own. Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on the electronic records. Converts from Christianity to Islam may change their religion on their civil documents such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family), and on electronic records.
According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine out of 130 parliamentary seats or 6.9 percent. Christians may not run for additional seats. No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups. The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 10, the Attorney General ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus. Authorities charged the men with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife per the article of the penal code stipulating hate speech, as well as with violations of the cybercrimes law and the press and publications law. The cartoon, posted on December 8, depicted Turkish chef “Salt Bae” – real name Nusret Gokce – sprinkling salt on the food at the Last Supper of Jesus. Social media users commented to the website that the drawing was religiously insensitive and would cause strife between Muslims and Christians in the country. The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public. Authorities released Al-Wakeel and the editor, Ghadeer Rbeihat, two days later.
Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits. Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials. Because of the ban on conversion under sharia, government officials generally refused to change religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion. Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance. During the year, several adult Christians reported discovering that because of a parent’s subsequent conversion to Islam, the individuals had been automatically re-registered as Muslims in some government files, leading to inconsistencies in their records and causing bureaucratic obstacles and administrative holdups when trying to apply for marriage licenses or register for university.
Members of religious groups who were unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the Ministry of Justice. The chief of the OSJ reportedly continued to try to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce. The OSJ reportedly continued to enforce the interview requirement, introduced in 2017, for converts to Islam to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.
According to journalists who cover religious topics, the government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require that preachers refrain from political commentary, which the government deemed could instigate social or political unrest, and to counter radicalization. Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons. Imams who violated these rules continued to risk being fined or banned from preaching. According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year. In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam. In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight. There continued to be unofficial mosques operating outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, as well as imams outside of government employment who preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision.
In March the government began enforcing a new residency policy enacted in October 2017 to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency, suggesting that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims. Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the Ministry of Interior and a letter of sponsorship from the church. Volunteers must now obtain additional approvals, including the MOL, lengthening the average renewal process by several months.
The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to practice their religion and included them in interfaith events. Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue to Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security. The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim. In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in the family and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school. The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees which sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.
Other nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals, and also to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.
According to observers, recognized Christian denominations with the rights and privileges associated with membership in the CCL guarded this status, and continued to foster a degree of competition among other religious groups hoping to attain membership. Despite efforts to alter their status, some evangelical Christian groups remained unrecognized either as denominations or as associations. Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches continued to say that there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.
Some Christian leaders continued to express concern the CCL did not meet regularly and lacked the capacity to manage the affairs of both recognized and nonrecognized Christian groups effectively and fairly, especially in relation to their daily lives. Most CCL leaders remained based in Jerusalem.
Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after an August 10 attack targeting Jordanian security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais. Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for religious worshippers. The church leaders stated they especially appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and large events.
Druze continued to worship at and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community. The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze. Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, served in parliament and as cabinet ministers. Druze continued to report discrimination in reaching high positions in government and official departments.
The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion. Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.
Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for violating the public order if they proselytized Muslims. Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers living in the country after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks. Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations and additional requirements were imposed on residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.
There continued to be two recognized Baha’i cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government. Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is. In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said, they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process constituting a large financial burden.
The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rolling back of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017. Intended to promote tolerance, parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel. The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.
In August amendments to the cybercrimes law were introduced to parliament including increased penalties for a broadened definition of online hate speech, defined as “any statement or act that would provoke religious, sectarian, ethnic, or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumors against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation.” After sustained public protest, the amendments were withdrawn and re-submitted to parliament with a tighter definition that excluded mention of religion. The new amendment, still under consideration by parliament at the end of the year, defines hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke “sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”
In June the Templeton Foundation announced that King Abdullah would receive the 2018 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. In the award announcement, the foundation said the king “has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.” The king received the award in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on November 13.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members. Some converts from Islam to Christianity reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts. Some converts from Islam reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.
Interfaith religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media. Mohammad Nuh al-Qudah, a member of parliament and prominent Muslim preacher, on his online television show criticized females, especially young women, who did not wear the hijab, calling them blasphemous and stupid.
There was also an uptick in hate speech in social media and in the press directed at the Jewish faith after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Articles frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets such as Al Ghad that referred to Judaism in Arabic as “the heresy of the Zionist people,” described estimates of the number of Jews as fabricated, celebrated a perceived decline in the number of Jews, and ended with statements such as “the future is ours.”
Some social media users defended religious freedom, including a mostly critical reaction to al-Qudah’s remarks and calls for his show to be cancelled. Thousands of Christians and Muslims also left comments online condemning a University of Jordan professor’s lecture in March which criticized the Bible along with the Christian and Jewish faiths. Following this incident, which provoked condemnation from Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh and other members of parliament, the professor ended his many-year practice of posting lectures online.
Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions. Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance; Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.
Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and individuals in interfaith romantic relationships. Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence. Individuals in interfaith romantic relationships continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward the individuals involved.
The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups. In September the JICRC and National Council for Family Affairs hosted a Family and Societal Harmony Conference, which compared the family and institutional experiences of Muslims and Christians in Jordan and explored ways to work together to counter violence, extremism, and terrorism. Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, the grand mufti, the minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of religious workers and volunteers. In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar during Ramadan with the expressed purpose of highlighting religious diversity, increasing engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and building partnerships to advance minority rights. The gathering brought together a diverse set of religious leaders including evangelical Christian pastors, the director of the Baha’i Faith Community, heads of interfaith cooperation nongovernmental organizations, sharia judges, and the grand mufti.
Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely. In September the embassy hosted the Jordanian delegation to the summer Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. to discuss follow-up from the conference and general religious freedom trends in the country. Representatives from the embassy attended the JICRC’s conference on Societal Harmony and engaged with conference leaders on potential programmatic collaborations.
The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability. In October the embassy granted a $750,000 award for a project to preserve religious and cultural heritage, focusing on protecting the country’s interfaith tradition and highlighting the heritage of religious minorities. The nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground is scheduled to implement the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites.
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order. The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a situation reaffirmed by the Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated equal representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament. Parliamentary elections in May resulted in the confessional balance of parliament remaining unchanged. The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion. On July 19, the cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts raised public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint. On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for reportedly insulting the Virgin Mary in an online post. According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments of largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities. Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. Government officials repeatedly and publicly reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom and diversity. At least 30 cases of interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration. Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia.
There was one report of a religiously motivated killing when a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man on August 25 over a blasphemy allegation. Muslim and Christian community leaders reported the continued operation of places of worship in relative peace and security and said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable. Once again, the Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities, and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism. The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and the role of confessional dynamics in the country’s society and politics, and also investigated claims of religious discrimination in the provision of assistance to Iraqi Christian refugees. Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups; these included projects to counter violent extremism related to religion, and interfaith summer exchange programs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 6.1 million (July 2018 estimate). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations estimate the total population includes approximately 4.5 million citizens and an estimated 1.3 million refugees fleeing the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the vast majority of whom are Syrian, as well as a Palestinian refugee population present in the country for nearly 70 years.
Statistics Lebanon, an independent firm, estimates 61.1 percent of the citizen population is Muslim (30.6 percent Sunni, 30.5 percent Shia, and small percentages of Alawites and Ismailis). Statistics Lebanon estimates that 33.7 percent of the population is Christian. Maronite Catholics are the largest Christian group, followed by Greek Orthodox. Other Christian groups include Greek Catholics (Melkites), Armenian Orthodox (Gregorians), Armenian Catholics, Syriac Orthodox (Jacobites), Syriac Catholics, Assyrians (Nestorians), Chaldeans, Copts, Protestants (including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Seventh-day Adventists), Latin (Roman) Catholics, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
According to Statistics Lebanon, 5.2 percent of the population is Druze and is concentrated in the rural, mountainous areas east and south of Beirut. There are also small numbers of Jews, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Hindus. The Jewish Community Council, which represents the Lebanese Jewish community, estimates that approximately 100 Jews remain in the country.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are approximately 1.3 million refugees from Syria in the country, mainly Sunni Muslims, but also including Shia Muslims, Christians, and Druze. UNRWA estimates that there are between 250,000 and 280,000 Palestinians still living in the country as UN-registered refugees in 12 camps and surrounding areas. Comprised of refugees who entered the country in the 1940s and 1950s, including their descendants, they are largely Sunni Muslims but also include Christians.
UNHCR estimates there are just under 30,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon. Refugees and foreign migrants also include largely Sunni Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims and Chaldeans from Iraq, and Coptic Christians from Egypt and Sudan. According to the secretary-general of the Syriac League, an NGO that advocates for Syriac Christians in the country, approximately 10,000 Iraqi Christians of all denominations and 3,000 to 4,000 Coptic Christians reside in the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and declares the state will respect all religious groups and denominations, as well as the personal status and religious interests of persons of every religious group. The constitution guarantees free exercise of religious rites, provided they do not disturb the public order, and declares the equality of rights and duties for all citizens without discrimination or preference.
By law, an individual is free to convert to a different religion if a local senior official of the religious group the person wishes to join approves the change. The newly joined religious group issues a document confirming the convert’s new religion, and allowing the convert to register her or his new religion with the Ministry of Interior’s Personal Status Directorate. The new religion is included thereafter on government-issued civil registration documents.
Citizens have the right to remove the customary notation of their religion from government-issued civil registration documents or change how it is listed. Changing the documents does not require approval of religious officials.
The penal code stipulates a maximum prison term of one year for anyone convicted of “blaspheming God publicly.” It does not provide a definition of what this entails.
The penal code also criminalizes defamation and contempt for religion, and stipulates a maximum prison term of three years.
By law, religious groups may apply to the government for official recognition. To do so, it must submit a statement of its doctrine and moral principles to the cabinet, which evaluates whether the group’s principles are in accord with the government’s perception of popular values and the constitution. Alternatively, an unrecognized religious group may apply for recognition by applying to a recognized religious group. In doing so, the unrecognized group does not gain recognition as a separate group, but becomes an affiliate of the group through which it applies. This process has the same requirements as applying for recognition directly with the government.
There are 18 officially recognized religious groups. These include four Muslim groups (Shia, Sunni, Alawite, and Ismaili), 12 Christian groups (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Assyrian, Chaldean, Copt, Evangelical, and Latin Catholic), Druze, and Jews. Groups the government does not recognize include Baha’is, Buddhists, Hindus, and several Protestant groups.
Official recognition of a religious group allows baptisms and marriages performed by the group to receive government sanction. Official recognition also conveys other benefits, such as tax-exempt status and the right to apply the religious group’s codes to personal status matters. By law, the government permits recognized religious groups to administer their own rules on family and personal status issues including marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance. Shia, Sunni, recognized Christian, and Druze groups have state-appointed, government-subsidized clerical courts to administer family and personal status law.
Religious groups perform all marriages and divorces; there are no formalized procedures for civil marriage or divorce. The government recognizes civil marriage ceremonies performed outside the country irrespective of the religious affiliation of each partner in the marriage. While some Christian and Muslim religious authorities will perform interreligious marriages, clerics, priests, or religious courts will often require the non-belonging partner to pledge to raise their children in the religion of their partner and/or to give up certain rights such as inheritance or custody claims in the case of divorce.
Nonrecognized religious groups may own property and may assemble for worship and perform their religious rites freely. They may not perform legally recognized marriage or divorce proceedings and they have no standing to determine inheritance issues. Given agreements in the country’s confessional system that designate percentages of senior government positions, and in some cases specific positions, for the recognized religious confessions, members of unrecognized groups do not have any opportunity to occupy certain government positions, including cabinet, parliamentary, secretary-general, and director general positions.
The government requires Protestant churches to register with the Evangelical Synod, a self-governing advisory group overseeing religious matters for Protestant congregations, and representing those churches to the government.
The law allows censorship of religious publications under a number of conditions, including if the government deems the material incites sectarian discord or threatens national security.
According to the constitution, recognized religious communities may have their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued for public schools, which stipulate schools must not incite sectarian discord or threaten national security. Approximately 70 percent of students attend private schools, which despite many having ties to confessional groups, are often open to children of other religious groups as well. The Ministry of Education does not require or encourage religious education in public schools, but it is permitted, and both Christian and Muslim local religious representatives sometimes host educational sessions in public schools.
The constitution states “sectarian groups” shall be represented in a “just and equitable balance” in the cabinet and high-level civil service positions, which includes the ministry ranks of secretary-general and director general. It also states these posts shall be distributed proportionately among the recognized religious groups. This distribution of positions among religious groups is based on the unwritten 1943 National Pact, which used religious affiliation data from the 1932 census (the last conducted in the country), and also applies to the civil service, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public agencies at both the national and local levels of government. Parliament is elected on the basis of “equality between Christians and Muslims.” Druze and Alawites are included in this allocation with the Muslim communities.
The constitution also states there is no legitimacy for any authorities that contradict the “pact of communal existence,” thereby giving force of law to the unwritten 1943 National Pact, although that agreement is neither an official component of the constitution nor a formally binding agreement. According to the pact, the president shall be a Maronite Christian, the speaker of parliament shall be a Shia Muslim, and the prime minister shall be a Sunni Muslim.
The Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war in 1989, also mandates equal Muslim and Christian representation in parliament, but makes changes to the powers of the Maronite Christian presidency, including subjecting the designations of the prime minister and other cabinet ministers to consultations with parliament. In addition, the agreement endorses the constitutional provision of appointing most senior government officials according to religious affiliation, including senior positions within the military and other security forces. Customarily, a Christian heads the army, while the directors general of the Internal Security Forces and Directorate of General Security are Sunni and Shia, respectively. Several other top positions in the security services are customarily designated for particular confessions as well. While specific positions are designated by custom rather than law, deviating from custom is rare and could provoke a political crisis if an acceptable swap or accommodation were not mutually agreed by the confessions concerned. The Taef Agreement mandates a cabinet with seats allocated equally between Muslims (to include Druze and Alawites) and Christians. The Taef Agreement’s stipulations on equality of representation between members of different confessions do not apply to citizens who do not list a religious affiliation on their national registration, and thus they cannot hold a seat designated for a specific confession.
In June 2017 parliament approved a new electoral law replacing the country’s winner-take-all system for parliamentary elections with a proportional vote. The law does not affect the Christian-Muslim proportionality of parliament.
By law, the synod of each Christian group elects its patriarchs; the Sunni and Shia electoral bodies elect their respective senior clerics; and the Druze community elects its sheikh al-aql. The government council of ministers must endorse the nomination of Sunni and Shia muftis, as well as the Druze sheikh al-aql, and pay their salaries. The government also appoints and pays the salaries of Muslim and Druze clerical judges. By law, the government does not endorse Christian patriarchs and does not pay the salaries of Christian clergy and officials of Christian groups.
The government issues foreign religious workers a one-month visa; in order to stay longer a worker must complete a residency application during the month. Religious workers also must sign a “commitment of responsibility” form before receiving a visa, which subjects the worker to legal prosecution and immediate deportation for any activity involving religious or other criticism directed against the state or any other country, except Israel. If the government finds an individual engaging in religious activity while on a tourist visa, the government may determine a violation of the visa category has occurred and deport the individual.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion. On July 19, the Internal Security Force’s cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts generated public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint. The judge in the case ordered Khoury to sign a pledge to abstain from his Facebook account for one month and not to criticize religions. On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for a Facebook post that reportedly insulted the Virgin Mary. In September government censors banned the screening of the U.S. film The Nun for insulting Christianity. For the third year in a row, there was no judicial action on the lawsuit filed in 2015 by Member of Parliament Ziad Aswad of the Free Patriotic Movement against “You Stink” activist Assad Thebian for “defamation and contempt of religion” for comments he made about Christianity.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported in April that, since 2016, some municipal governments engaged in forcibly evicting Syrian refugees from their homes and expelling them from their localities to other locations in Lebanon. The HRW report stated that religious affiliation was among several reasons for the evictions. Most of those interviewed by HRW said that their eviction was due, in part, to their religious identity. According to UNHCR, the municipalities identified as being involved in forcibly evicting and expelling Syrian refugees were predominantly Christian. Monthly community tension reports prepared jointly by the UN Development Program (UNDP) and UNHCR along with NGO and implementing partners using population survey data from UNDP, however, did not identify religious discrimination as the key driver of tension between refugees and host communities. NGOs and international organizations, including the UNDP, UNHCR, and other UN agencies, also reported that perceptions of competition for jobs, resources, and land were the predominant factors driving refugee evictions, along with security concerns and Lebanon’s history with Syria.
Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and members of nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups in government records in order to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid. Many Baha’is said they chose to list themselves as Shia Muslims in order to effectively manage civil matters officially administered by Shia institutions.
The government again failed to take action to approve a request from the Jewish community to change its official name to the Jewish Community Council from the Israeli Communal Council (the group’s current officially recognized name). Additionally, the Jewish community faced difficulty importing material for religious rites, as customs agents were reportedly wary of allowing imports of any origin containing Hebrew script given the ban on trade of Israeli goods.
Following the May 6 parliamentary elections, non-Maronite Christian groups reiterated criticism that the government made little progress toward the Taef Agreement’s goal of eliminating political sectarianism in favor of “expertise and competence.” Members of these groups, which include Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, and Chaldeans, among others, said the fact that the government allotted them only one of the 64 Christian seats in parliament, constituted government discrimination. The Syriac League continued to call for more representation for non-Maronite and non-Greek Orthodox Christians in cabinet positions, parliament, and high-level civil service positions, typically held by members of the larger Christian religious groups.
Members of all confessions serve in all military, intelligence, and security services, including in high-ranking positions.
During his September 26 remarks to the UN General Assembly in New York, President Michel Aoun repeated his call to make Lebanon a regional hub for religious dialogue. During the July 24-26 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil reiterated the government’s commitment to religious freedom and pluralism, stating that religious diversity strengthened the country.
During the year, there was no movement on the 30 or more cases of civil marriage that awaited registration with the Ministry of Interior since 2013. The cases remained unresolved, with no evidence of forthcoming action.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia. There, it provided a number of basic services such as health care, education, food aid, infrastructure repair, and internal security. There continued to be reports of Hizballah controlling access to the neighborhoods and localities under its control, including in Beirut’s southern suburbs and areas of the Bekaa and South Lebanon.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On August 25, a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man in the northern town of Minieh. Media reported that the dispute began when the sheikh accused the man of making a blasphemous remark in a market, after which the sheikh and his two brothers followed the man outside where they attacked and killed him with knives and cleavers. Police arrested the men involved and their case was ongoing at year’s end. Human rights NGOs and activists criticized the lack of an immediate condemnation by the grand mufti or other high-level Sunni or government authorities.
The Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at the Jewish cemetery in Sidon, including the destruction and desecration of gravesites. Authorities granted the Jewish Community Council a permit to restore the Sidon cemetery following the acts of vandalism. The council’s 2011 lawsuit against individuals who constructed buildings in the Jewish cemetery in Tripoli continued, pending additional court-ordered analysis of the site, and was unresolved by year’s end. The council made little progress with the municipality of Beirut regarding construction debris and other garbage dumped in the Beirut Jewish cemetery.
Religious leaders stated that relationships among individual members of different religious groups remained amicable. On August 28, Christian and Muslim religious leaders met with the Swiss president at the summer residence of Maronite Patriarch Rai and appealed to the international community to work toward protecting peace in the region and the dignity of refugees. During the meeting, Rai said “this presence of high Muslim and Christian dignitaries clearly reflects the uniqueness of Lebanon as a country of convergence and interfaith dialogue.”
Christian and Muslim religious leaders from the major denominations continued to participate in interfaith dialogues throughout the year and to call for unity against extremism. At a February 26 conference in Vienna, the highest leaders of some of the country’s major religious communities, including Maronite Patriarch Bechara Rai, Grand Mufti of the Republic Abdel Latif Deryan, and Armenian Orthodox Catholicos Aram I Keshishian, joined 23 high-ranking Arab Muslim and Christian authorities to commit to work together to rebuild and protect their communities from the effects of religiously motivated violent extremist rhetoric and actions. The group launched the first interreligious platform to advocate for the rights and inclusion of all communities in the Arab world, combat ideologies instigating hatred and sectarianism, and jointly address the challenges their communities face.
A survey by the Adyan Foundation found that nearly 70 percent of first-time voters among all religious groups between 21 and 28 years old identified “being open to all people of different beliefs and fraternizing with them in order to live their values and promote the common good” as the most important daily embodiment of their faith.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officers continued to engage government officials on the need to encourage tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect among religious groups.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with individual politicians representing different religious groups to discuss the views of their constituents and promote religious tolerance. The Ambassador met with the leadership of the Sunni, Shia, Druze, and Christian communities to promote interfaith dialogue and urge them to take steps to counter violent extremism. Embassy officers met with civil society representatives to convey similar messages. On June 2, the Ambassador participated in an iftar with prominent leaders of the Muslim and Christian communities in Tripoli to promote an embassy-supported program to prevent youth religious radicalization. The Ambassador stressed the importance of interfaith dialogue and the need to provide opportunities to vulnerable youth across confessions.
On May 20, a senior embassy officer delivered remarks at the graduation ceremony for participants of an embassy-supported program bringing together 750 religiously diverse students from 42 high schools across the country to increase their understanding of religious diversity. Religiously mixed students also collaborated to develop and lead community service projects serving geographically and religiously diverse communities across the country.
The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with Iraqi Christian refugees, Chaldean Church officials, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in November to assess complaints of religious-based discrimination in the provision of refugee assistance. While finding no evidence of widespread religious discrimination in the provision of services to refugees, the Ambassador facilitated agreement on a number of steps UNHCR and the Chaldean Church could take to improve communication and cooperation in their provision of assistance. For the eighth consecutive year, the embassy selected five students between 18 and 25 years old to participate in a five-week visitor exchange program at Temple University where they learned about religious pluralism in the United States, visited places of worship, and participated in cultural activities in order to apply this knowledge to issues in Lebanon.
According to the Moroccan 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 Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. It also prohibits political parties founded on religion and political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam. Moroccan law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam. According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religion were Jews. Local Christian and Shia leaders reported the government detained and questioned some Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians and Shias. Christian and Shia Muslim citizens also stated their fear of government and societal harassment led to their decision to practice their faiths discreetly. According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack. On April 3, a group calling itself the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize rights for Christian citizens such as freedom to worship, celebrate civil marriages, establish and operate cemeteries, use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school. In May human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two citizens who had converted to Christianity the necessary documents to register to marry because of their religious beliefs. Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches. Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests. The authorities continued to introduce new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references. 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. According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify and monitor imams (morchidines) and female Muslim spiritual guides (morchidates) who have accounts on social media to ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts. 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. On June 14, Minister of State for Human Rights Mustafa Ramid stated in an interview that “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion. On June 19, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens on national television, but he said throughout history, Morocco has allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religious affairs freely. In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM). The government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez from September 10 to 12, where King Mohammed VI delivered remarks underscoring the tradition of coexistence in Morocco between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.
According to the Assabah newspaper, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador received death threats, which the government investigated and reported were unfounded allegations. According to media reports, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts, Christian citizens face pressure from non-Christian family and friends to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith. They also reported the government did not respond to complaints about frequent societal harassment. Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm. According to an interview with TelQuel magazine, however, Baha’i citizens reported they did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan. Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.
The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, members of religious minority and majority communities, religious leaders, activists, and civil society groups, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.3 million (July 2018 estimate) and more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim. Less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates. Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.
According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca. Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens. Moroccan Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north. In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600. Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.
Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and several thousand Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked there for generations but do not hold Moroccan citizenship. There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier. There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca. Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, with full sovereignty, and Islam is the religion of the state. The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his religious affairs. The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country. The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society. According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam.
The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches. Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($21,000).
The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith, and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52). 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 on occasion to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.
By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52). The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52). Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.
The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate five 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 the relevant aspects of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups. According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam. Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children. Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.
Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some foreign Christian churches). The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group or to hold public gatherings. Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters in order to conduct financial transactions, hold bank accounts, rent property, and address the government in the name of the group. 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 the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution. The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”
Many foreign-resident Christian churches 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.
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 teaching Sunni Islam or of not including religious instruction within the school’s curriculum. Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.
According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation. If the king or parliament decline to ratify a decision of the Ulema, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
The government at times reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs. According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack. In May and June human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two Christian converts the necessary documentation to register to marry because of their religious beliefs. The couple hosted a small symbolic wedding ceremony in a human rights organization’s headquarters in Rabat in June, but the couple stated they feared being accused of fornication, which is punishable under the penal code, because they did not have a government-issued marriage certificate. According to activists and members of the religious minority community, authorities also detained and questioned several Shia Muslims for hours about their religious beliefs and about members of their religious community. According to activists, during these instances, police did not document the detention and, according to media reports, denied such events transpired.
According to press reports, a group called the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the CNDH on April 3 to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize a series of rights for Christian citizens including freedom of worship, celebration of civil marriages, establishment and operation of cemeteries, being able to use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school, as well as the legal normalization of Christian churches. CNDH informed the group that CNDH welcomed official complaints where violations of human rights occurred. CNDH was not aware of a government response to the petition.
Press also reported that on November 22, the Court of Appeals in Taza upheld a Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a defendant who was acquitted of “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” a crime under the penal code, after he reportedly handed a book explaining the Bible to another individual. The appeals court ruling mentioned the ICCPR, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.”
Nonregistered religious groups reported receiving varying treatment by authorities; however, during the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting these groups from practicing their religion in private. A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.
According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal in past years to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious ceremonies. There were no known Shia mosques. Shia representatives reported they had not attempted to register during the year.
According to representatives of the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms, on May 3 government authorities refused to accept the application for registration of their association under the determination the association aimed to undermine Islam.
A Christian group applied to register as an association in December 2018; it was awaiting a response from MOI at year’s end.
The government allowed the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches. Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended their churches, and they did not encourage them to do so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing. According to some reports from activists, authorities at times pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith by informing the converts’ friends, relatives, and employers of the individuals’ conversion. According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities made phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities. Foreigners attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches.
According to media reports, on June 20, the Collective for Democracy and Liberties cancelled a long-planned seminar on individual rights, including “sexual rights” and religious freedom, immediately before it was scheduled to begin. A statement from the Ministry of Justice explained the Ministry of Interior had informed the seminar organizers they lacked the appropriate registration to hold the event. Assabah reported the Head of Government Saadeddin El Othmani, Minister of State for Human Rights Ramid, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar, and Secretary-General of the Party of Progress and Socialism Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah withdrew from participating in the seminar after cabinet and party members were reportedly ordered not to participate in any meetings encouraging sectarianism. According to a Telquel article, Minister Aujjar said that after reviewing the agenda for the seminar, he cancelled his participation because “speaking about individual liberties does not bother [him], but it is a difficult question to assume politically.”
In an interview on June 14, Minister Ramid stated “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion. On June 19, Minister Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens, but said throughout history Morocco had allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religions freely. The Moroccan Christians Coordinating Group issued statements rejecting Minister Aujjar’s denial that they, whose numbers they maintained exceed those of Morocco’s recognized Jewish population, exist.
According to a human rights association, on November 26, it hosted a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities. During the event, leaders of human rights organizations said they were beginning to follow the issue more closely; however, limited information was available and official data on Moroccan religious minorities was not available.
The ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa imposed in 2017 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, however, continued not to allow police and army personnel in uniform to wear a hijab.
The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious sphere and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam. It employed 1852 morchidines and 804 morchidates in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country. The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning. It continued to provide government-required, one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year. It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa. The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country. The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.
According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere with the topics the religious leaders chose to address during sermons; however, religious leaders were required to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher when they operated in the country.
The MEIA monitored Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and ensure teaching followed approved doctrine. The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism. Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.
The 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 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. Its policy remained to control the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist. According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify morchidines and morchidates with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus social media to monitor and ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.
MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches. In October the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca began the construction of a community center with approval from government authorities. The government also gave the Anglican Church approval to renovate and expand the church upon completion of its community center.
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 university religion courses. Authorities confiscated bibles they believed were intended for use in proselytizing.
During the year, the government organized four national and regional training sessions on instruction based on “values” and “respect for religious principles.” The government also introduced 13 new textbooks on the subjects of religion and legal sciences at the primary, junior and high school levels following a review by the MEIA and the Ministry of Education to remove extremist or intolerant references and promote moderation and tolerance. As of year’s end, the government was also drafting an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.” Modifications to textbooks continued through the end of the year.
Jewish and Christian citizens stated elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country. The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.
The government continued to disseminate information about Islam over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels. Television channel Assadissa (Sixth) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.
According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam. For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports. The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated. It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered. The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations. The government occasionally prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.
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. Since 2012, an estimated 170 Jewish cemeteries across 40 provinces have been restored. According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues.
The Prison Administration (DGAPR) said it authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.
Two adoul (notaries), typically religious men, are needed to perform marriages. In January the School of Islamic Thought and Testimonies convinced the Supreme Scientific Council to amend the law so the king could permit women to become adoul.
During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the heads of the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in Moroccan society.
In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the USHMM, to facilitate the sharing of documentation on Jewish history in Morocco. The delegation met with country’s leaders to discuss continuing collaboration between the museum and the country’s National Archives to promote religious tolerance and awareness.
On September 10-12, the government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie. According to media reports, at the conference King Mohammed VI delivered remarks describing the tradition of coexistence in the country between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.
On September 26, Head of Government El Othmani delivered a message from the king at a UN roundtable table on “The Power of Education in Preventing Racism and Discrimination: The Case of Anti-Semitism” in New York on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly. The message highlighted the country’s preservation of its synagogues and noted the importance of “shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments, but also its darkest hours.” It stated, “Anti-Semitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression. It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.”
In November the Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, opened the Bayt Al Dakyra (House of Memory), a research center built from the remains of an old synagogue in Essaouira. On December 11-12, UNESCO and the Aladdin Project in partnership with Mohammed V University, a public university in Rabat, hosted an international conference in Marrakech titled, “The Importance of History Teaching in Education: The Case of the Holocaust and Great Tragedies of History and 75 Years after the Holocaust, Honoring the Righteous in the Muslim World.” The organizers paid tribute to the “Muslim Righteous” from Morocco and other countries that helped Jews during the Second World War and discussed the importance of education for highlighting the different phases and experiences of coexistence in the region. Public officials from Mohammed V University, the Ministry of Education, the Archives of Morocco, and other public institutions participated in the conference.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some activists in minority religious communities reported the government did not respond to complaints about societal harassment. According to a report in Assabah, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador reported facing intimidation, including one death threat. The MOI investigated the claims and reported they were unfounded.
Representatives of minority religious groups, especially Christian, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i citizens, 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. According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religious rituals were Jews.
There were reports from the media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends. Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.
Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but they feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm. According to an interview with TelQuel, however, some Baha’i citizens did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.
Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.
Jewish citizens said 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 November 13-18, the Moroccan Community Abroad Council and the Israelite Community of Morocco Council cohosted a conference on Moroccan Judaism. The public conference convened primarily Moroccan-born Jews residing in Canada, France, and Israel, with the leadership of the local Jewish community and Moroccan civil society groups.
Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses, as well as with the army and police, if they wore a hijab or other head covering. When women who wore a hijab did obtain employment with the police, army, and in some private businesses, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours.
In December interfaith academics and an unregistered religious freedom organization coordinated a seminar on religious minorities and interfaith dialogue between Islamic schools of thought in Marrakech.
Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering superior education. According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials met with government officials, including from MOI and MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities. Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country. The embassy also fostered and supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance.
In October embassy officials attended one of a series of public seminars on the Holocaust and of the historical legacy of Moroccan Jews, hosted at a university in Rabat. The USHMM and Mimouna, its local Islamic NGO partner, developed the curriculum they presented at the seminar. In November embassy officials also attended the conference on Moroccan Judaism cohosted by the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad and the Council of the Israelite Communities of Morocco. On November 26, an embassy official attended a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities. On December 14, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a lunch for representatives of the Jewish community to discuss recent developments related to religious freedom and the preservation of the country’s Jewish history.
The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam. The constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Laws require that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles and prohibit them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that police used arrests, house searches, and travel restrictions to target Salafists and others, some of whom, according to the NGOs, were profiled as terrorists based on their appearance or religious beliefs. According to an October report by Amnesty International (AI), the government imposed restrictions on both travel within the country and abroad “on the basis of perceived religious beliefs or practices …” One Christian citizen said he was detained and later released by police after displaying books pertaining to Christian theology at a book fair. The newly-elected mayor of Tunis suburb El Kram, citing constitutional provisions identifying Islam as the state religion, told media his municipality would not validate marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, as required following the 2017 repeal of the 1973 ban on such marriages. Then Minister of Local Affairs Riadh Mouakher said he would sanction the mayor if he failed to uphold the law. Civil society groups reported anecdotal evidence this was not the only mayor to refuse to sign marriage contracts between Muslim women and non-Muslim men or between two Christian citizens. In spite of continued appeals from the Baha’i community, the government did not recognize the Baha’i Faith or grant its association legal status. In August the Baha’i community received information that a court had denied the community’s court case pertaining to its petition to be a registered association; the Baha’is planned to appeal the court’s decision. Christian citizens stated the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly as they pertain to the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery. Unlike the Baha’is, however, the country’s local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status. On June 12, the presidentially-appointed Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality recommended changes to the law that included inheritance equality between genders with the option to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs; equality among men and women in marriage and parenting; cancellation of government circulars that continued to be used to justify closing cafes during Ramadan; and a prohibition on the degradation of another’s religion, including criminalization of “all contempt of others’ religions with the aim to incite violence and hatred.” On November 28, President Beji Caid Essebsi submitted a draft law to parliament revising the 1956 Personal Status Code to allow inheritance equality, but leaving the option for families to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs if they choose.
The Association of Free Thinkers, which was established in 2017 to promote secularism in the country, organized a demonstration in late May in downtown Tunis demanding the right to drink and eat in public spaces during Ramadan periods of fasting. The demonstration took place without incident. Two men, however, had earlier attacked the president of the association, Hatem Limam, outside a Tunis bar in late February, and three individuals attacked Limam in his Tunis office on June 2. On January 10, during country-wide protests of social conditions, attackers threw Molotov cocktails at two synagogues in Djerba in an apparent attempt to set fire to the buildings. Police and the fire department responded to put out the fires before significant damage was done. Christian converts from Islam said threats from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA), the Presidency, and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights (MRCB) and encouraged continued tolerance of religious minorities. Embassy officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques, threats to converts from Islam to other faiths, and the status of the Baha’i Faith in the country. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i communities. In May the Ambassador and other embassy officers participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society. Embassy officials attended a January seminar organized by the MRA in conjunction with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and coexistence to the country’s democracy and efforts to counter religiously-motivated violent extremism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (July 2018 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim. Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Baha’is, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population. There are approximately 7,000 Christians who are citizens, according to the Christian community, most of whom are Anglicans or other Protestants. The MRA estimates there are approximately 30,000 Christians residing in the country, most of whom are foreigners, and of whom 80 percent are Roman Catholic. Catholic officials estimate their church membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country. The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and in the neighboring town of Zarzis. There is a small Baha’i community, but no reliable information on its numbers is available.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion but the constitution also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim. The constitution guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices. The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from “partisan instrumentalization.” It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims). The law requires that all religious services be celebrated within houses of worship or other nonpublic settings. These restrictions extend to public advertisement of religious services. The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health.
The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”
There is no legal prohibition of proselytism, but the law criminalizes forced conversions.
Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account and conduct financial activities such as charity work and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group or use the name of a religious group. To establish an association, a religious group must submit a registered letter to the Prime Minister’s Office stating the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives. The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association. The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles. The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support to individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Once established, such an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.
Once the association receives the return receipt from the Prime Minister’s Office, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press. The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration. In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration. A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.
Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist. If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association. Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.
Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”
A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. The concordat allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells. A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the concordat, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association, and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.
The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The grand mufti, appointed by the president, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam. The MRA suggests themes for Friday sermons but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.
By law, new mosques may be constructed provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations. The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private, and foreign donors also are able to contribute to construction costs. Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.
It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on the principles of Islam approximately one hour per week. Non-Muslim students generally attended these courses but could seek an exemption. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity, according to the Ministry of Education. Religious groups may operate private schools.
Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia. Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.
The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties, but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to an October report by Amnesty International (AI), “They Never Tell Me Why,” the government imposed restrictions on domestic travel or bans on travelling abroad for some of its citizens, due to security concerns. According to the AI report, in some cases, “authorities appear to have targeted individuals … on the basis of their perceived religious beliefs or practices, physical appearance, such as having a beard and wearing religious clothing….” The media also reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.
The 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See effectively limits the Catholic Church’s interactions with citizens, and Christian citizens said there was strong governmental and societal pressure not to advertise publicly about the Church’s activities or theology. One Christian citizen reported police detained him for displaying books pertaining to Christian theology at a book fair. He was released without charge, but authorities cited Article 1 of the constitution, which states that the country’s religion is Islam, as the justification for shutting down his book stall.
Fathi Laayouni, the mayor of Tunis suburb El Kram, sparked a debate when he told media on August 16 that his municipality would not validate marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man, as required following the September 2017 repeal of the 1973 ban on such marriages. In justifying his position, Laayouni cited Articles 1 and 6 of the constitution stipulating that the state religion is Islam and that the government is the guardian of religion. His statement received a strong rebuke from then Minister of Local Affairs Riadh Mouakher, who promised “sanctions” against Laayouni, adding the mayor had an obligation to uphold the law. Civil society groups reported anecdotal evidence that Laayouni was not the only mayor to refuse performing marriage services between Muslims and non-Muslims. Anecdotal evidence provided by members of the Christian community suggested that some mayors’ offices refused to marry two Christian citizens.
In August the Baha’i community received information through its lawyer that the First Instance Court of Tunis had denied the community’s court case pertaining to its petition to be a registered association. As of December the court had not provided a written judgement outlining the legal grounds for its refusal; the Baha’is stated they planned to appeal the court’s decision. Baha’is also stated it was not possible to establish houses of worship or conduct some religious activities while they lacked official recognition. In early 2017, the Baha’i community submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Interior for permission for a dedicated cemetery. Without a dedicated cemetery, Baha’is have had to hide their religious affiliation to use cemeteries reserved for adherents of other recognized faiths. As of the end of the year, the ministry had not responded to the Baha’i community’s request.
Members of the Baha’i community said there was increased government interest in learning about the Baha’i Faith. They expressed concern, however, about discrimination by individual security force personnel. During the year they said that police officers in different cities interrogated members of the community about their religious practices and beliefs in the course of routine security checks. Although the individuals were all released from police custody without charge, community members said they believed the individuals faced increased and undue scrutiny due to their faith.
The government publicly urged imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. Since 2015, the MRA has conducted regular training sessions for imams on how to disseminate these messages. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations and chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques. In the run-up to May 6 municipal council elections, in keeping with national law, the Ministry of Local Affairs issued a public statement stating it had reminded imams and other religious leaders not to make political statements inside of mosques prior to the elections.
Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate freely and provided security for their services. The government, however, restricted public religious services or processions outside the churches. Christian citizens reported the government did not fully recognize their rights, particularly regarding the establishment of a legal entity or association that would grant them the ability to establish an Arabic-language church or a cemetery for Christian citizens. The local Christian community did not submit a formal request for an association or legal status during the year. There are existing Christian cemeteries for foreign members of the Christian community; Christian citizens, however, need permission from the government to be buried in a Christian cemetery. Citizens reported they generally did not request this permission due what they said was a pattern of governmental nonresponse. Church leaders stated that while there did not appear to be organized discrimination against Christians, there were also few protections. If an individual police officer or administrative official treated a member of the Christian community poorly, church leaders said authorities were slow to investigate these abuses or to provide redress in cases of wrongdoing.
Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis, but did not maintain those located in other cities, including Sousse and El Kef.
The Tunisian Association for the Support of Minorities issued a statement on August 18, condemning the refusal by the management of El Mornaguia prison in Mornaguia, southwest of Tunis, to apply an authorization granted by an investigating judge for a Jewish prisoner to receive kosher meals. According to members of the Jewish community, however, once the prison was made aware of the prisoner’s family’s request to bring kosher meals more frequently than the three days normally allowed by the prison to accept meals from family members, the prison accommodated this request.
Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmed Adhoum hosted two conferences on religious tolerance and coexistence, the first in Tabarka on January 30-February 1 and the second held in connection with the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage in Djerba May 3-4. During the conferences, Adhoum, the minister of tourism, and the minister of cultural affairs emphasized that peace and religious tolerance were essential to countering terrorism. On May 31, then Minister for Human Rights, Constitutional Bodies, and Civil Society Mehdi Ben Gharbia hosted an interfaith iftar with the grand mufti, grand rabbi, and archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church.
On June 12, the presidentially-appointed Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality published a report that presented a series of recommended changes to the country’s laws that would align them with the 2014 constitution and international human rights laws and treaties to which the country is a signatory. The committee’s recommendations included decriminalization of homosexuality; allowing inheritance equality between genders; equality between men and women in marriage and parenting; cancellation of government circulars that continue to be used to justify closing cafes during Ramadan; and a prohibition on the degradation of another’s religion, including a criminalization of “all contempt of others’ religions with the aim to incite violence and hatred.” In addition, the report stated that discrimination in all of its forms violated existing provisions of the constitution and international laws. The report recommended changes to legislation to prohibit discrimination based on religion and belief. Legislation based on the report’s recommendations was introduced in parliament in October and remained pending at the end of the year.
On August 13, in his annual Tunisian Women’s Day address, President Caid Essebsi announced plans to present a draft law to parliament revising the 1956 Personal Status Code to allow inheritance equality, but leaving the option for families to follow Islamic principles favoring male heirs if they chose. During his speech, he said there was a moral and legal imperative to work for this change using an approach that is based on the country’s constitution, not religious texts.
During an April 9-19 visit, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed examined the extent to which the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and belief was being respected, protected, and promoted. In his preliminary findings, he concluded the government had a strong commitment to equality and freedom of religion or belief but identified several legal provisions, legislative gaps, and deficits in the rule of law that could undermine the protection of religion or belief, such as the use of public morality laws to enforce religious tenets.
Authorities again provided a heightened level of security for the annual Lag B’Omer festival held at the El-Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba in May, including security cameras and personnel around the synagogue.
In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either type of school full-time. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On May 23, the Association of Free Thinkers, which was established in 2017 to promote secularism in the country, organized a demonstration in downtown Tunis demanding the right to drink and eat in public spaces during Ramadan periods of fasting. The demonstration took place without incident. In late February a member of the Free Thinkers reported on Facebook that two men stabbed and assaulted association president Hatem Limam in Tunis. Limam reported to media a second attack on June 2 in which three individuals physically assaulted him after forcing their way into his office in. Limam filed a complaint at the local police station following the second attack, and police arrested three men and charged one. According to a March press report, the Free Thinker who reported the February attack stated members of the association had been previously attacked and that he had received death threats. The Italian wire service ANSA reported on October 30 that some members of the Free Thinkers were threatened and attacked by Islamic extremists.
On January 10, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at two synagogues in Djerba in an apparent attempt to set fire to the buildings. Police and the fire department responded before significant damage was done. Members of the Jewish community said the perpetrators were known to them and the individuals were subsequently arrested. They were released from prison after having served a sentence of several months. Some Jewish community leaders in Djerba said they considered the attack to be the work of opportunists taking advantage of violent riots, including other arson attacks around the country, over economic conditions. According to a report by the German network Deutsche Welle, others in the Jewish community attributed the attack to criminals acting on the orders of a radical extremist movement. Some media reported that leading up to the Lag B’Omer pilgrimage, calls for inciting violence against Jews in Tunisia were published on social media networks. One post reportedly included: “We must drive the Jews out of Tunisia and set fire to the synagogue in Djerba.”
Simon Slama, the only Jewish candidate for office in the May municipal elections, was on the electoral list for the Nahda Party in the Monastir Governorate, although he ultimately was not elected to the municipal council. On September 7, the municipality of Sousse named three of its streets after Jewish citizens in order to honor their work within the city. Social media commentators praised the city’s recognition of the contributions made by the country’s Jewish community. On November 5, Prime Minister Yousef Chahed appointed Rene Trebelsi as Minister of Tourism during a partial government reshuffle, making him the third Jewish minister in the country’s history (after two others in 1955 and 1957). Parliament confirmed the appointment on November 12.
According to media reports, some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from criticizing Islam. Some converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection, and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs. Some members of the Christian community said that citizens who attended church services faced pressure from family members and others in their neighborhood not to attend.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials, including in the MRA, the Presidency, and the MRCB to discuss issues concerning religious freedom. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques, the difficulties facing citizens of the Baha’i Faith and Christian citizens, reports of anti-Semitic acts, legislative reform, and threats to converts from Islam to other faiths. Embassy officials attended and spoke at the January conference hosted by the MRA on the subject of interfaith coexistence. On May 1-4, a delegation from the embassy, including the Ambassador, participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba. During the visit, the delegation met with Jewish leaders and members of civil society and reaffirmed support for religious diversity and tolerance.
The embassy maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions from the government or threats from the community. Through a microscholarship program, the embassy engaged with youth in discussions on religious diversity and tolerance. The embassy hosted a former participant of a U.S. exchange program to engage youth, women’s groups, and civil society representatives in discussions about her experience researching televangelism in the United States. The embassy supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and to counter violent extremism, including informal youth-led conversation groups to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with scout troops to learn how to recognize and combat signs of religious radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering religious radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.