The constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and religion. It stipulates there is no official religion and that the state is neutral in matters of belief, recognizes the equality and independence of religious groups, and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the Evangelical Brotherhood of Albania (VUSH), a Protestant umbrella organization, pertaining to recognition, property restitution, and other arrangements. The law stipulates the government will give financial support to faith communities, but the government’s agreement with the VUSH under the law does not specifically designate it to receive such funding. The VUSH reported, however, that correspondence with the State Committee on Cults included a commitment to provide financial support for evangelical Christian churches. The Orthodox Church, the Albanian Islamic Community (AIC), and the VUSH noted positively the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them, although the VUSH expressed concern the government showed indifference towards it relative to other faith communities. The government legalized 105 buildings owned by religious groups during the year, and the status of 68 additional properties was under review. In response to a Constitutional Court ruling that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims. The Agency for the Treatment of Property (ATP) reported it rejected 17 claims for title, which allowed the claimants to take their cases to court. VUSH leaders continued to report difficulties in acquiring land to construct places of worship and problems concerning municipal government fees. The Bektashi and the AIC reported problems defending title to certain properties. The Orthodox Church reported problems obtaining ownership of monasteries and churches deemed cultural heritage sites by the government. As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not finished adopting regulations to support implementation of a 2017 law on the rights and freedoms of national minorities, including religious freedom.
The Interreligious Council, a forum for the country’s religious leaders to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year in October and voted to include the VUSH as a member. The AIC reported the Polish government presented an award on October 25 in Poland to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony in Albania. Separately, several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in Albanian religious organizations.
U.S. embassy officers again urged government officials to accelerate the religious property claims process and return to religious group’s buildings and other property confiscated from them during the communist era. The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults to participate in an exchange program on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The embassy also provided technical assistance from a U.S. specialist who assisted the Ministry of Education in developing a national policy on, and drafting the outline of, a teacher’s manual for teaching about religion in public and private schools. Embassy youth education programs continued to focus on respecting religious diversity. Other embassy-sponsored programs focused on promoting women’s empowerment in religious communities and the compatibility of religious faith and democracy. The embassy also continued its work with religious communities to discourage the appeal of violent extremism related to religion among youth.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.1 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2011, Sunni Muslims constitute nearly 57 percent of the population, Roman Catholics 10 percent, members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Albania nearly 7 percent, and members of the Bektashi Order (a form of Shia Sufism) 2 percent. Other groups include Protestant denominations, Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and a small Jewish community. Nearly 20 percent of respondents declined to answer the optional question about religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates there is no official religion, all religions are equal, and the state has the duty to respect and protect religious coexistence. It declares the state’s neutrality in questions of belief and recognizes the independence of religious groups. According to the constitution, relations between state and religious groups are regulated by agreements between these groups and the Council of Ministers and ratified by the parliament.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, and free expression. It affirms the freedom of all individuals to choose or change religion or beliefs and to express them individually, collectively, in public, or in private. The constitution states individuals may not be compelled to participate or excluded from participating in a religious community or its practices, nor may they be compelled to make their beliefs or faith public or prohibited from doing so. It prohibits political parties or other organizations whose programs incite or support religious hatred. The criminal code prohibits interference in an individual’s ability to practice a religion and prescribes punishments of up to three years in prison for obstructing the activities of religious organizations or for willfully destroying objects or buildings of religious value.
By law, the Office of the Commissioner for Protection from Discrimination receives and processes discrimination complaints, including those concerning religious practice. The law specifies the State Committee on Cults, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates relations between the government and religious groups, protects freedom of religion, and promotes interfaith cooperation and understanding. The law also directs the committee to maintain records and statistics on foreign religious groups that solicit assistance and to support foreign employees of religious groups in obtaining residence permits.
The government does not require registration or licensing of religious groups, but a religious group must register with the district court as a nonprofit association to qualify for certain benefits, including opening a bank account, owning property, and exemption from certain taxes. The registration process entails submission of information on the form and scope of the organization, its activities, identities of its founders and legal representatives, nature of its interactions with other stakeholders (e.g., government ministries and civil society organizations), address of the organization, and a registration fee of 1,000 lek ($9). A judge is randomly assigned within three to four days of submission to adjudicate an application, and the decision process usually concludes within one session.
The government has agreements with the Sunni Muslim and Bektashi communities, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and the VUSH. These bilateral agreements codify arrangements pertaining to official recognition, property restitution, tax exemptions on income, donations and religious property, and exemption from submitting accounting records for religious activities. A legal provision enacted in 2009 directs the government to provide financial support to the four religious communities with which it had agreements at the time. This provision of the law does not include the VUSH, whose agreement with the government dates from 2011. There is no provision of the law to provide VUSH with financial support from the government.
The law requires the ATP to address claims by religious groups for properties confiscated during the communist era.
The law allows religious communities to run educational institutions as well as build and manage religious cemeteries on land the communities own.
Public schools are secular, and the law prohibits religious instruction, but not the teaching of religion as part of a humanities curriculum. Private schools may offer religious instruction. Religious communities manage 114 educational institutions, including universities, primary and secondary schools, preschools, kindergartens, vocational schools, and orphanages. By law, the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport must license these institutions, and nonreligious curricula must comply with national education standards. Catholic, Muslim, and Orthodox groups operate numerous state-licensed kindergartens, schools, and universities. Most of these do not have mandatory religion classes but offer them as an elective. For instance, Beder University offers undergraduate and graduate programs in Islamic Studies. The AIC runs six madrassahs that teach religion in addition to the state-sponsored curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities reported their total government financial support remained at 109 million lek ($1.02 million), the same as in 2017 and the previous year. The Sunni Muslim community continued to receive approximately 28 percent of the funding, while the remaining three each continued to receive 24 percent. The communities continued to use the funds to cover part of the salaries for administrative and educational staff. The Bektashi community, which had fewer staff members than the others, continued to use part of these funds for new places of worship.
The government implemented an April 2017 decision to subsidize the price of electricity and water for places of worship as a means of indirect financial support for religious communities. Leaders of the five main religious communities confirmed they were paying a lower price for electricity and water.
The VUSH reported that, although there was still no formal written agreement with the government on receiving financial support, the State Committee on Cults provided a written commitment to extend financial support to evangelical Christian churches. The Cults Committee stated it submitted VUSH’s request for financial support to the government. The VUSH, the Orthodox Church, and the AIC expressed appreciation for the State Committee on Cults’ engagement with them. The VUSH, however, also expressed concern that the government and some media outlets had shown indifference towards it in comparison with other faith communities.
The government continued the process of legalizing unofficial mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches, and tekkes (Bektashi centers of worship) built during the 1990s. The Agency for the Legalization, Urbanization, and Integration of Informal Construction (ALUIZNI) reported that from 2014 through September it legalized 330 religious buildings, including 104 Catholic churches, 153 mosques, and 47 tekkes. The Orthodox Church reported ALUIZNI approved only two full and two partial legalizations out of the Church’s 23 requests.
The ATP acknowledged the slow pace in adjudicating claims, attributing it to the large volume of files – 551 cases – under review. The ATP reported it rejected 17 claims during the year, which claimants may challenge in court. The law grants 10 years to execute a compensation order from the ATP – awarding the property in dispute, monetary compensation, or different property – from the date the order is finalized. In response to a Constitutional Court declaration that some provisions of the 2015 Law on Property were unconstitutional, the Council of Ministers issued two decisions during the year designed to break an impasse in reviewing claims. ALUIZNI reported that, between 2012 and 2018, it compensated the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, AIC, and Bektashi for land illegally occupied by builders.
The Orthodox Church reported the ATP had reviewed only 10 percent of the 890 properties for which the Church had submitted claims. The Church expressed its concern about delayed court proceedings and said the State Advocate, an institution in the Ministry of Justice that provides government institutions with legal counsel and representation, appealed the few court rulings that favored the Church.
Bektashi leaders reported construction continued on two places of worship in Gjirokaster, three in Permet, and one in Elbasan. The government reportedly legalized 31 tekkes during the year. The Bektashi community said it continued to have problems with the local registration offices in Gjirokaster regarding one property, noting the registration process was slow, bureaucratic, and vulnerable to corruption.
The Bektashi stated the State Advocate unfairly challenged title over the course of several years for numerous properties that the Bektashi said they obtained through a court ruling. The Bektashi community said it brought a complaint to the Ministry of Justice and Office of the Prime Minister, but had not received a response.
The AIC reported the unlawful expropriation of some of its land, citing corruption in the judiciary as the cause. For example, the AIC claims it owned land near the Trade Chamber building in Tirana but said it was transferred in a corrupt judicial holding to another entity. The other entity exchanged the land claimed by the AIC for two parking garages, further alienating title from the AIC.
VUSH members continued to report difficulties in acquiring land on which to construct places of worship due to local government tax assessments and regulations. They said they continued to rent existing buildings instead.
The VUSH reported it continued to have problems registering its property with the local registration office in Korca, and the registration office in Tirana did not provide one of the VUSH’s organizations with a foundation blue print. The VUSH filed a complaint challenging the Tirana refusal, but said the city had not responded by year’s end.
VUSH leaders stated the central government continued to exempt the organization from property taxes on its churches, but local authorities imposed fees they said were not taxes. The VUSH continued to dispute the municipalities’ position. The AIC paid the locally imposed fees for its entities located in Tirana.
Leaders of the five main religious groups expressed concern with a new, cross-thematic curriculum for teaching religion as part of the humanities curriculum for sixth and 10th grade students. They stated they were concerned because they did not participate in the drafting, and the teachers slated to provide the instruction did not have training in theology.
As of year’s end, the Council of Ministers had not adopted regulations to implement a 2017 law providing additional protection for minority rights, including freedom of religion.
A State Committee on Cults census of religious organizations conducted during the year counted 611 groups, including 248 foundations, 323 religiously related NGOs, and 40 centers. The AIC has one foundation, while the Orthodox Church has three. The Catholic Church does have any associated NGOs, foundations, or centers, while the VUSH has 158.
In April Prime Minister Edi Rama warned in a speech that Russia was intent on radicalizing Muslims in the country and urged the European Union not “leave a space for other countries to fill.” (The country is seeking EU accession.) He criticized European politicians for stirring anti-Muslim sentiment.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On October 11, the Interreligious Council, established as a forum for leaders of the Catholic, Sunni Muslim, Orthodox, and Bektashi communities to discuss shared concerns, held its first meeting of the year. It inducted the VUSH into the Council as its fifth member, named Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos (head of the Orthodox Church) as the council’s chairperson, and addressed various administrative matters.
In July the Orthodox Academy in Shen Vlash-Durres became part of Logos University, a private institution funded by the Orthodox Church.
In May an international conference on interfaith dialogue in Tirana discussed topics that included interreligious harmony as a factor of social stability and policies for managing religious diversity.
On October 25, the Polish government presented an award to the Interreligious Council for its efforts to encourage and preserve interfaith harmony.
Several religious authorities expressed concern about foreign influence and interference in religious organizations.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with the State Committee on Cults and the ATP, embassy officers continued to urge the government to accelerate its handling of religious property claims and to restore to religious groups their property confiscated during the communist era. The embassy sponsored the participation of the commissioner on cults in an exchange program in the United States on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom. The embassy also hosted a U.S. specialist who, during a three-week visit, met with members of religious communities and helped the Ministry of Education develop a national policy on, and draft the outline of a manual for, teaching about religion in public and private schools.
Embassy officials promoted religious tolerance in meetings with the Sunni Muslim, Bektashi, Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant communities, and in visits to churches, mosques, and other religious sites. The Ambassador hosted an iftar for Muslim youth from Tirana’s Lanabregas neighborhood to encourage the integration of and tolerance for the recently established Roma community; the Ambassador stressed the value of religious dialogue and tolerance during the event.
The embassy continued its youth education programs and work with religious communities to decrease the potential appeal of violent religious extremism. As part of these programs, students at Islamic, Catholic, and Orthodox religious schools and students from public schools planned and carried out projects highlighting religious diversity and tolerance, focusing on youth activism and common civic values. Other embassy-sponsored programs in Cerrik and Peqin helped establish “schools as community centers,” which promoted tolerance through partnerships with local schools, regional education directorates, municipalities, and law enforcement. The Ambassador met with students from Catholic, Orthodox, and Muslim higher education institutions at Beder University and discussed advancing interfaith dialogue among youth. The embassy continued to sponsor seminars with key religious figures and leaders in government and academia focused on the compatibility of religious faith and democracy.
Area Administered by Turkish Cypriots
Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. The northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts. This report is divided into two parts: the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).
IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS (BELOW)
The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” refers to the “state” as secular and provides for freedom of religious faith and worship consistent with public order and morals. It prohibits forced participation in worship and religious services and stipulates religious education may be conducted only under “state” supervision. The “constitution” grants the Islamic Vakf the exclusive right to regulate its internal affairs. The “government” began allowing mosques to teach summer religious education classes without its prior approval and said it would allow secondary school students to opt out of Sunni Islam classes. There were reports of detention of persons with alleged ties to the so-called “Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization (FETO).” Authorities improved access to Greek Orthodox religious sites. The “Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA)” said it approved 118 of 153 total requests to hold religious services during the year. Greek Orthodox, Maronite, and Turkish-Speaking Protestant Association (TSPA) representatives continued to report police surveillance of their activities.
The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths experienced societal criticism. The TCCH reported it completed restoration of 10 religious sites. Religious leaders such as Mufti of Cyprus Atalay and Archbishop of the Church of Cyprus Chrysostomos met throughout the year and arranged visits to places of worship across the “green line.” The RTCYPP published a letter with statements from Mufti Atalay and Greek Orthodox Bishop of Neapolis Porfyrios calling on Turkish Cypriot authorities to return icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle to the Greek Orthodox community.
In March the U.S. Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay, who was also head of the “Religious Affairs Department,” to discuss interfaith dialogue and access to religious sites. U.S. embassy officials met with representatives at the “presidency” and “MFA” to discuss unrestricted access to religious sites. In November the Ambassador attended a Maronite celebration at St. George Church in Kormakitis/Korucam. Embassy officials continued to meet with leaders from Sunni and Alevi Muslim, Armenian and Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Roman Catholic, and Protestant communities to discuss freedom of worship, access to religious sites, and instances of religious-based discrimination.
Section I. Religious Demography
According to 2011 census information from the Turkish Cypriot authorities, which was the most recent data available, the population of the area administered by Turkish Cypriots is 286,000. The census contains no data on religious affiliation. Sociologists estimate as much as 97 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, of whom 500 are members of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. According to the Alevi Culture Association, an estimated 10,000 immigrants of Turkish, Kurdish, and Arab origin and their descendants are Alevi Muslims. The TSPA estimates there are 1,000 Turkish-speaking Protestants. The government of the Republic of Cyprus estimated 320 members of the Church of Cyprus and 73 Maronite Catholics resided in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. According to sociologists, other groups include Russian Orthodox, Anglicans, Baha’is, Jews, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to “Ministry of Education (MOE)” statistics for the 2016-17 academic year, there were slightly more than 90,000 foreign students enrolled at universities in the area administered by the Turkish Cypriots. Of these, 61 percent were Muslim Turks, and the rest were predominantly Christians and Muslims from more than 140 different countries.
Section II. Status of "Government" Respect for Religious Freedom
The Turkish Cypriot “constitution” states the territory is a “secular republic” and provides for freedom of conscience and religious faith and unrestricted worship and religious ceremonies, provided they do not contravene public order or morals. It prohibits forced prayer, forced attendance at religious services, condemnation based on religious beliefs, and compelling individuals to disclose their religious beliefs. It stipulates religious education may only be conducted under “state” supervision. In November 2017, “parliament” amended the “law” to allow summer religious knowledge courses to be taught in mosques without “MOE” approval. The “law” does not recognize any specific religion, and individuals cannot “exploit or abuse” religion to establish, even partially, a “state” based on religious precepts or for political or personal gain. The Vakf has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with Vakf laws and principles. Although the “constitution” states the Vakf shall be exempt from all taxation, its commercial operations are subject to applicable taxes. According to the “constitution,” the Turkish Cypriot authorities shall help the Vakf in the execution of Islamic religious services and in meeting the expenses of such services. No other religious organization is tax exempt or receives subsidies from Turkish Cypriot authorities.
The 1975 Vienna III Agreement covers the treatment of Greek Cypriots and Maronite Catholics living in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots and the treatment of Turkish Cypriots living in the government-controlled area. Among other provisions, the agreement provides for facilities for religious worship for Greek Cypriots, stating they are free to stay and “will be given every help to lead a normal life, including facilities for education and for the practice of their religion.”
Turkish Cypriot “regulations” stipulate Greek Orthodox residents may conduct liturgies or masses led by two priests designated by the Orthodox Church at three designated functional churches in the Karpas Peninsula Maronite residents may hold liturgies or masses led by Maronite-designated clergy without seeking permission at three designated functional Maronite churches: Agios Georgios Church in Kormakitis/Korucam, Timios Stavros Church in Karpasia/Karpasa, and Panagia Church in Kampyli/Hisarkoy. A Maronite representative, however, said Turkish Cypriot authorities allowed services at Panagia Church without prior permission only on August 15.
Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox worshippers must submit applications to the authorities for permission to hold religious services at churches or monasteries other than these six designated churches. For the authorities to consider an application the date should be of significance to that religious group; the church or monastery must be structurally sound; it must not be located in a military zone; and it must not have a dual use, for example, as a museum. Permission is also necessary for priests other than those officially predesignated to conduct services. Specific permission is required for Cypriots who do not reside in the Turkish Cypriot-administered area, such as members of the Greek Orthodox, Maronite Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox Churches, to participate. UNFICYP coordinates these applications, which religious groups must submit 10 days before the date of the requested service.
The “Religious Affairs Department” represents Islam in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. Whereas the Vakf manages Muslim-donated land as an endowment for charitable purposes, the “Religious Affairs Department” oversees how imams conduct prayers and deliver sermons in mosques.
Religious groups are not required to register with authorities as associations in order to assemble or worship, but only associations registered with the “Ministry of Interior (MOI)” have the right to engage in commercial activity and maintain bank accounts. Religious groups and nonreligious groups have the same registration process and are required to submit the founders’ names and photocopies of their identification cards to the “MOI,” along with a copy of the association’s rules and regulations. Associations do not receive tax-exempt status or any “government” benefits or subsidies. Religious groups are not permitted to register as associations if the stated purpose of the association is to provide religious education to their members.
There is mandatory religious instruction in grades four through eight in all schools, public and private. These classes focus primarily on Sunni Islam but also include sessions on comparative religion. The “MOE” chooses the curriculum, which is based on a textbook commissioned by the Ministry of Education in Turkey. In September the “MOE” announced it would allow students to opt out of mandatory religion courses in grades six through eight, in response to a 2017 report by the “ombudsman.” At the high school level, religion classes are optional.
There are no provisions or “laws” allowing conscientious objection to mandatory military service, which requires a 12-15-month initial service period and one-day annual reserve duty.
There were reports of detention of persons with alleged ties to “FETO” and the deportation to Turkey of Turkish citizens purportedly affiliated with “FETO.”
Authorities granted improved access to Greek Orthodox places of worship compared to the previous year. Contrary to reports in earlier years, Apostolos Andreas, St. Barnabas, and St. Mamas Churches required advanced notification to conduct religious services. The three churches, however, were open for prayers throughout the year, as they had been in previous years. During the year services took place for the first time since 1974 at 10 Greek Orthodox churches, according to the “MFA.”
UNFICYP reported the “MFA” approved 90 of 123 requests it received to facilitate religious services at churches in the northern part of the island during the year, compared with 67 approvals of 112 requests in 2017. The “MFA” reported it approved 118 of 153 total requests (including both UNFICYP-facilitated requests and requests submitted directly to the “MFA”) to hold religious services during the year, compared with 83 approvals of 133 requests in 2017. A Greek Orthodox Church representative said Turkish Cypriot authorities typically denied access requests without explanation. Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox representatives said the “MFA” frequently approved applications with insufficient time before the dates of requested religious services, resulting in cancellations. A Greek Orthodox representative stated 63 religious sites remained inaccessible due to being located within Turkish military zones or the buffer zone.
Heavy police escorts continued to accompany visiting Greek Orthodox and Maronite worshippers. Turkish Cypriot authorities said the escorts were to provide security; Greek Orthodox and Maronite officials expressed concern they also surveilled worshippers.
In April after a two-year restriction, Turkish Cypriot authorities allowed Greek Orthodox Church members to hold Good Friday church services at St. George Church in Famagusta.
In June Greek Cypriots received permission to hold a two-day religious ceremony at St. Barnabas Monastery. Local press reported large crowds at the Mass and extensive security measures around the monastery, which a Greek Orthodox official said ensured the service took place without incident.
According to a representative of the Maronite community, the Turkish military increased restrictions on access to Maronite churches located within Turkish military zones. Maronite representatives reported that, since January, they had been required to submit a list of persons planning to attend Sunday services by the preceding Tuesday, and the Turkish military had refused access to some members. Previously the Maronite community had not had to seek permission to hold Sunday services at the Maronite Church of Archangelos Michael in the village of Asomatos/Ozhan, which was located within a Turkish military zone. The Turkish military again allowed Maronites to celebrate Mass once a year in the Church of Ayia Marina and denied Maronites access to the Church of Marki near Kormakitis/Korucam.
Armenian Orthodox representatives said limitations on access imposed by Turkish Cypriot authorities prevented them from fully renovating and maintaining the Sourp Magar Monastery.
The TSPA again reported police visited the association on a monthly basis and that some of its members were afraid to attend religious services due to police monitoring; TSPA representatives visited homes where members held services instead. The TSPA reported police requested a list of attendees at a prayer service held with Greek Cypriot Protestants in the buffer zone. The TSPA reported it successfully opened an office in Famagusta after authorities prevented it from doing so the previous two years.
The Alevi Culture Association said the “government” provided six million Turkish lira ($1.14 million) to build a cemevi (house of worship) and Alevi cultural complex outside Nicosia. Construction began in August, and the association expected it to be completed by July 2019. The Alevi Culture Association continued to say it perceived favoritism in “state” funding toward the Sunni Muslim population through financing of mosque construction and administration.
In January a group of teachers at Hala Sultan Religious High School filed a complaint with the “MOE” stating vocational teachers from Turkey were putting religious pressure on students, including by encouraging students to attend prayers at the mosque and promoting religious camps in Turkey. The “MOE” assigned an inspector to investigate the claims, but a union representative said the “MOE” had not announced the findings of the investigation.
In June several parents objected to the “MOE director’s” decision not to sign Hala Sultan Religious High School student diplomas that included photos of students wearing headscarves in accordance with “MOE regulations.” According to a teachers’ union representative, the “MOE director” ultimately signed the diplomas and the teacher-parent association at Hala Sultan Religious High School subsequently held a second diploma ceremony for the affected students.
The “Religious Affairs Department” continued to appoint and fund imams at the 192 Sunni mosques in the northern part of the island.
A representative of the Church of Cyprus again stated some religious sites, to which Church officials had little or no access, were deteriorating. In August local press reported Ayia Pareskevi Church located in the open area of Maras/Varosha collapsed due to neglect.
Greek Orthodox religious groups continued to complain authorities placed religious items, including icons, in storage rooms or displayed them in museums, against the wishes of the communities to whom they were sacred. In October local press reported that Greek Orthodox icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle were deteriorating due to improper preservation.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The TCCH reported it had completed restoration of 10 religious sites and was restoring another two sites. The TCCH and the UN Development Program Partnership for the Future continued restoration work at the Greek Orthodox Apostolos Andreas Monastery in the Karpas Peninsula, a popular destination for pilgrims. After an initial delay in the technical designs, the tender for the second phase of the project, including the restoration of the small chapel, surrounding buildings, and environmental landscaping, closed in October and restoration was expected to begin in early 2019.
In October the TCCH visited the Kyrenia Castle and assessed the icons there were generally in good condition, but it announced it would seek funding to install a climate control system to better preserve them.
In October local press reported the Vakf helped clean a Greek Orthodox cemetery in Iskele/Trikomo. Press also reported the Iskele “Municipality” would establish another cemetery for non-Muslim residents in the region.
The TSPA continued to report societal discrimination toward Protestants, including denial of access to venues to hold religious events and verbal harassment. The TSPA said Turkish Cypriots who converted to other faiths, particularly Christianity, faced societal criticism. The TSPA reported its members received social pressure not to attend a November prayer service with Greek Cypriots in the buffer zone.
Muslim and Orthodox religious leaders continued to promote religious tolerance by meeting and arranging pilgrimages for their congregations to places of worship across the “green line,” such as Hala Sultan Tekke in the Republic of Cyprus and St. Barnabas in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. In October the RTCYPP published a letter with statements from the Mufti of Cyprus and the Greek Orthodox Bishop of Neapolis calling on Turkish Cypriot authorities to return icons stored in the Kyrenia Castle to the Greek Orthodox community.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In March the U.S. Ambassador met with Mufti of Cyprus Atalay to encourage interfaith dialogue and discuss access to religious sites on both sides of the island. U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet with Turkish Cypriot authorities at the “Presidency” and the “MFA” to discuss access to religious sites and the ability to hold religious services at sites without restrictions.
In November the Ambassador attended a celebration with the Maronite community at St. George Church in Kormakitis/Korucam. Embassy officials also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom, including access to sites of worship and instances of societal discrimination within the Turkish Cypriot community, with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Alevi Muslim, Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Protestant, and Sunni Muslim communities. For example, embassy officials frequently discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders concerns about the restrictions Turkish Cypriot authorities placed on church ceremonies conducted in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots.
IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS (ABOVE)
All references to place names within this report are for reference purposes only and are meant to convey meaning. They should not be interpreted as implying or indicating any political recognition or change in long-standing U.S. policy.
The constitution states that everyone has freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It recognizes the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) as the national church and preserver of national identity but also establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. According to media, in March police attempted to pressure a self-identified atheist youth to return to the AAC. On several occasions, Nikol Pashinyan, elected prime minister in May following nationwide protests, declared that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church matters. According to local observers, the new government suspended the process of adopting a new draft law on religious freedom of major concern to religious minorities. According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained a prominent member of the community in December 2017 and held him until July, when a court released him on bail. Some civil society and minority religious groups continued to state their concerns that the content of the History of the Armenian Church (HAC) courses taught in public schools discriminated against religious minorities and that the courses did not provide an opt-out mechanism. According to the Center for Religion and Law, an evangelical Protestant teacher in a public school in the village of Yelpin became a target of religious discrimination.
According to media analysts, following the April “velvet revolution,” individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the ousted government used religious issues to denounce the new government. Various private media outlets and social media users stated that minority religious groups, which they referred to as “sects,” had led the revolution and that these “sects” continued to exercise influence over the new government. According to local observers, these remarks led to a dramatic decrease in objective reporting on religious issues. Religious minorities said that what they characterized as a “nationalistic climate,” especially outside the capital, had caused their members to experience societal discrimination.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials met with AAC leaders to engage the AAC in supporting the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. In July the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of the AAC, religious and ethnic minorities, and civil society and sharing the previous Department of State report on international religious freedom. The embassy used Facebook and Twitter to send messages in support of religious tolerance. The Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with minority religious groups, including with evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is, to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.0 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 census, approximately 92 percent of the population identifies with the AAC. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics, Armenian Uniate (Mekhitarist) Catholics, Orthodox Christians, evangelical Christians, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, charismatic Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, members of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, pagans, Molokan Christians, Yezidis, Jews, Baha’is, Shia Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. According to an International Republican Institute poll released in October, 94 percent of the country’s population identify as Armenian Apostolic, 2 percent as Catholic, 3 percent other, and 1 percent none. According to members of the Jewish community, there are approximately 800 Jews in the country.
Yezidis are concentrated primarily in agricultural areas northwest of Yerevan around Mount Aragats, and Armenian Uniate Catholics live primarily in the north. Most Jews, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Orthodox Christians reside in Yerevan, along with a small community of Muslims. Most Muslims are Shia, including Iranians and temporary residents from the Middle East.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. This right includes the freedom to change one’s religion or beliefs and the freedom to manifest religion or belief in rituals of worship, such as preaching or church ceremonies, either alone or in community with others, in public or in private. The constitution allows restrictions on this right to protect state security, public order, health, and morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The constitution establishes separation of “religious organizations” and the state. It recognizes “the exclusive mission of the Armenian Apostolic Church as a national church in the spiritual life, development of the national culture, and preservation of the national identity of the people of Armenia.” The constitution prohibits the exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms to incite religious hatred. It allows conscientious objectors to military service to perform alternative civilian service.
The law prohibits, but does not define, “soul hunting,” a term describing both proselytism and forced conversion.
By law, a registered religious group may minister to the religious and spiritual needs of its faithful; perform religious liturgies, rites, and ceremonies; establish groups for religious instruction; engage in theological, religious, historical, and cultural studies; train members for the clergy or for scientific and pedagogical purposes; obtain and utilize objects and materials of religious significance; use media; establish ties with religious organizations in other countries; and engage in charity. The law does not require religious groups to register, but they must do so to conduct business in their own name (e.g., to own property, rent property, and establish bank accounts). The law does not stipulate rights accorded to unregistered groups.
To register as a legal entity, a religious community must present to the Office of the State Registrar an assessment from the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities stating its expert opinion whether the community complies with the requirements of the law that it be based on “historically recognized holy scripture.” It also must be “free from materialism and…[be] of a spiritual nature,” have at least 200 adult members, and follow a doctrine espoused by a member of the “international modern system” of religious communities. The law does not define “free from materialism” or state which religious communities are part of the “international modern system.” The law specifies that this list of registration requirements, to which the Division of Religious Affairs and National Minorities must attest, does not apply to a religious organization based on the faith of one of the groups recognized as national minorities. A religious community may appeal a decision by the Office of the State Registrar through the courts.
The criminal code prohibits “obstruction of the right to exercise freedom of religion” and prescribes punishment ranging from fines of up to 200,000 drams ($410) to detention for up to two months.
The Office of the Human Rights Defender (ombudsman) has a mandate to address violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of religion, committed by officials of the state and local governments.
The law prohibits a police employee and employees of the National Security Service, service for mandatory enforcement of court rulings, penitentiary service, or rescue service from being a member of a religious organization; however, the law does not define the meaning of “membership” in a religious organization. The law prohibits members of police, military, and National Security Service, as well as prosecutors, customs officials, diplomats, and other national, community, and civil servants, from using their official positions for the benefit of “religious associations” or from preaching in support of them. The law also prohibits police, prosecutors, and other state and civil servants from conducting other religious activities while performing official duties. While the law defines a “religious organization” as an association of citizens established for professing a common faith as well as for fulfilling other religious needs, it provides no definition for “religious associations.” A military service member may not establish a religious association. If a member of the military is a member of a religious association, the member does not have the right to preach to other service personnel during the military service.
The penitentiary code allows penal institutions to invite clergy members to conduct religious ceremonies and use religious objects and literature. Prisoners may request spiritual assistance from the religious group of their choice.
The law allows the AAC free access to, and the right to station representatives in, hospitals, orphanages, boarding schools, military units, and places of detention, while other religious groups may have representatives in these locations only with permission from the head of the institution. The law also stipulates the state will not interfere with the AAC’s exclusive right to preach freely and spread its beliefs throughout the entire territory of the country.
The law mandates public education be secular, and states “religious activity and preaching in public educational institutions is prohibited,” with the exception of cases provided for by law. While adding an HAC course in a public or private school is optional, once a school chooses to do so, the course is mandatory for all students in grades five to 11; there is no opt-out provision for students or their parents.
The AAC has the right to participate in the development of the syllabi and textbooks for the HAC course and to define the qualifications of their teachers. The Church may nominate candidates to teach the courses, although the teachers are state employees. The law grants the AAC the right to organize voluntary extracurricular religious instruction classes in state educational institutions. Other religious groups may provide religious instruction to their members in their own facilities, but not within the premises of state educational institutions.
The labor code prohibits employers from collecting and analyzing data on religious views of employees.
The law provides for two types of service for conscientious objectors as an alternative to compulsory, two-year military service: alternative (noncombat) military service for 30 months, or alternative labor service for 36 months. Evasion of alternative service is a criminal offense. Penalties range from two months’ detention to eight years’ imprisonment, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The criminal code prohibits incitement of religious hatred through violence, public statements, or the mass media and prescribes punishments ranging from fines of 200,000 to 500,000 drams ($410 to $1,030) to prison terms of between two and six years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On March 30, Epress.am, an independent online outlet focused on human rights reporting, reported that police officers from the town of Hrazdan attempted to pressure a youth who identified as atheist to “return” to the AAC. According to the report, unidentified police officers, under false pretenses, took the youth to the Children’s Support Center to meet with a psychologist, where he was held overnight.
Starting in June, the “New Armenia, New Patriarch” initiative group, comprising AAC self-identified secular activists and two former members of the AAC clergy, protested and demanded the resignation of Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians. On June 6, the group made a statement accusing Catholicos Karekin II of weakening the AAC and of “submitting the country to sects, homosexuals, atheists, and opportunists.” On July 14, protesters blocked the Catholicos’s vehicle at the Gndevank monastery complex in the Vayots Dzor Region and blocked him as he tried to walk away from the venue. Protesters insulted him in the presence of police. According to an AAC priest from the Vagharshapat Cathedral, in addition to pushing and pulling him, the protesters restricted the Catholicos’ freedom of movement and threatened to lock him in the monastery. On July 15, on Facebook Livestream, Prime Minister Pashinyan described these developments as an internal church matter into which the government should not interfere and urged the clergy to discuss and find a solution to those internal disagreements. He also emphasized the government’s role in upholding the law, stating he was not satisfied with police actions, which he had observed in videos of the incident. The prime minister stated he had tasked police to examine carefully the Vayots Dzor incident and assess whether the protesters’ actions were justified. According to the police press service, the police chief instructed officers to investigate the incident and assess police actions; however, according to the AAC representative in Echmiatsin, police dropped the case because they said there was no threat to the Catholicos’ life.
On July 6, the same group of activists broke into the AAC chancery in Echmiatsin, which includes the Catholicos’ residence and offices, and staged around-the-clock protests. According to an AAC priest, in response to the Church’s request for police assistance, police initially stated that churches and monasteries were public spaces and they could not remove the protesters. After three days, however, police removed them. The activists continued to hold occasional rallies in downtown Yerevan and threatened to track all of the Catholicos’ movements.
On May 8, the National Assembly elected as prime minister Nikol Pashinyan, who had led protests against former Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan that led to Sargsyan’s resignation on April 23. On several occasions, Pashinyan reiterated that state and church were separate and the government would not interfere in church affairs. The new government indefinitely halted the process of adoption of a package of laws called “Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations” initiated by the former government. According to religious freedom experts and many members of the religious community, the most recent version of the draft package, published in November 2017, sought to control religious organizations, including by banning religious expression under certain circumstances and banning foreign funding of religious organizations. The draft also included mandatory public reporting, with the possibility of suspending an organization for failure to report. Representatives of evangelical Protestant churches said government authorities could selectively apply such provisions to target “unwanted” minority religious groups.
According to representatives of the Baha’i community, authorities detained Edward Manasyan, a prominent member of the community, in December 2017 and held him until July on what members of the community said were religious grounds. In July the trial court judge released him on bail. His trial continued at year’s end. Local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights lawyers said they were concerned about the case, including the surveillance of members of the Baha’i community preceding Manasyan’s arrest.
In early September there were media reports that minority religious “sects” infiltrated a school in Yelpin village in Vayots Dzor Region, which caused a number of parents to refuse to send their children to the school. According to the Center for Religion and Law, after a group of four teachers filed a police report stating the school principal was involved in corruption, the latter started a smear campaign against the teachers, leading to local activists and council members accusing the teachers of being members of religious “sects.” Activists demanded the teachers’ dismissal, stating they could “indoctrinate” the students. Once it became clear that three of the four teachers were AAC followers and that the other teacher was a member of an evangelical Protestant church, the latter became the sole target of the protests, even though the activists admitted they had no proof she was preaching or proselytizing during school activities. Because of the boycott, the school cancelled all but one of the teacher’s classes, resulting in reduction of her pay. According to the Center for Religion and Law, which represented the teacher, the latter was subject to reprisal and discrimination because of her religion. The governor’s office stated it had taken measures to resolve the issue, explaining to the teachers of the school and the parents of the students that according to the constitution everyone enjoys freedom of conscience, religion, and belief. The governor’s office disciplined the school principal. According to the Center for Religion and Law, the evangelical Protestant teacher’s working conditions had not changed by year’s end.
The vast majority of public and private schools continued to teach HAC courses throughout the country in grades five through 11. According to official information, the HAC was taught in all public schools with no exceptions, although during the year there were anecdotal reports that at least one public school and two schools in Yezidi villages did not teach the course. During a parliamentary briefing on November 14, the new minister of education stated the HAC course needed serious revisions. According to the deputy minister, the reform would likely take approximately three years and would include a review of the HAC with a new focus on history of religions in compliance with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Toledo Guiding Principles on Teaching about Religions and Beliefs in Public Schools. In the interim, beginning with the 2019-20 academic year, national minorities could choose an alternative course to the HAC.
Yezidi community representatives again reported dissatisfaction with the mandatory HAC course, terming it “religious indoctrination.” While all Yezidi schools were able to remove the course from their curriculum, Yezidi children who attended mixed schools were obliged to take the course, regardless of parental objections.
Several non-AAC religious groups said they did not object to the inclusion of the HAC course in public schools, although some objected to the prayers and crossing that reportedly occurred during those classes and said they would like to see a more accurate portrayal of religious groups other than the AAC. The Ministry of Education stated that during the year it did not receive any complaints about the HAC course and that it had instructed HAC teachers to maintain the secular nature of the class and refrain from religious propaganda. NGOs, other religious organizations, atheists, and nonpracticing members of the AAC publicly voiced concerns about what they stated were elements of religious indoctrination contained in the HAC course, as well as material equating AAC affiliation with national identity. There were reports of AAC clergy teaching the course in some schools and requiring visits to AAC churches as part of the course, without providing opportunities for discussion of other faiths or for students to visit non-AAC religious sites. According to the government, during the 2018-19 academic year, six AAC clergy members taught the HAC course in four public and two private schools.
Human rights activists expressed their concern that religious elements were a consistent part of the public education process and were present even outside the AAC course.
Based on a Ministry of Education pilot program launched in 2012, school administrations had the option to include an additional course, entitled “History of the AAC/Christian Education,” in their curriculum for grades two through four. During the new school year, 74 schools followed this option.
According to the government, no religious groups other than the AAC requested to visit a military unit. The chaplaincy program, a joint Ministry of Defense-AAC initiative, continued to allow only AAC clergy to serve in the program.
According to the government, during the year, the AAC conducted visits, up to three times per week, to each of the 12 penitentiaries to engage in spiritual discussions with incarcerated followers and to hold services, baptisms and other religious events. Representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Armenian Evangelical Church visited some of the penitentiaries four, 16, and seven times, respectively, during the first nine months of the year.
Jehovah’s Witnesses said they continued to face difficulties in building places of worship because of interference by local officials throughout the country. At year’s end, three pending cases continued before the European Court of Human Rights regarding the prohibition by the Yerevan City Municipality on building places of worship on land owned by the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Seventh-day Adventists reported their dissatisfaction over some schools operating on Saturdays or school- or state-level examinations scheduled for Saturdays, a day of worship for the community. The group stated, however, that on an individual level their members were able to resolve the issue. The new government stopped the practice of designating AAC holidays as nonworking days, making the following or preceding Saturday a working day.
As of May 123 Jehovah’s Witnesses were working in the alternative civilian service program.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to media analysts, following the April “velvet revolution,” private individuals affiliated with or sympathetic to the ousted government used religious issues as a means to denounce the new government. According to media and religious freedom experts, those individuals used hybrid websites, controversial bloggers, local troll factories, fake Facebook groups, and false stories to propagate the idea that the revolution was carried out by minority religious groups or “sects,” (commonly considered any group other than the AAC). These individuals alleged those religious minority groups continued to influence the new government.
In September the Word of Life Church requested the National Security Service (NSS) to open a criminal case regarding a fake Facebook page that falsely presented itself as associated both with the Word of Life Church and the prime minister’s Civil Contract party. According to World of Life Church representatives, among other posts, the Facebook page posted a photograph of the senior pastor of the Word of Life Church and included an article with anti-Armenian and anti-AAC statements, causing a public uproar against the Church. Word of Life Church representatives said they believed an organized group, mostly likely a political adversary of the new government, was behind the fake Facebook page. On October 1, the NSS opened a criminal case on charges of incitement of religious hatred; at year’s end, the investigation continued and the Facebook page was still active.
Social media criticized several government officials because of their affiliation with minority religious groups. On one occasion, a member of the Word of Life Church, appointed to a position in the new government, said he resigned following public pressure.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, there were incidents of verbal abuse toward the group’s members while they were publicly manifesting their religious beliefs. In some cases, unknown individuals overturned and damaged the group’s literature display carts. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, police responded promptly and appropriately, and as a result, the number of incidents had decreased.
Construction continued on Quba Mere Diwane Temple, which media called the world’s largest Yezidi temple. Located in the small village of Aknalich, the Yezidi community said it would become the spiritual center for the country’s Yezidis.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue during meetings with government officials. Embassy officials and a visiting official from the Department of State Office of International Religious Freedom met with representatives of the Ministry of Justice in April to discuss concerns raised by religious minorities and human rights groups about restrictive provisions in the proposed package of legislation on religious freedom. Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministry of Education to discuss concerns about the HAC course and steps undertaken by the government to address those concerns.
The Ambassador regularly met with representatives of the government, political parties, social groups, and religious minorities to discuss problems of discrimination faced by religious minorities, foster a dialogue between the government and the religious groups, and explore cooperative solutions to those problems. In July the Ambassador hosted an event to foster interreligious dialogue, mutual respect, and cooperation, bringing together representatives of the AAC, religious and ethnic minorities, and civil society to discuss issues of concern and foster a dialogue between the groups and share the Department of State 2017 report on international religious freedom. In the meeting, the Ambassador emphasized the fundamental universal right for every person to have freedom of worship and the freedom to choose to believe or not believe.
The Ambassador met with leaders of the AAC and engaged them on the importance of supporting the right of religious minorities to practice their faiths without restrictions. Embassy officials attended conferences and discussions on nondiscrimination and religious tolerance regularly hosted by the Eurasian Partnership Foundation in its religious tolerance projects. They visited a Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian village, attending the celebration of the 190th anniversary of the establishment of the Assyrian community in the country. Embassy officials also visited the Yezidi Ferik village and held regular meetings with representatives of the AAC and religious and ethnic minorities, including evangelical Christians and other Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ, Yezidis, the Jewish community, Apostolic Assyrians, Pentecostals, and Baha’is. In these meetings, embassy officials and religious group representatives discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, including minority religious group concerns. They also met with civil society groups to discuss concerns about the HAC courses taught in public schools. Embassy officials monitored the trial of the Baha’i member facing prosecution on what the group stated were religious grounds.
Embassy officials met with a joint delegation of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights and European Union Venice Commission to discuss the concerns raised by some religious groups over the draft package of legislation on religious freedom.
The embassy used social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to send messages supporting religious diversity and tolerance and to highlight the January 11 annual International Religious Freedom Day and the release of the Department of State report on international religious freedom.
Historical and modern constitutional and legal documents provide for freedom of religious belief and affiliation and prohibit religious discrimination. The law bans public incitement to hostile acts against religious groups. The law divides recognized religious groups into three categories; 16 groups recognized as religious societies receive the most benefits. Unrecognized groups may practice their religion privately if the practice is lawful and does not offend “common decency.” The government continued to enforce a ban on face coverings. Scientologists and the Unification Church said government-funded organizations advised the public against associating with them. The government tightened controls on ritual slaughter. Muslim and Jewish groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concerns over anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic sentiment in the Freedom Party (FPOe), the junior partner in the coalition government. Authorities dropped an investigation of an FPOe politician on anti-Semitism charges because the statute of limitations had run; he resumed his position as party chair in Lower Austria. The government collaborated with the Muslim community to combat extremism and with a Jewish NGO on Holocaust awareness training for teachers.
The Islamic Faith Community (IGGIO) reported 540 anti-Muslim incidents, a 75 percent increase over the 309 incidents it recorded in 2017. It attributed the increase in part to its documentation center’s higher public profile. More than half of the incidents occurred online; others included verbal abuse and vandalism. Courts convicted individuals of anti-Islamic rhetoric and anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi activity, generally handing down fines or sentences, some of which they suspended.
Embassy representatives regularly engaged with officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Interior on religious freedom, concerns of religious groups, integration of religious minorities, and measures to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment and encourage interreligious dialogue. The Ambassador met with leaders from the IGGIO, Jewish Community (IKG), Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and Orthodox Churches to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue; the embassy met with the youth branches of religious organizations. Embassy officials served on the advisory board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency, which promoted Holocaust remembrance, spoke on religious freedom at public ceremonies, and supported programs to combat anti-Semitism and promote religious dialogue and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.8 million (July 2018 estimate). According to religious groups and December 2017 figures from the government Austrian Integration Fund, Roman Catholics constitute 58 percent of the population and Muslims – predominantly Sunni – 8 percent, while approximately 25 percent is unaffiliated with any religion. Religious groups constituting less than 5 percent each include the Lutheran Church; Swiss Reformed Church (Evangelical Church-Augsburg and Helvetic confessions); Eastern Orthodox Churches (Russian, Greek, Serbian, Romanian, and Bulgarian); Jehovah’s Witnesses; other Christian churches; and Jews and other non-Christian religious groups.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A combination of historical and modern constitutional documents guarantees freedom of “conscience and creed.” The law provides for freedom of religious belief and the rights of all residents to join, participate in, leave, or abstain from association with any religious community. It stipulates, “Duties incumbent on nationals may not be impeded by religious affiliation.”
Several constitutional provisions protect religious freedom. The main pillars are historical laws on fundamental rights and freedoms, including religious freedom, and treaties and conventions such as the European Convention on Human Rights, which form part of the constitution. Antidiscrimination legislation prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. Citizens have the right to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom.
The law prohibits public incitement to hostile acts against a church group, religious society, or other religious group if the incitement is perceivable by “many people,” which an official government commentary on the law and the courts interpret as 30 or more individuals. The prohibition also applies specifically in the case of incitement in print, electronic, or other media available to a broad public. The law also prohibits incitement, insult, or contempt against religious groups, if such action violates human dignity.
The law divides registered religious groups into three officially recognized legal categories (listed in descending order of rights and privileges): religious societies, religious confessional communities, and associations. Each category possesses specific rights, privileges, and legal responsibilities. Members of religious groups not legally recognized may practice their religion at home “insofar as this practice is neither unlawful nor offends common decency.”
There are 16 recognized religious societies: the Roman Catholic Church; Protestant churches – specifically Lutheran and Presbyterian, called “Augsburg” and “Helvetic” confessions; the IGGIO; Old Catholic Church; IKG; Eastern Orthodox Church (Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, and Serbian); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; New Apostolic Church; Syrian Orthodox Church; Coptic Orthodox Church; Armenian Apostolic Church; Methodist Church of Austria; the Buddhist Community; Jehovah’s Witnesses; Alevi Community in Austria; and Free Christian Churches.
The law grants registered religious societies the right to public practice and independent administration of their internal affairs, to participate in the program requiring mandatory church contributions by church members, and to bring religious workers into the country to act as ministers, missionaries, or teachers. Under the law, religious societies have “public corporation” status, permitting them to engage in a number of public or quasi-public activities, such as government-funded religious instruction in both public and private schools, which the government denies to confessional communities and associations. The government grants all recognized religious societies tax relief in two main ways: donations are not taxable, and the societies receive exemption from property tax for all buildings dedicated to the active practice of religion or administration of such. Additionally, religious societies are exempt from the surveillance charge, payable when state security is required, and the administrative fee levied at the municipal level. Responsibilities of religious societies include a commitment to sponsor social and cultural activities that serve the common good and to ensure their teachings do not violate the law or ethical standards.
Religious groups seeking to achieve religious society status for the first time must apply for recognition with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. Religious groups recognized as societies prior to 1998 retained their status. The government grandfathered in 14 of the 16 recognized religious societies under this provision of the law. To gain recognition as a religious society, religious groups not recognized prior to 1998 must have membership equaling 0.2 percent of the country’s population (approximately 17,400 persons) and existed for 20 years, at least 10 of which must have been as an association and five as a confessional community. The government recognizes Jehovah’s Witnesses and Alevi Muslims as religious societies under these post-1998 criteria. Groups that do not meet these criteria may still apply for religious society status under an exception for groups that have been active internationally for at least 100 years and active as an association in the country for 10 years. Groups sharing a broad faith with an existing society or confessional community, for example Christianity, may register separately as long as they can demonstrate that they have a different theology.
The law allows religious groups not recognized as societies to seek official status as confessional communities with the Office for Religious Affairs in the Federal Chancellery. The government recognizes nine confessional communities: the Baha’i Faith; Movement for Religious Renewal-Community of Christians; Pentecostal Community of God; Seventh-day Adventists; Hindu Community; Islamic-Shiite Community; Old-Alevi Community in Austria; Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church); and United Pentecostal Community of Austria. The government recognized the latter as a confessional community on April 17.
A recognized confessional community has the juridical standing needed to engage in such activities as purchasing real estate in its own name and contracting for goods and services, but it is not eligible for the financial and educational benefits available to recognized religious societies. Contributions to confessional communities’ charitable activities are tax deductible for those who make them, but the communities are not exempt from property taxes.
To gain government recognition as a confessional community, a group must have at least 300 members and submit to the Office for Religious Affairs its statutes describing the goals, rights, and obligations of members, as well as membership regulations, a list of officials, and financing information. A group must also submit a written description of its religious doctrine, which must differ from that of any previously recognized religious society or religious confessional community. The Office for Religious Affairs determines whether the group’s basic beliefs are consistent with public security, order, health, and morals, and with the rights and freedoms of citizens. A religious group seeking to obtain confessional community status is subject to a six-month waiting period from the time of application to the chancellery. After this period, groups that have applied automatically receive the status unless the government issues a decree rejecting the application.
Religious groups not qualifying for either religious society or confessional community status may apply to become legal associations, a status applicable to a broad range of civil groups. Some groups organize as associations while waiting for the government to recognize them as confessional communities.
The Church of Scientology and a number of smaller religious groups, such as Sahaja Yoga and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, have association status.
Religious groups registered as associations have the right to function in public, but they may not provide religious instruction in schools or pastoral care in hospitals or prisons.
According to the law, any group of more than two persons pursuing a nonprofit goal qualifies to organize as an association. Groups may apply to the Ministry of Interior to gain such status. To become an association, a group must submit a written statement citing its common, nonprofit goal and commitment to function as a nonprofit organization. Associations have juridical standing and many of the same rights as confessional communities, including the right to own real estate and to contract for goods and services. Unlike confessional communities, associations may not offer pastoral care in hospitals or prisons or receive tax-deductible contributions.
The law governing relations between the government and the IGGIO and Alevi Muslim groups stipulates that funding for the day-to-day operations of mosques must be derived from domestic sources, Islamic teachings and practices must not violate federal law, and Islamic institutions should “take a positive stance” toward the state and society. The law provides an explicit legal definition of, and legal protection for, Islamic practices, such as circumcision and preparation of food in conformity with religious rules, and states Muslims may raise children and youth in accordance with Islamic traditions. Muslim groups with at least 300 members and a theology not distinct from a pre-existing Islamic religious society or confessional community are considered cultural communities and fall under the umbrella of the pre-existing, legally recognized Islamic religious society or confessional community. This includes the IGGIO and the Alevi Community in Austria, which are both religious societies, or the Islamic-Shiite Community and the Old-Alevi Faith Community in Austria, both of which have confessional community status. The law allows for Islamic theological university studies, which the University of Vienna offers.
Separate laws govern relations between the government and each of the other 14 state-recognized religious societies. The laws have similar intent but vary in some details, given they were enacted at different times over a span of approximately 140 years.
The law bans full-face coverings in public places as a “violation of Austrian values,” with exceptions made only for artistic, cultural, or traditional events, in sports, or for health or professional reasons. Failure to comply with the law is an administrative violation. The law prescribes a 150-euro ($170) fine but does not entitle police to remove the face covering.
The government funds, on a proportional basis, religious instruction for any of the 16 officially recognized religious societies by clergy or instructors provided by those groups for children in public schools and government-accredited private schools. The government does not offer such funding to other religious groups. A minimum of three children is required to form a class. Attendance in religion classes is mandatory for all students unless they formally withdraw at the beginning of the school year; students under the age of 14 require parental permission to withdraw from religion classes. The government funds the instruction, and religious groups provide the instructors. Religious instruction takes place either in the school or at sites organized by religious groups. Some schools offer ethics classes for students not attending religious instruction. Religious education and ethics classes include the tenets of different religious groups as comparative religious education.
The curriculum for both public and private schools includes compulsory antibias and tolerance education, including religious tolerance, as part of civics education across various subjects, including history and German-language instruction.
Holocaust education is part of history instruction and appears in other subjects such as civics.
The Equal Rights Agency, an independent agency falling under the jurisdiction of the women’s ministry, oversees discrimination cases on various grounds, including religion. The agency provides legal counseling and mediation services, and it assists with bringing cases before the Equal Treatment Commission, another independent government agency. In cases where it finds discrimination, the commission makes a recommendation for corrective action. In a case of noncompliance with the recommendation, the case goes to court. The commission may issue expert reports for plaintiffs to present before the court. Only a court may order corrective action and compensation.
The law bans neo-Nazi activity and prohibits public denial, belittlement, approval, or justification “of the National Socialist genocide” or other Nazi crimes against humanity in print, broadcast, or other media.
Foreign religious workers of groups recognized as confessional communities or associations must apply for a general immigrant visa that is not employment or family based, and is subject to a quota. The government requires a visa for visitors from non-visa waiver countries or individuals who would stay beyond 90 days, including religious workers of confessional communities or associations. Foreign religious workers belonging to religious societies do not require visas for either shorter visits or stays beyond 90 days. Religious workers from Schengen or European Union-member countries are exempt from all visa requirements.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the 2018 report on the country by the international NGO Freedom House, many minority religious groups stated the legal division of religious groups into three categories impeded their claims for recognition and “demoted them to second- or third-class status.”
On November 20, parliament enacted a law providing for financial support for the costs of preschools to the provinces, which included an obligation for provincial governments to ban headscarves for children in preschools.
The government continued to implement the ban on the wearing of full-face coverings in public that went into effect in October 2017. According to data from the interior ministry, authorities filed charges in 96 cases during the year: 62 in Vienna, 11 in Lower Austria, eight in Upper Austria, five in Styria, four in Tyrol, three in Salzburg and one each in Carinthia, Vorarlberg, and Burgenland. Because authorities did not file charges when persons paid fines immediately, there were an unspecified number of additional cases in which police enforced the law. A woman fined in October 2017 for covering her face while bicycling told the press she would appeal to the Administrative Court; however, by year’s end, there were no official reports of legal challenges to the ban.
Citing the ban on face coverings as well as the prohibition on foreign funding of mosques, the 2018 Freedom House report lowered its rating of the country from four to three on a scale of four in the category of freedom to practice and express religious faith or nonbelief.
In October the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) rejected a plea by a woman challenging her 2011 conviction by a Vienna court, later upheld on appeal, for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad in 2009. The ECHR found that insulting the Prophet Muhammad “goes beyond the permissible limits of an objective debate” and “could stir up prejudice and put at risk religious peace.” The ECHR stated the Austrian courts had “carefully balanced her right to freedom of expression with the right of others to have their religious feelings protected.”
The government continued to deny funding for pastoral care the IGGIO provided to Muslims in prison. Only the Roman Catholic Church received government funding for pastoral care in prisons pursuant to the law covering relations between the government and the Catholic Church.
On November 22, the government coalition parties introduced a bill stipulating a ban of headscarves for children, 10 and under, in elementary schools. The bill was referred for discussion to the parliamentary education committee and at year’s end was still pending debate. The IGGIO called the proposed ban a “symbolic” and “diversionary tactic” that would open the door to a general ban on headscarves in public.
Some Scientologists and representatives of the Unification Church continued to state the Federal Office of Sect Issues and other government-associated entities fostered societal discrimination against religious groups not registered as religious societies or confessional communities. The office offered advice to persons with questions about groups that it considered “sects” and “cults,” including the Scientologists and members of the Unification Church. The office was nominally independent but government-funded, and the minister for women, family and youth both appointed and oversaw its head.
A counseling center in Vienna managed by the Society Against Sect and Cult Dangers, an NGO that described itself as an organization working against harm caused by “destructive cults” such as Scientology, continued to distribute information to schools and the general public and provide counseling for former members of such groups. According to the website of the society’s founder, Friedrich Griess, the society received funding from the government of Lower Austria. The society reportedly also received support from the city of Vienna. Several other provinces funded family and youth counseling offices that provided information on “sects and cults,” which members of some minority religious groups, such as Scientologists or the Unification Church, stated were negatively biased.
In June the government completed an investigation of several mosques of the Arab Cultural Community over allegations the mosques preached extremist teachings and concluded the allegations were unfounded. Mosques of the Arab Cultural Community had been operating outside the auspices of the IGGIO, despite a 2015 law requiring they incorporate under the IGGIO as an umbrella organization. The government allowed the mosques to continue operations under the IGGIO.
In July the governor of Lower Austria rejected proposals by the provincial councilor for animal protection to reduce kosher and halal slaughtering in the province to an “as-needed” basis. The councilor had sought a list of the Jews and Muslims in the province to determine the amount of halal and kosher meat required to meet demand. The Jewish and Islamic communities had previously voiced concerns about the proposal and said they would not provide any lists of their members. The governor stressed that the government would not require any registrations of persons intending to buy kosher or halal meat.
In August FPOe deputy party leader Johann Gudenus announced the government would draft a law specifically targeting “political Islam” as an illegal political activity and an “abuse of religion.”
Also in August, a decree by the Ministry of Social Affairs provided for stricter controls against illegal ritual slaughtering. The decree included stricter monitoring of farmers who sold sheep to private persons, a practice which primarily affected Muslims. Muslim groups stated the existing provisions to prevent illegal slaughter were sufficient, and criticized the decree as a populist measure.
The government continued to apply a policy of banning headwear in official identification documents, with an exception for religious purposes as long as the face was sufficiently visible to allow for identification of the wearer.
On December 11, parliament adopted an amendment to existing law banning certain symbols, including the symbols of ISIS and al-Qaida-affiliated groups. The amendment, scheduled to enter into force in March 2019, expanded the ban to include symbols of other groups the government considered extremist, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said the law was a clear sign of the country’s zero tolerance policy towards extremist groups, including those professing religious extremism.
The international NGO Anti-Defamation League conducted teacher-training seminars on Holocaust awareness with Austrian schools, reaching approximately 100 teachers. In addition, provincial school councils and the education ministry invited Holocaust survivors to talk to school classes about National Socialism and the Holocaust.
The counseling office for extremism prevention of the Ministry of Women, Family and Youth cooperated with the IGGIO to conduct training courses for imams on community work and prevention of extremism, including promoting religious tolerance.
Education Minister Heinz Fassmann, as well as Catholic, Lutheran, and Jewish representatives, attended an IGGIO-hosted iftar in May to express support for the Muslim community.
In February Lower Austrian FPOe politician Udo Landbauer resigned as his party’s top candidate in the Lower Austrian elections and from all party functions following revelations of anti-Semitic lyrics mocking the Holocaust in a 1997 songbook of the fraternity Germania zu Wiener Neustadt, of which Landbauer was chairman. He remained a candidate, but lower down on the party’s list. In November Landbauer returned to the Lower Austrian FPOe as its acting chairman and acting floor leader in the provincial legislature. The Viennese weekly Falter reported that Herwig Gotschober, FPOe District Councilor in Vienna-Leopoldstadt and press officer to Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, was chairman of another fraternity, Bruna Sudetia, that also used a songbook containing anti-Semitic lyrics. Following public controversy over the Germania zu Wiener Neustadt songbook, the FPOe formed a commission of historians in 2017 to examine the party’s history and its past connections to National Socialism, including an analysis of its past party platforms. The party said the commission would include experts from Israel and the United States. At year’s end the party had not released any details on the composition of the commission or its work.
Jewish and Muslim community members and NGOs expressed concern over the participation of the FPOe in the coalition government with the People’s Party (OeVP). For example, IKG Vienna President Oskar Deutsch continued to describe the FPOe as an anti-Semitic party and expressed concern about its attempts to appeal to Jewish voters by rebranding itself as anti-Muslim. In a November FPOe Facebook video on the introduction of photos on social security identification cards, the party alluded to Muslims abusing social services by portraying the persons on the card as “Ali” and “Mustafa,” wearing a fez and displaying a mustache. Vice Chancellor and FPOe Chairman Strache publicly distanced the party from the video, saying it was “exaggerated,” “provocative,” and “unnecessary.” He said the charge that foreigners were primarily responsible for abusing social services was overblown. At the annual ceremony commemorating the liberation of the concentration camp Mauthausen in May, Deutsch referred to charges of 23 anti-Semitic or neo-Nazi incidents among FPOe rank and file since the party became a junior partner in the coalition government in December 2017. In January the FPOe ran a campaign with posters entitled “Muhammad – Rank 3 of Baby Names in Vienna – Any More Questions?” The NGO Mauthausen Committee, a group commemorating victims of Nazi concentration camps, concluded FPOe’s campaign represented anti-Muslim racism, since it engendered fear of Muslims.
In December 2017, the coalition government announced a program, “Together. For our Austria,” that pledged to engage, including internationally, to prevent the persecution of religious minorities and combat ideological and religious extremism. The program included a suggestion to include new provisions in the criminal statute to combat violence motivated by religious fundamentalism. It reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom, while also highlighting what it described as the need to combat “political Islam” and the dangers of radicalization, anti-Semitism, violence, and terrorism. It defined political Islam as an ideological rejection of the country’s modern constitutional state that sought the Islamization of political and social life. Specific proposals to prevent radicalization include limiting foreign financing of religious organizations, monitoring and potentially closing private Islamic schools not complying with legal requirements, and entrusting law enforcement with the authority to close places of worship that supported terrorism.
In June the Mauthausen Committee published a report linking the FPOe with right-wing extremism. The report stated extremist activities of FPOe politicians had increased, citing 68 incidents occurring in the four and a half years before the 2017 parliamentary elections, compared with 38 incidents in the six months after those elections. According to the report, of the 38 cases, 14 were connected with anti-Semitism and eight involved FPOe leaders or members of the federal government.
For example, in March the FPOe Party Chairman of Imst District, Wolfgang Neururer, sent images of Adolf Hitler to FPOe members on social media, with one of the pictures captioned, “Adolf, please show up! Germany needs you!” The public prosecutor in Innsbruck was investigating Neururer and another FPOe Party official in Imst. In January the FPOe appointed Heinrich Sickl to the Graz municipal council. Sickl, according to the Mauthausen report, was co-editor of Aula, a publication that disseminated anti-Semitic content. The report added that two other FPOe politicians, Members of Parliament Axel Kassegger and Wendelin Molzer, held leadership positions in Aula. In response, on June 8, Sickl, who was also head of the FPOe’s Styrian association of university graduates, announced Aula would cease publication as of June. Following the closure of Aula, the party’s Styrian chapter founded a new publication called “Freilich” under Sickl’s leadership and released its first issue in December.
During the year, according to the Mauthausen report, FPOe District Councilor in Vienna-Leopoldstadt and diplomat, Jurgen-Michael Kleppich, was recalled from the Austrian Embassy in Israel after he posted a picture on social media of his grandfather in a Nazi uniform. According to the report, Robert Kiesinger, a consultant at the FPOe educational institute, posted a cover page of a Nazi calendar from 1943 as his Easter greeting on social media. The calendar showed a “life rune,” a banned Nazi symbol.
The police continued to provide extra protection to the Vienna Jewish community’s offices and other Jewish community institutions such as schools and museums. Law enforcement authorities stated the government provided the protection due to general concerns over the potential for anti-Semitic acts against Jewish institutions.
In November Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hosted a high-level conference on “Europe beyond Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism – Securing Jewish Life in Europe” in Vienna. The event brought together leaders from Europe and the Jewish community on both sides of the Atlantic and focused on concrete measures to combat anti-Semitism, including providing better physical security for Jewish communities, and reinforcing legislation and improving education to combat anti-Semitism.
On November 19, Interior Minister Kickl hosted a conference in the context of Austria’s EU Council presidency on values, rule of law, and security in response to anti-Semitic threats. Kickl warned against “the new intensity of anti-Semitic threats in Europe … triggered by political Islam,” and pledged to expand protection of Jewish facilities in the country.
In December, at the conclusion of the country’s EU Council presidency, the council adopted a declaration on the fight against anti-Semitism and the development of a common security approach to protect Jewish communities and institutions. The declaration included calls on member states to adopt a “holistic strategy” to fight all forms of anti-Semitism; endorse the working definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance; take measures against hate crimes and incitement to hatred and violence against Jews; emphasize Holocaust education for all; introduce training about intolerance and anti-Semitic prejudice in schools and vocational and integration programs; and increase efforts to ensure the security of Jewish persons and institutions. Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev thanked Chancellor Kurz for his “personal efforts” leading to the adoption of the declaration.
On a June trip to Israel, Chancellor Kurz said, “We Austrians know that in light of our own history, we have a special responsibility toward Israel and the Jewish people. I can assure you that Austria will fight all forms of anti-Semitism in Europe with determination, be it the still-existing one or also new imported anti-Semitism.” Kurz also called for Holocaust education and spoke against anti-Semitism at a press conference in Berlin in March with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In February Education Minister Heinz Fassmann (OevP) stressed the country’s commitment to pursue a policy of zero tolerance toward anti-Semitism at the “An End to Antisemitism!” conference in Vienna. The European Jewish Congress organized the conference, held at the University of Vienna, in collaboration with the University of Tel Aviv and New York University.
On January 8, Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl (FPOe) spoke to the newspaper Kurier and expressed concern over what she said was rising Islamist-based anti-Semitism in Europe, pledging to work against it.
FPOe Party Chairman Vice-Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache repeatedly called for zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or the glorification of Nazism. For example, he issued a statement on November 9, commemorating the 80th anniversary of the 1938 Kristallnacht Nazi pogroms against Jews. He called for zero tolerance again in a Facebook message on the eve of the right-wing “Akademikerball” party in February. In a speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Austria in November, Strache termed the National Socialist era as the “darkest chapter in Austria’s history,” which had resulted in terrible suffering of human beings, and warned that everything must be done to prevent a reoccurrence.
In March President Alexander Van der Bellen gave a speech during the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the Nazi German annexation of the country. Van der Bellen said Austrians “were not only victims, but also perpetrators, often in leading positions” during German occupation. He added, “The German Wehrmacht came overnight. But the contempt for human rights and democracy did not come overnight,” and that support for Nazism and anti-Semitism in the country existed before 1938. At the same event, Chancellor Kurz said, “We must never forget this dark chapter of our history” and pledged the government would create a new memorial commemorating more than 65,000 Austrian Jews killed during the Holocaust. In an October visit to the historic Waehring Jewish cemetery in Vienna’s 18th district, Kurz said the government would provide support to restore the cemetery. The cemetery was closed at the end of the 19th century and partly destroyed during the National Socialist era.
The government continued to refuse residence permits for foreign imams financed by foreign sources.
In October, referring to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian Consulate General in Istanbul, the three opposition parties, the Social Democrats, NEOS, and List Pilz/Jetzt, questioned the legitimacy of the Vienna-based King Abdullah International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue (KAICIID). They criticized what they described as the deterioration of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia over the previous two years. Liste Pilz/Jetzt called for the center to close. Foreign Minister Kneissl rejected the calls for closure of KAICIID, stating the government could not “just close an international organization,” but adding that her ministry would “closely monitor reforms of the center to reach progress in interreligious dialogue.”
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the interior ministry, there were 39 anti-Semitic and 36 anti-Muslim incidents reported to police in 2017, the most recent year for which statistics were available, compared with 41 and 28 incidents, respectively, in 2016. The majority of cases involved hate speech on the internet by neo-Nazis, as well as instances of persons giving the Hitler salute or shouting Nazi slogans.
The IGGIO’s Documentation Center on Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Racism stated the number of reports of anti-Muslim incidents it received had been increasing since it began collecting such statistics in mid-2014. It received reports of 540 anti-Muslim incidents during the year, a 75 percent increase over the 309 reports in 2017, which represented a 22 percent increase over 2016. The center attributed the increase in reported incidents in part to its higher public profile. More than half of the incidents in 2018 occurred online. Other incidents included verbal abuse and anti-Muslim graffiti. According to the center, in 2017, as in previous years, 98 percent of all incidents were directed against women. Of the total in that year, 30 percent of cases involved hate speech, and 28 percent verbal aggression. Others included discrimination and graffiti. The center stated it believed a large number of cases were related to tensions during the 2017 national parliamentary election campaign, where the European migration crisis was a contentious topic of debate.
The IKG’s Forum Against Anti-Semitism did not yet have figures for anti-Semitic incidents reported during the year to compare with the 503 incidents it recorded in 2017.
A report from the NGO Initiative for Discrimination-Free Education listed a total of 172 cases of discrimination in schools in 2017 and attributed 50 percent of these cases to “Islamophobia.” The report cited multiple incidents of discrimination in the school system, including disparaging comments and unfair treatment from educators towards Muslim students. Many involved charges of discrimination against female students for their use of a headscarf. One student said a teacher insulted her for attempting to use a modest “burkini” swimsuit during mandatory swim classes. In another case, a parent complained that a teacher assumed her child did not speak German adequately because she wore a headscarf.
In 2017, the government recorded 867 cases of incitement to hatred based on national origin, race or religion, and 108 convictions, up from 672 cases and 55 convictions in 2016. The government did not provide any information on how many of the cases involved religion.
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 526 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Austria responded to the online survey. Twenty-two percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 28 percent reported being harassed over the same period. One-fifth of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 75 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
In May Croats and Bosniaks gathered in Bleiburg for an annual commemoration of Nazi-allied Croatian troops and civilians killed in 1945. Three Austrian Members of the European Parliament from the People’s, Social Democratic, and NEOS Parties, Othmar Karas, Josef Weidenholzer, and Angelika Mlinar, stated at a press conference in Vienna the commemoration should not be held in its current format, because it was used as a platform for extremists for the fascist Ustashe movement and its symbols. Raimund Fasten of the Austrian Jewish community joined the press conference and said the Bleiburg commemoration was “an outrageous provocation” for the Jewish community. Peter Kaiser, Governor of Carinthia Province, where Bleiburg is located, called the commemoration “an extremist event.”
In June the state court in the southern city of Klagenfurt handed down a 15-month suspended sentence to a Croatian man on charges of the glorification of Nazi ideology for giving a Nazi salute during the Bleiburg commemoration.
In August the public prosecutor in the Province of Burgenland launched investigations of five students who allegedly played Nazi guards as part of coursework designed to teach them about the risks of indoctrination.
In several postings on Facebook throughout the year, a Lower Austrian woman denounced Muslims, calling them, for example, “human trash.” A court in Lower Austria convicted her of incitement in September and gave her a nine-month partially suspended prison sentence.
Also in March, the Vienna criminal court convicted a former physician of glorifying Nazi crimes and sentenced him to a one-and-a-half year suspended prison sentence. The man had posted speeches by Adolf Hitler on Facebook between October 2015 and January 2016.
In March a court in the Lower Austrian town of Krems convicted a 66-year-old prison inmate of neo-Nazi activity for writing letters while in prison to government officials in 2016-17, denying the existence of gas chambers in Nazi concentration camps. The court sentenced the man to a four-year suspended prison sentence and ordered his transfer to an institution for mentally ill criminals.
In February the FPOe failed to prove in court its charges that the Muslim Youth of Austria (MJOe) was an Islamist organization. The court ordered the FPOe to pay MJOe court costs.
Fourteen Christian groups, among them the Roman Catholic Church, various Protestant denominations, and eight Orthodox and Old Oriental Churches, continued to meet within the Ecumenical Council of Churches in Austria. Baptists and the Salvation Army had observer status on the council. The council met twice a year. There were two permanent working groups on “Religion and Society” and “Media.” Activities included joint religious services, for example on the “Day of Jewry” in January, and joint charitable activities.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives met regularly with government officials, including from the Department for Integration and Division of Dialogue of Cultures at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Interior, to discuss religious freedom. Topics discussed included the concerns of religious groups, integration of Muslim refugees, cooperation with religious groups in combating terrorism, and measures to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The Ambassador met with religious group representatives, such as the leadership of the IGGIO, IKG, Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and various Orthodox Churches, to discuss their relations with the government, instances of discrimination, and interreligious dialogue. The embassy also met with youth groups of religious organizations to discuss issues such as anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
The embassy continued to engage with and support the Jewish community to promote religious tolerance and combat anti-Semitism. Embassy representatives again participated in the International Advisory Board of the Mauthausen Memorial Agency to promote remembrance of the Holocaust and Holocaust education and advocated continued efforts of the agency to pursue increased outreach to combat anti-Semitism among youth, such as by encouraging more school groups to visit the Mauthausen site.
The embassy supported the first ever Muslim-led initiative to counter anti-Semitism in the country. The initiative, led by the MJOe, headed by three former participants of Department of State-sponsored exchange programs, conducted a series of events, roundtables, and visits to Auschwitz for MJOe members. The MJOe worked closely with the Jewish community and the Jewish museum to foster dialogue and promote awareness among Muslim youth.
The embassy Charge d’Affaires and the Charge d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, headquartered in Vienna, as well as the Charge of the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Vienna, attended the commemoration of the liberation of the Mauthausen concentration camp in May. The embassy’s Charge d’Affaires stressed the importance of religious freedom, and that the liberators of Mauthausen helped end the notion that one person is better than another because of his or her religion.
The constitution grants individuals freedom to profess and practice any religious belief but prohibits religious activities directed against the sovereignty of the state, its constitutional system, and “civic harmony.” The law recognizes the “determining role” of the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC). A concordat grants the BOC rights and privileges not granted to other religious groups, although the law also acknowledges the historical importance of the “traditional” faiths of Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. By law, all registered religious groups must seek permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing activities, and must obtain prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups. The government continued to detain or fine individuals for proselytizing, including a Baptist couple in Lepel who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature. Police also detained Jehovah’s Witnesses and a Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox priest for proselytizing in public. Minority religious groups continued to have difficulty registering. Some groups remained reluctant to apply for registration, reportedly due to fear of harassment and punishment. The government continued its surveillance of minority and unregistered religious groups. Human rights groups said that while BOC and some Roman Catholic clergy had access to prisoners of their faiths, Muslim and Protestant clergy and clergy from nontraditional faiths did not. Minority religious groups said they continued to have difficulties acquiring buildings to use as houses of worship. Roman Catholic groups reported the government denied visas and requests to extend the stay of some foreign missionaries.
Authorities convicted a number of individuals reportedly associated with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews and other religious minorities. On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims. In a similar case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy district for posting videos with anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim content and sentenced him to a year and a month in jail on April 18. Jewish community leaders continued to express concern about the BOC’s annual commemoration of a young child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690 as one of its saints and martyrs. Despite a government ban, anti-Semitic print and video material continued to be imported from Russia and available locally. Interdenominational Christian groups worked together on charitable projects and programs. In a televised interview in November BOC Metropolitan Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and accused them of spreading “propaganda and not preaching.” The head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Leanid Mikhovich, called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable.”
In October U.S. embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation that included the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Protection of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to preservation of Jewish heritage sites. The delegation also participated in the Foreign Ministry-sponsored international roundtable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 22. Also in October the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs met with senior government officials for discussions that included religious freedom concerns. The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met with Jewish groups to discuss anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage. Embassy officials also met with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups, as well as with civil society activists and lawyers for religious groups, to discuss government restrictions on registration and the activities of minority religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.5 million (July 2018 estimate). According to a January 2016 survey by the state Information and Analytical Center of the Presidential Administration, approximately 53 percent of the adult population belongs to the BOC and 6 percent to the Roman Catholic Church. According to the state survey, 8 percent of the adult population is atheist, and 22 percent is “uncertain.” Smaller religious groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include: Jews; Muslims; Greek Catholics (“Uniates”); Old Believers (priestist and priestless); members of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, and other Orthodox Christian groups, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Apostolic Christians, Presbyterians and other Protestant groups, Armenian Apostolics, Latin Catholics, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Buddhists. Jewish groups state there are between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews. Ethnic Poles, who constitute approximately 3 percent of the population, tend to be Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution grants individuals the freedom to profess any religious beliefs and to participate in the performance of acts of worship not prohibited by law. It stipulates all faiths are equal before the law. The constitution states relations between the state and religious organizations shall be regulated by the law “with regard to their influence on the formation of the spiritual, cultural, and state traditions of the Belarusian people.” It prohibits activities by religious groups that are directed against the country’s sovereignty, its constitutional system, and civic harmony; involve a violation of civil rights and liberties; “impede the execution of state, public, and family duties” by its citizens; or are detrimental to public health and morality. The constitution states the law shall determine the conditions for exemption from military service and the performance of alternative service as a substitute.
The Office of the Plenipotentiary Representative for Religious and Nationality Affairs (OPRRNA) regulates all religious matters.
The law recognizes the “determining role” of the BOC, an Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the development of the traditions of the people, as well as the historical importance of religious groups commonly referred to as “traditional” faiths: Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, and evangelical Lutheranism. The law does not consider as traditional faiths newer religious groups or older groups such as the priestless Old Believers, Greek Catholics (Uniates), and the Calvinist churches, which have roots in the country dating to the 17th century.
A concordat between the government and the BOC provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state. The concordat recognizes the BOC’s “influence on the formation of spiritual, cultural, and national traditions of the Belarusian people.” Although it states it does not limit the religious freedom of other religious groups, the concordat calls for the government and the BOC to combat unnamed “pseudo-religious structures that present a danger to individuals and society.” The BOC, unlike other religious communities, receives state subsidies. In addition, the BOC possesses the exclusive right to use the word “orthodox” in its title and to use as its symbol the double-barred image of the Cross of Saint Euphrosyne, the country’s patron saint.
The concordat also serves as the framework for agreements between the BOC and individual state agencies. There are at least a dozen such agreements, including an agreement with the Ministry of Education covering cooperation on education through 2020 and providing for joint projects for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.
The law establishes three tiers of registered religious groups: religious communities, religious associations, and national religious associations. Religious communities must include at least 20 persons over the age of 18 who live in one or several adjoining areas. Religious associations must include at least 10 religious communities, one of which must have been active in the country for at least 20 years, and may be constituted only by a national-level religious association. National religious associations may be formed only when they comprise active religious communities in at least four of the country’s six regions.
According to government data as of January 1, 2017, (the most recent data available), there are 25 religious faiths and denominations registered in the country, encompassing 3,350 religious communities and 174 religious associations, monasteries, missions, brotherhoods, sisterhoods, and schools. The BOC has 1,681 religious communities, 15 dioceses, seven schools, 35 monasteries, 15 brotherhoods, and 10 sisterhoods. The Roman Catholic Church has four dioceses, five schools, 11 missions, nine monasteries, and 496 communities. Protestant religious organizations of 14 denominations have 1,033 religious communities, 21 associations, 22 missions, and five schools. There are 33 registered religious communities of Old Believers. There are three Jewish religious associations – Orthodox, Chabad-Lubavitch, and Reform Judaism – comprising 52 communities, including 10 autonomous communities. In addition, 24 Muslim religious communities – 23 Sunni and one Shia – are registered.
National religious associations include the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, Old Believers Church, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, Association of New Apostolic Churches, Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches, Association of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, Jewish Religious Union, Association of Jewish Religious Communities, Union of Reform Judaism Communities, Muslim Religious Association, Spiritual Board of Muslims, and the Religious Association of Baha’is.
To register, a religious community must submit an official application with the following information: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from the regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes. A religious group not previously registered by the government must also submit information about its beliefs. The law stipulates authorities may take up to six months to review a new registration application due to an additional evaluation of the religion by a state-appointed religious commission of experts. The commission evaluates the fundamental teachings of the religion; rituals, practices, history, and forms and methods of activities; welfare and charitable services; proselytizing and missionary activities; approaches towards marriage and family; educational activities; attitudes toward health care; and compliance with legal requirements. In addition, the community must submit any texts written by its founder or considered sacred by the followers of the religion, information about prohibitions on clergy or adherents, a list of countries where the religion is widely practiced, and a list of countries officially recognizing the religion. It also must submit information about countries that have refused to recognize the religion and information about court cases against followers of the religion in other countries.
Regional government authorities, as well as Minsk city authorities or local municipal authorities (for groups outside of Minsk), review all registration applications. Permissible grounds for denial of registration are broad and include failure to comply with requirements for establishing a community, an inconsistent or fraudulent charter or other required document, violations of the procedures to establish religious organizations, or a negative evaluation by the state-appointed religious commission of experts. Communities may appeal refusals in court.
In order to register as a religious association or national religious association, a group must provide an official application with a copy of the founding statutes, a list of members of the managing body with biographical information, proof of permission for the association to be at its designated location, and the minutes from its founding congress. Religious associations have the exclusive right to establish religious educational institutions and organize cloistered and monastic communities. All applications to establish religious associations and national associations must be submitted to OPRRNA, which has 30 days to respond. Grounds for refusal are the same as for religious communities except they also include failure to comply with requirements for establishing an association rather than a community. Refusals or a failure by OPRRNA to respond within the 30-day period may be appealed in court.
The law confines the activities of religious communities and associations to the jurisdictional area where they are registered. The law permits state agencies in charge of registration to issue written warnings to a registered religious group for violating any law or undertaking activities outside the scope of responsibilities in the group’s charter. The government may apply to a relevant court, depending upon jurisdiction, to shut down the group if it has not ceased the illegal activity outlined in the written warning within six months or if the activity is repeated within one year of the warning. The government may suspend activities of the religious group pending the court’s decision. The law contains no provision for appeal of the warning or suspension.
The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from unspecified fines to two years in prison.
The housing code permits religious groups to hold services at residential premises if local authorities grant permission. The local authorities must certify the premises comply with a number of regulations, including fire safety, sanitary, and health code requirements. The government does not grant such permission automatically, and the law does not permit religious groups to hold services in private residences without prior permission from local authorities.
By law, all religious groups must obtain permits to hold events outside of their premises, including proselytizing.
The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The approval process includes official examination of the documents by state-appointed religious studies experts.
Although there is no law providing for a systematic restitution process for property, including religious property, seized during the Soviet and Nazi periods, groups may apply for the restitution of property to local authorities. The law on religion specifically bans the restitution of seized property currently used for cultural or sports purposes.
The law permits associations and national associations to establish schools to train clergy; however, it does not permit religious communities to do so.
The law permits only registered religious groups that are members of national religious associations to organize extracurricular religious activities at educational institutions. The law states the national religious association must first conclude an agreement on cooperation with the Ministry of Education; the BOC is currently the only religious group to have such an agreement. Students who wish to participate in voluntary “moral, civic, and patriotic education” in collaboration with religious groups must either provide a written statement expressing their desire to participate or secure their legal guardians’ approval. According to the law, “such education shall raise awareness among the youth against any religious groups whose activities are aimed at undermining Belarus’ sovereignty, civic accord, and constitutional system or at violating human rights and freedoms.”
The law prohibits religious groups from conducting activities in any school without identifying themselves. It also prohibits visits from representatives of foreign religious groups; missionary activities; collections of donations or fees from students for religious groups or any charity; distribution of religious literature, audio, video, and other religious materials; holding prayer services, religious rituals, rites, or ceremonies; and placing religious symbols or paraphernalia at educational institutions.
The law does not allow private religious elementary, junior, or senior high schools or homeschooling for religious reasons.
The law establishes penalties ranging from fines to five years in prison for failure to fulfill mandatory military service, with an exemption for conscientious objectors for religious reasons. The law allows alternative civilian service for conscientious objectors. By law, individuals who evade alternative civilian service may face up to five years in prison.
Only registered religious associations may apply to OPRRNA for permission to invite foreign clergy to the country. OPRRNA must grant permission before foreign religious workers may serve in local congregations, teach or study at local institutions, or participate in charitable work. The government generally grants such permission for a period of one year, which may be reduced or extended. OPRRNA has 30 days to respond to requests for foreign clergy permits (religious visas) and may deny requests without explanation. There is no provision for appeals.
By law, the government permits foreign missionaries to engage in religious activity only in the territorial area where their religious association is registered. Transfers of foreign clergy within a religious association, including from one parish to another, require prior government permission. By law, foreigners may not lead religious groups. The authorities may reprimand or expel foreign citizens who officially are present in the country for nonreligious work if they lead any religious activities. Law enforcement agencies on their own initiative or in response to recommendations from other government entities, such as the security service, may require foreign clergy to depart the country.
The law does not restrict religious groups from raising donations in public.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The international religious freedom nongovernmental organization (NGO) Forum 18 reported that on October 27, police in Lepel in the Vitsyebsk Region detained Baptist husband and wife Andrei and Tatsyana Fokin, who were singing Christian songs and distributing Christian literature. Authorities charged both with violating procedures for organizing a mass event or demonstration and fined the husband 661.5 rubles ($310) and the wife 539 rubles ($250). Andrei Fokin said he and his wife were still in debt from 2017 fines levied following their detention in 2017 for similar activities.
According to Forum 18 and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, authorities in Rahachou in Homyel Region detained Jehovah’s Witnesses Tamara Vitkouskaya and Volha Hrapava on March 24 as they were distributing religious literature, charging them with illegal picketing. On May 16, the Rahachou District Court fined the two Witnesses 49 rubles ($23) each, and the Homyel Regional Court dismissed their subsequent appeals in June.
Forum 18 also reported that on November 26, authorities detained for 24 hours Father Vikentsy, a priest of the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which is not officially registered, for preaching and seeking donations in an apartment block in Minsk. Forum 18 stated that on November 30, a Minsk district court found Vikentsy not guilty and closed the case.
The government continued surveillance on minority religious groups of various Protestant denominations. According to various observers, government “ideology officers” (officials in charge of implementing political and social government policies) continued to monitor the activities of members of unregistered religious groups in their workplaces, although there were no reports of prosecutions. Government officials reportedly had occasional “informal” talks with members of religious groups to learn about their activities. According to religious leaders, state security officers also continued to attend religious services of registered Protestant communities to conduct surveillance, which group members described as intimidation and harassment. The Roman Catholic Church expressed concerns that in some regions of the country local ideology officers requested the church provide them with Sunday school programs and lists of children attending them. According to the independent Belarusian Christian news portal krynica.info, local authorities in some regions summoned Catholic priests for questioning after they held services to honor the anniversary of the 1918 establishment of the Belarusian National Republic on March 25.
Christian groups continued to state the registration requirements for religious groups remained complex and difficult to fulfill, which they said restricted their activities, suppressed freedom of religion, and legalized criminal prosecution of individuals for their religious beliefs. The government’s guidelines for evaluating registration applications remained sufficiently broad, they said, to continue to give authorities a pretext for denying applications from groups they considered unacceptable.
During the year, authorities in Barysau, Slonim and Vileika rejected applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses communities. Authorities also continued to deny registration to several Protestant religious communities, including a community within the Union of Full Gospel Christian Churches in Maladzechna. On July 6 and then on August 30, city authorities denied an independent Pentecostal community’s applications for registration in two separate locations in Minsk. In both cases, officials stated that locations provided by the community did not comply with regulations, but did not explain their refusals in detail. The community filed an appeal on October 18, which was denied in December.
Independent religious experts continued to report minority religious groups remained reluctant to apply for registration because members continued to be unwilling to provide their names as part of the application process due to fear of harassment and punishment by the authorities. Additionally, a number of them said they did not report registration denials because they believed that if they did not publicize the denials, they might still be able to negotiate their communities’ registration with local authorities.
In November the UN Human Rights Committee recommended the state repeal the requirement of mandatory state registration of religious communities, but the state had taken no action as of the end of the year.
Many unregistered religious groups stated they continued to maintain a low profile because of what they believed to be government hostility and due to fear of criminal prosecution. According to independent religious experts, many registered religious communities also remained reluctant to report abuses and restrictions because of fear of punishment.
Nontraditional religious groups continued to state the procedure for registering and using residential premises for religious gatherings remained cumbersome and arbitrary. Authorities continued to deny permission for a registered Jehovah’s Witness community in Homyel to hold religious services at a private home, but continued to allow it to hold services at rented premises. In October the local government in the city of Mahilyou allowed a local Jehovah’s Witness community to hold religious services at rented premises. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in August the Mahilyou Regional Executive Committee issued a warning notice to the local community for engaging in illegal religious activity and meeting in places that were not designated for worship and without authorization from the local authorities.
Human rights groups reported prison administrators continued to deny Muslim and Protestant clergy, and in some cases Roman Catholic clergy, as well as clergy from nontraditional faiths (any faiths not among the four recognized as “traditional”), permission to visit inmates in prison. At the same time, they said, authorities continued to grant BOC, and in some cases Catholic clergy, permission to visit believers in prison on a regular basis, and many prisons had designated Orthodox religious facilities.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported Minsk city officials approved a request from the national association for a convention to take place in the city July 27 to 29. Approximately 9,000 members attended the convention without hindrance, compared with approximately 7,300 the previous year. In November, however, authorities in a Minsk district denied a Jehovah’s Witnesses community group’s application to hold a convention for its Minsk city community of approximately 1,000 members at a local cultural center on November 24-25. In Vitsyebsk, authorities denied a request from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to hold a local convention in November. In each case, authorities did not give a reason for the denial.
Authorities in the town of Radashkovichi allowed the Full Gospel Christian Church’s “Youth With A Mission” group to hold its Christian youth conference at a local facility April 27-May 1.
Religious groups, especially Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses, continued to report they remained cautious about proselytizing and distributing religious materials due to what they said was the general atmosphere of intimidation and fear of punishment. In contrast, Orthodox literature remained available countrywide. The BOC remained able to proselytize freely and, unlike other religious groups, continued to participate in government-sponsored public events such as rallies without the need to seek prior approval from authorities. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on March 30, the Brest Regional Executive Committee issued a notice to the Brest Religious Community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, warning the community it had distributed printed religious material at unauthorized locations. The Jehovah’s Witnesses stated the warning did not refer to any specific incidents.
While the national government approved the import of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ requested literature during the year, local governments in Brest and Mahilyou issued written warnings to communities against proselytizing. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, adherents generally had to wait three months before receiving permission to import new religious periodicals.
Religious groups continued to report problems purchasing properties as places of worship. They continued to say that converting residential property to religious use also remained difficult. Renting a public facility to hold religious services remained difficult as well. For example, some Protestant communities continued to report they were able to conclude only short-term lease agreements with the owners of the facilities the communities rented, which allowed authorities to pressure owners to terminate or not renew lease agreements as a means of preventing religious activities. Protestant groups stated they continued to be more severely affected than other groups in this regard because they were less likely to own religious facilities and they could not apply for permission to conduct religious activities in private homes because these residences were too small to accommodate their numbers.
The government continued to require students to use textbooks that representatives of nontraditional religious groups said promoted intolerance towards them, citing chapters in the books that labeled such groups as “sects.” The textbooks described nontraditional religious groups as “striving for the exclusiveness of their role, doctrine, and principles,” being isolationist, and claiming to be God-chosen, among other things.
According to media reports, school administrators continued to cooperate only with the BOC among registered religious groups, based on the BOC’s concordat with the government. School administrators continued to invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours of BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.
On August 28, the Catholic Diocese of Hrodna received a certificate granting registration to Saint Kazimir’s College of Theology in Hrodna. The college became the fifth Roman Catholic institute of higher education in the country.
Religious groups said the government continued to apply visa regulations in ways restricting the ability of foreign missionaries to live and work in the country. Forum 18 reported OPRRNA rejected applications in the spring from the BOC’s Vitsyebsk Diocese for two Orthodox priests from Russia.
Local human rights portals stated that on April 30, the government expelled Polish Catholic priest Krzysztof Poswiata, who ministered in the town of Hatava near Minsk, after authorities refused to extend his permission to serve. Poswiata reportedly received three speeding tickets in 2018, which authorities told Forum 18 was the reason for his expulsion. Forum 18 reported that on June 4, OPRRNA rejected the application of the Catholic Diocese of Vitsyebsk for Polish priest Karol Prandzioch to serve at a parish in Shumilina, replacing another Polish priest who was leaving voluntarily. Father Uladzimir Razanovich, secretary of the Vitsyebsk Diocesan administration, told Forum 18 that unofficially, the government wanted local religious communities to train local citizens as clergy rather than having foreigners.
According to Catholic Archbishop of Minsk Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, foreign priests faced multiple challenges, including: newly arrived priests had to undergo a lengthy approval process before obtaining permission to celebrate Mass; the government often issued them visas for only three to six months; and they often encountered administrative difficulties when trying to renew visas.
A representative of the Polish community in Hrodna told the press on July 26 that local authorities denied Polish priest Ryszard Umanski entrance into the country, saying he did not have a religious visa. In applying for the visa, he reportedly said the visit would be private and not related to any religious activity.
There were no developments regarding the longstanding freeze placed on the assets of New Life Church in 2005. Minsk authorities did not renew their attempts to evict the church from its premises, a process that began in 2007 and continued through 2012 after the authorities refused to register the church at its location. While the church continued to use the space for religious purposes, it remained unable to obtain proof of ownership from the authorities and had no access to electricity. Church leadership’s discussions with Minsk city authorities on the status and operations of the church were continuing at year’s end.
The authorities continued to permit the BOC to collect charitable donations in public as well as on its religious property. While the law does not restrict other religious groups from raising donations in public, representatives of these groups said authorities continued to limit their fundraising activities to their own places of worship or other properties. Groups said they faced government harassment if they tried to raise donations at other locations.
During the year, the Jewish community worked with local authorities to erect at least eight new privately funded monuments in the villages of Svislach, Klimavichy, and Petrykau and other locations that specifically commemorated Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
The government supported commemorative events and an international conference dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 21-23. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs held an international roundtable on October 22 to discuss remembrance and lessons of the Minsk ghetto, which included former ghetto prisoners, local historians, international and local officials, and representatives of the diplomatic and Jewish communities. Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey condemned “hatred and bigotry, which could lead to killings of masses of people based on their religious or ethnic attributes.” He also noted increasing xenophobia, discrimination, anti-Semitism and hate crimes, and warned against the revival of Nazism and ideas of racial superiority.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
During the year, authorities convicted a number of offenders who reportedly associated themselves with neo-Nazis or skinhead movements for inciting ethnic and religious hatred against Jews, among others. On February 27, a court in the Vitsyebsk Region sentenced a resident in Navapolatsk to three years in prison for posting videos on his social media featuring mass killings of Jews in the Holocaust and skinheads beating Muslims. In another case, authorities convicted an individual from the Baranavichy District of Brest Region for posting videos with anti-Semitic content and calls for violence against natives of the Caucasus (the majority of whom are Muslim). A court sentenced the man to a year and a month in jail on April 18.
In March a Mahilyou District court convicted two local residents detained in November 2017 for stealing parts of metal fencing from graves at a local Jewish cemetery.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, doctors continued to force their believers to accept blood transfusions as part of their treatment, despite their explicit written refusal of blood transfusions.
The BOC, in particular the Minsk-based parish of the Feast of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin, continued its annual commemoration honoring Hauryil Belastoksky, a child allegedly killed by Jews near Hrodna in 1690, as one of its saints and martyrs. Jewish community leaders again expressed concern over the memorial prayer recited on the anniversary of Belastoksky’s death on May 3, the text of which included a passage stating the “martyred and courageous Hauryil exposed Jewish dishonesty.”
In a televised interview on November 24, Metropolitan of the BOC Pavel said Baptists were “a sect,” focused on their “missionary activities,” and called them “annoying” and said they were spreading “propaganda and not preaching.” He added, “You cannot talk to them about anything and if you do, they turn into gypsies” and “start soliciting until they rob you.” On November 27, head of the Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists Leanid Mikhovich called the Metropolitan’s remarks “unacceptable” and blessed “all Baptists in the country, especially representatives of the Roma who are believers of [our] faith.”
While the government had previously banned various literature and printed materials it classified as “extremist” and they were no longer widely sold in mainstream bookstores, anti-Semitic and xenophobic newspapers, literature, digital video discs, and videotapes, frequently imported from Russia, continued to be available.
The Bible Society, an interdenominational Christian fellowship center, continued to print and distribute copies of the Bible and other religious literature, including donating Bibles to children’s and nursing homes, temporary shelters, rehabilitation centers, and hospitals during the year. The society also distributed copies of the Bible and other religious literature to foster and underprivileged families in towns and villages across the country. In addition, the society extensively promoted the distribution of the Bible translated into the Belarusian language. Founded by the BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic Churches, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Christians of Evangelical Faith, and Confederation of Christian Seventh-day Adventists, the Bible Society also engaged in educational and charitable projects targeting vulnerable populations. These projects included Bible studies, summer schools and camps, and literacy courses for children.
An interreligious working group comprised of the BOC, Union of Evangelical Christian Baptists, Union of Evangelical-Lutheran Churches, and Jewish religious communities organized quarterly meetings, seminars on theological themes, trips around the country, and a trip to Dachau and Flossenburg, Germany, that focused on interfaith dialogue. The group visited sites of former concentration camps and participated in commemorations of the1938 Kristallnacht pogrom in Munich.
On January 20, BOC, Roman and Greek Catholic, Protestant, and Lutheran churches held ecumenical services marking the international Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at parishes across the country. Clergy stressed the importance of cooperation and understanding among Christians.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In October embassy officials and a visiting U.S. delegation that included the Chair of the U.S. Commission on Protection of America’s Heritage Abroad and the Deputy Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with officials from the Ministries of Culture and Foreign Affairs as well as prosecutors to discuss concerns related to the preservation of Jewish heritage sites. The delegation also participated in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs-sponsored international roundtable to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Minsk ghetto on October 22. Also in October the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs met with senior government officials for discussions that included religious freedom concerns. The Charge d’Affaires regularly raised religious freedom concerns at the highest levels of government throughout the year.
The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials continued to meet regularly with representatives of the BOC, Roman Catholic Church, and minority religious groups. They discussed anti-Semitism and the preservation of Jewish religious heritage with Jewish religious groups, and discussed government restrictions on registration and operations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Protestant groups. Embassy officials also continued to hold regular discussions about restrictions on religious freedom with religious freedom activists, religious leaders, lawyers for religious groups, and representatives of the For Freedom of Religion initiative, a group of civil society activists promoting religious tolerance. In October a Protestant pastor from Hrodna participated in the Interfaith Dialogue and Religious Freedom multi-regional program sponsored by the Department of State. On social media, embassy officials posted the Secretary of State’s speeches and other materials related to religious freedom.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and the law prohibits discrimination based on religious orientation. Federal law bans covering one’s face in public. Jewish and Muslim groups launched legal challenges against laws, scheduled to take effect in 2019 in Wallonia and Flanders, banning the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. The government maintained its policy of attempting to curb what it described as radical Islam. The federal government terminated Saudi Arabia’s lease on the Great Mosque in Brussels. The Brussels regional government recognized two mosques in July, increasing the number of recognized mosques in the country to 85. Most public schools continued to ban headscarves, and the government maintained its ban on wearing religious symbols in public-sector jobs.
There were reports of incidents of religiously motivated violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Jews and Muslims. The Center for Equal Opportunities, Unia, preliminarily reported 101 anti-Semitic incidents (56 in 2017), and 319 incidents in 2017 (390 in 2016) against other religious groups, primarily Muslims.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials in the Office of the Prime Minister and at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs to discuss anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and discrimination. Embassy officials met with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and religious leaders to address anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment, and to promote religious tolerance. The embassy sponsored the visit of a U.S.-based imam to discuss interfaith tolerance and cooperation in meetings with religious groups, civil society, and police. It also sponsored visits of two young Muslim leaders to the United States on programs that included a focus on religious pluralism and tolerance. Through small grants, the embassy supported programs that promoted interfaith dialogue and tolerance and raised awareness of religious minorities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.5 million (July 2018 estimate). A 2011 report (based on 2009 data) by the King Baudouin Foundation estimates the religious affiliation of the population to be 50 percent Roman Catholic, 33 percent without affiliation (a figure that includes secular humanists), 9 percent atheist, 5 percent Muslim, 2.5 percent non-Catholic Christian, and 0.4 percent Jewish. According to the report, other religious groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientologists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A 2015 study by the Catholic University of Louvain updates the estimate of the Muslim portion of the population to approximately 7 percent, with no significant changes for other affiliations. The Muslim population is highest in Antwerp and Brussels, where some studies estimate it at more than 25 percent of the respective metropolitan areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution guarantees freedom of worship (including its public practice) and freedom of expression, provided no crime is committed in the exercise of these freedoms. It states no individual may be required to participate in any religious group’s acts or ceremonies or to observe the group’s religious days of rest and bars the state from interfering in the appointment of religious clergy or blocking the publication of religious documents. It obligates the state to pay the salaries and pensions of religious clergy (according to law, to qualify these clergy must work in recognized houses of worship and be certified by those religious groups), as well as those of representatives of organizations recognized by the law as providing moral assistance based on a nonconfessional philosophy.
The law prohibits discrimination based on religious or philosophical (e.g., nonconfessional) orientation. Federal law prohibits public statements inciting religious hatred, including Holocaust denial. The maximum sentence for Holocaust denial is one year in prison.
The government officially recognizes Catholicism, Protestantism (including evangelicals and Pentecostals), Judaism, Anglicanism (separately from other Protestant groups), Islam, Orthodox (Greek and Russian) Christianity, and secular humanism.
The requirements to obtain official recognition are not legally defined. The legal basis for official recognition is the constitution and other laws and interpretations, some of which predate the constitution itself. A religious group seeking official recognition applies to the Ministry of Justice, which then recommends approval or rejection. The government evaluates whether the group meets organizational and reporting requirements and applies criteria based on administrative and legislative precedents in deciding whether to recommend that parliament grant recognition to a religious group. The religious group must have a structure or hierarchy, a “sufficient number” of members, and a “long period” of existence in the country. It must offer “social value” to the public, abide by the laws of the state, and respect public order. The government does not formally define “sufficient number,” “long period of time,” or “social value.” Final approval is the sole responsibility of the federal parliament; however, parliament generally accepts the ministry’s recommendation.
The law requires each officially recognized religion to have an official interlocutor, such as an office composed of one or more representatives of the religion plus administrative staff, to support the government in its constitutional duty of providing the material conditions for the free exercise of religion. The functions performed by the interlocutor include certification of clergy and teachers of the religion, assistance in the development of religious curriculum, and oversight of the management of houses of worship.
The federal government provides financial support for officially recognized religious groups. The subsidies for recognized groups include payment of clergy salaries and for maintenance and equipment for facilities and places of worship, as well as tax exemptions. Denominations or divisions within the recognized religious groups (Shia Islam, Reform Judaism, or Lutheranism, for example) do not receive support or recognition separate from their parent religious group. Parent religious groups distribute subsidies according to their statutes, which may also include salaries to ministers and public funding for renovation or facility maintenance. Unrecognized groups outside of these recognized religions do not receive government subsidies but may worship freely and openly.
There are procedures for individual houses of worship of recognized religious groups to obtain recognition and state subsidies. To do so, a house of worship must meet requirements set by the region in which it is located and by the federal Ministry of Justice. These requirements include transparency and legality of accounting practices, renunciation of foreign sources of income for ministers of religion working in the facility, compliance with building and fire safety codes, certification of the minister of religion by the relevant interlocutor body, and a security check. Recognized houses of worship also receive subsidies from the linguistic communities and municipalities for the upkeep of religious buildings. Houses of worship or other religious groups that are unable or choose not to meet these requirements may organize as nonprofit associations and benefit from lower taxes but not government subsidies. Houses of worship in this situation (i.e., not completing the recognition process) may still be affiliated with an officially recognized religious group.
There is a federal ban on covering one’s face in public. Women who wear the full-face veil in public face a maximum fine of 137.50 euros ($160).
The constitution requires teaching in public schools to be neutral with respect to religious belief. All public schools outside of Flanders offer mandatory religious or “moral” instruction (which is oriented towards citizenship and moral values); parents in schools in Flanders may have their children opt out of such courses. Francophone schools offer “philosophy and citizenship” courses alongside courses on the recognized religions, based on a constitutional court ruling.
Schools provide teachers, clerical or secular, for each of the recognized religious groups, as well as for secular humanism, according to the student’s preference. The public education system requires neutrality in the presentation of religious views outside of religion classes. Teachers of religion are permitted to express their religious beliefs and wear religious attire, even if school policy otherwise forbids such attire. Public school religion teachers are nominated by a committee from their religious group and appointed by the linguistic community government’s education minister. Private, authorized religious schools, known as “free” schools, follow the same curriculum as public schools but may place greater emphasis on specific religious classes. Teachers at these religious schools are civil servants, and their salaries, as well as subsidies for the schools’ operating expenses, are paid for by the respective linguistic community, municipality, or province.
Unia is a publicly funded but independent agency responsible for reviewing discrimination complaints, including those of a religious nature, and attempting to resolve them by such means as mediation or arbitration. The agency lacks legal powers to enforce resolution of cases.
The justice minister appoints a magistrate in each judicial district to monitor discrimination cases and oversee their prosecution, including those involving religion, as a criminal act.
Bans on the slaughter of animals without prior stunning enacted by the Walloon and Flanders regional governments in 2017 are scheduled to take effect in 2019, ending the long-standing authorization certified permanent slaughterhouses in those regions have had to slaughter animals without prior stunning.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government maintained its efforts, initiated after 2016 terrorist attacks, to curb what it termed radical Islam in the country’s mosques and highlighted Salafism in particular as a possible driver of violent extremism. The federal and regional governments stated they remained committed to their previously announced plans to encourage mosques to seek official recognition as a means of increasing government oversight. According to government officials, including Minister of Justice Koen Geens and Brussels Minister-President Rudy Vervoort, government funding for imams and infrastructure at officially recognized mosques would reduce the mosques’ reliance on foreign sources of funding, such as those from Saudi Arabia, and afford the government greater oversight of how those mosques vetted imams.
Although the federal government recommended several mosques for recognition by the regional governments, the number of recognized mosques increased by only two, to 85, during the year. Some observers, such as a sociologist at the Free University of Brussels, stated a number of mosques opted not to seek official recognition because they received sufficient foreign funding and preferred to do without government oversight.
Long-standing applications for government recognition by Buddhists and Hindus remained pending. Buddhists filed their request for recognition in 2008, and Hindus in 2013. There were no other pending recognition requests by religious groups. Despite the lack of recognition, Buddhists received federal government subsidies of approximately 200,000 euros ($229,000). Hindus did not receive any government subsidies.
In accordance with recommendations in a 2017 report by a parliamentary commission investigating terrorist attacks, the federal government announced in March it would terminate Saudi Arabia’s lease on the Great Mosque in Brussels, effective March 31, 2019. Saudi Arabia had signed a 99-year lease for the building in 1969. The government called for the creation of a new, pan-Islamic institution to manage the mosque and said the Muslim Executive, the Muslim community’s official interlocutor with the government, would be responsible for creating the institution and ensuring it began managing the mosque by the lease termination date. The government said it terminated the lease because the Great Mosque was spreading Wahhabi Salafism, which the government stated played a role in spreading violent radicalism. According to media reports, in September the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, denied an appeal by Saudi Arabia against the lease termination, ruling that the council lacked jurisdiction in the case.
The government maintained its ban on wearing religious symbols in public sector jobs requiring interaction with the public.
On September 18, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the government had violated the EU Convention on Human Rights by excluding a Muslim woman from a courtroom in 2017 for refusing to remove her headscarf. The court ordered the government to pay the woman 1,000 euros ($1,100).
Most public schools continued to ban headscarves, in accordance with government policy allowing individual schools to decide whether to impose such bans. According to media reports, at least 90 percent of Francophone community public schools and virtually all Flemish public schools maintained such bans.
According to Muslim groups, city and town administrations continued to withhold or delay approval for the construction of new mosques and Islamic cultural centers. In Court-Saint-Etienne in May, city authorities granted an application for the construction of a new mosque after denying it four times during the previous several years. Mosque construction projects in La Louviere, Kortrijk, and Ghent still faced legal obstacles and/or opposition from public authorities or neighbors.
The Jewish and Muslim communities remained opposed to the decisions by the Flanders and Walloon governments to ban slaughter without prior stunning. As in the previous year and unlike in years prior to 2017, the Brussels regional government did not authorize any temporary slaughterhouse to carry out slaughter without prior stunning during Islamic holidays.
Appeals against the Flemish and Walloon laws banning animal slaughter without stunning remained pending at the Constitutional Court at year’s end. Members of the Muslim Executive, the Coordination Committee of Jewish Organizations of Belgium (CCOJB), representing Jewish groups in the country, together with the Belgian section of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress, Muslim and Jewish NGOs, and Muslim and Jewish individuals, with the assistance of the U.S.-based NGO Lawfare Project, jointly appealed to the Supreme Court against the Flemish ban in a letter dated January 16. The Jewish Consistoire (the Jewish community’s official interlocutor with the government), the Francophone branch of the CCOJB, Jewish NGOs, and Jewish individuals appealed to the Constitutional Court against the Walloon ban in a letter dated November 28, 2017. The Muslim Executive, Muslim NGOs, and Muslim individuals also appealed to the Supreme Court against the Walloon ban in a November 30, 2017 letter. At year’s end there were four appeals against the Walloon ban and five against the Flemish ban, all pending before the Constitutional Court.
In May the European Court of Justice upheld the existing Flanders law restricting the nonstun, ritual slaughter of animals by the Jewish and Muslim communities to licensed butchers. Muslims had originally challenged the law, which prohibited temporary slaughter arrangements at times of peak demand, for example, during Islamic holidays such as Eid al-Adha, in Belgian courts in 2016.
The Ministry of Justice increased its annual allocation for clergy salaries and other financial support for recognized religious groups by four million euros to 111 million euros ($4.59 million to $127.29 million). Catholic groups once again received approximately 85 percent of the total available funding for religious groups, followed by secular humanists (8 percent) and Protestant groups (2.5 percent). Muslims again received approximately 2.3 percent of the funding, and Jews approximately 0.9 percent. According to the report for 2017 issued in June by the Observatory of Religions and Secularism at the Free University of Brussels, the Muslim community, contrary to other recognized religious groups, received a smaller percentage of the government’s allocation than its share of the population, and its representative body faced budget difficulties.
According to a March report by Israeli online news site Ynet News, a parent in Bruges reported to the Jerusalem-based NGO International Legal Forum that a geography textbook approved by the education ministry and used throughout the country included an anti-Semitic cartoon. The cartoon stated that, according to Amnesty International, Israel denied Palestinians adequate access to water. It depicted an overweight Jew with payot (sidelocks) asleep in a bathtub overflowing with water juxtaposed with an old Palestinian woman unable to fill an empty water bucket. International Legal Forum Director Ylfa Segal wrote to the education ministry, stating, “It could scarcely be believed that in 2018 Belgian caricatures exist that scream anti-Semitism so bluntly… we demand the caricature be summarily expunged.” Ynet News reported that in May Flemish Education Minister Julia Crevits wrote to Segal, announcing the cartoon would be removed from the next edition of the book. The news site quoted Segal as stating, “We welcome the education minister’s understanding of the gravity of the matter and her action to expunge it.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of violence, threats, harassment, discrimination, and hate speech against Muslims and Jews during the year. Except for anti-Semitic incidents, which it defined as incidents against Jewish persons rather than against the practice of the Jewish religion and tracked separately, Unia reported 319 complaints of religious discrimination or harassment in 2017, the most recent year for which data were available, compared with 390 complaints in 2016. Approximately 85 percent of incidents targeted Muslims. There were 10 incidents against Christians, five against Jewish religious practice, and three against nonbelievers. According to Unia, 39.5 percent of the complaints in 2017 involved speech in media or on the internet (half of these media/internet complaints involved Facebook), 26 percent concerned discrimination in the workplace, and 11 percent occurred in the education sector (where a plurality of incidents involved restrictions or prohibitions on wearing of the hijab). Unia also preliminarily reported 101 anti-Semitic incidents in 2018, one of the highest totals in recent years, and 80 percent more than the 56 incidents reported in 2017. The report did not cite details of any of the incidents. Jewish groups reported anti-Semitic statements and attitudes in the media and in schools during the year, including ones related to the Holocaust.
On July 3, two persons assaulted a Muslim woman in Anderlues, pulling off her headscarf and some clothes, including her bra, calling her a “dirty Arab,” knocking her to the ground, and then cutting her body, forming the shape of a cross. Police said they were investigating and did not disclose information on the victim’s condition.
In December according to press reports, a man in Anderlecht punched a Muslim woman wearing a hijab on the street. The footage was shared on the internet, and the woman called on the authorities to find her attacker. The Muslim Executive condemned the attack as “Islamophobic.”
In October a man in Marchienne-au-Pont threatened a Jewish couple and their son in front of their home with a gun, saying he would shoot the woman in the head. The man had reportedly threatened the woman the week prior before the incident. Following the second incident, an unidentified person fired a shot from a vehicle in front of the Jewish couple’s home.
In July the same woman stated that she and her family had become the target of harassment after neighbors discovered the family was Jewish. The woman said death threats had been stuffed into their mailbox and anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled on their front door. She reported one letter called her “a dirty whore.” The family complained to the police, who had not identified any suspects.
In February according to press reports, police said that an incident earlier that month in which a car nearly ran down an Orthodox Jewish man and his son was not anti-Semitic, contradicting a statement by the Belgian League Against anti-Semitism. Security cameras showed the car jumping the curb and swerving towards the father and son, who were dressed in Hasidic garb. Police reportedly charged the driver with driving while intoxicated.
Also in February police briefly detained a man described as a refugee after security camera footage showed him destroying at least 20 mezuzahs in Antwerp and vandalizing the doorways of several Jewish institutions. Additional footage showed the man placing a Quran near a synagogue and knocking the hat off an Orthodox Jew on the street. Police released the man without charging him.
Unia reported 82 complaints of workplace discrimination based on religion in 2017, compared with 88 in the previous year. The main target of reported discriminations were Muslims.
According to Unia, NGOs, and media, incidents of religious discrimination towards Muslims in both the workplace and educational institutions typically involved actions directed against women wearing headscarves and a failure to make accommodations for prayer, religious holidays, or dietary requirements.
In October the National Secretary for Culture of the ACOD public service trade union, Robrecht Vanderbeeken, wrote an article for online alternative media site De Wereld Morgen accusing Israel of starving and poisoning Gaza and kidnapping and murdering children for their organs. Wilfried Van Hoof, a private citizen, filed a complaint with Unia against Vanderbeeken.
In May, according to press reports, police authorities transferred a Brussels senior police officer from his post while they investigated reports the officer had engaged in Holocaust denial and insulted Jewish subordinates. At year’s end the investigation was ongoing.
In May the League Against Anti-Semitism filed a complaint of anti-Semitism involving testimony from multiple witnesses against the head of the canine police unit in the Midi police zone of the Brussels-Capital Region. One report stated he broadcast Nazi songs and shouted that the Nazi extermination camps and gas chambers were lies.
According to Flemish and Francophone news media, including the news service of public broadcaster VRT and newspaper De Standaard, the group Schild & Vrienden (Shield & Friends) was an extreme right-wing movement that portrayed itself as a conservative, family-values, Flemish national group but was secretly seeking to influence social and political circles with an agenda that included anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim messages and Nazi propaganda. Journalists stated young people in the group were driving the movement and organizing training and camps abroad. News articles cited boot camps with close combat and weapons training, as well as political outreach training. Reportedly, the group’s leadership instructed members that their activities should remain nonviolent during organization-sponsored events. Media also reported the group circulated anti-Semitic messages and that Ghent University suspended its leader, Dries Van Langenhove.
According to a report in the newspaper La Libre, Arabic-language training manuals for imams used in the Islamic and Cultural Center of Belgium, which included the Grand Mosque of Brussels, contained incitements to violence against Druze and Alawite religious minorities and hatred of Jews. One manual referred to the fictitious and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The newspaper cited as a source a report for a parliamentary review committee by the government’s Coordination Unit for Threat Analysis issued in February and covering 2016-17.
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 785 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Belgium responded to the online survey. Twenty-eight percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 39 percent reported being harassed over the same period. One-quarter of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 87 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
In November on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, a monument commemorating Holocaust victims was vandalized in Ghent.
Anti-Semitic comments appeared on Google Business and “Jews of Antwerp” Facebook pages in November.
In April Prime Minister Charles Michel joined Jewish groups, including the European Jewish Congress, in expressing regret at the Free University of Brussels’s decision to award British filmmaker Ken Loach an honorary doctorate. Speaking about the award at Brussels’ Grand Synagogue, Michel said, “No accommodation with anti-Semitism can be tolerated.” According to press reports, some critics accused Loach, a longtime Palestinian advocate and critic of Israel, of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial after remarks he made during an interview in 2017. Loach strongly denied he was anti-Semitic, calling the charge “malicious.” The Free University stood by its decision to honor Loach and issued a statement by Loach in which he said the Holocaust was real and “not to be doubted.”
In August the Brussels public transportation authority dismissed an employee after it discovered he had Nazi tattoos on his arm.
In May an Antwerp court sentenced a man to five months in prison and fined him 300 euros ($340) for Holocaust denial for statements he had made at his workplace in 2016.
In June an Antwerp court sentenced a man to a partially suspended sentence of 18 months in prison and a 1,600 euro ($1,800) fine for incitement to hatred, harassment, and vandalism with racist intent against Jews and Jewish symbols. Media reports did not provide further details about the case.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials discussed continued anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents and sentiment in meetings with representatives from the Office of the Prime Minister; the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Justice; and regional governments. Embassy officials also discussed with government officials the continued efforts of Buddhist and Hindu groups to obtain recognition and the status of the government’s plans to encourage more mosques to apply for official recognition as places of worship.
In October the embassy sponsored the visit of a United States-based imam, who also headed an NGO fostering dialogue, to engage with religious leaders, local police officials, NGOs, and academics on ways to promote interfaith and intercultural understanding and tolerance. Also in October the embassy sponsored a Flemish Muslim community leader who runs a network for young Muslim professionals to participate in an exchange focusing on religious pluralism. In November the embassy sponsored the participation of a Francophone politician and civil society leader in a training program focused on youth empowerment and tolerance.
Additionally, the embassy awarded small grants to fund programs promoting religious tolerance and understanding among youth. The embassy supported the NGO Actions in the Mediterranean, led by a prominent Jewish community leader and politician, which educated high school youth of different religious backgrounds on how to work constructively and bridge divides around the topic of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. The embassy also supported a local NGO that taught negotiation skills to diverse groups of high school students from different religious and cultural backgrounds to promote mutual understanding. The embassy provided a grant to the Jewish Museum of Brussels to highlight the work of a Jewish photographer and invited disadvantaged youth groups of predominantly Muslim background to the Jewish Museum for guided tours to promote religious tolerance.
Embassy officials regularly met with religious leaders to discuss incidents of religious discrimination and ways to counter public manifestations of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic sentiment. They continued engagement with activists from the Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities to promote interreligious understanding.
In March the embassy sponsored the attendance of eight Belgian student leaders from a variety of Muslim NGOs who had participated in the embassy’s youth interfaith competition in 2017 at a leadership, intercultural, and interfaith program in the United States. The program focused on developing leadership skills by fostering tolerance and mutual understanding through interfaith dialogue.
In June the embassy cohosted an iftar for disadvantaged Muslim and other youth who used the arts to promote religious tolerance and inclusion during Ramadan. In July the embassy sponsored the participation of six experts on Islam from academia, NGOs, and the clergy in an interfaith program in the United States that highlighted religious freedom and interfaith relations as pathways to a more tolerant society.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” A provision in the state constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, who predominantly belong to the SOC; Croats, who mainly belong to the Roman Catholic Church; and Bosniaks, who are predominantly Muslim – in the parliament and in government positions. Individuals not belonging to one of the three major ethnic/religious groups reported they continued to be unable to obtain government positions or seats in parliament. There were few reports of the various levels of government making progress in resolving longstanding issues pertaining to religious freedom and rights. The Islamic Community (IC) continued to express its discontent over what it said was the Presidency’s continued inaction on the anticipated agreement between the state and the IC on certain accommodations for religious adherents. Local religious groups in the minority continued to report discrimination by municipal authorities regarding the use of religious property and issuance of permits for new religious properties. In March the Sarajevo Canton Assembly annulled its 2016 decision to name an elementary school after a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler; at year’s end, the annulment had not been implemented, and the school still bore the name. In April seven defendants were charged for a 2015 attack on a mosque and sentenced to one and a one-half years in prison, but their sentences were suspended pending two years of probation.
Of the 209 attacks on religious officials and sites registered by the Interreligious Council (IRC) since 2010, police had identified perpetrators in 73 of the attacks, and the courts had prosecuted 23 of the cases. In an annual report issued in May on the protection of holy sites, the IRC registered 11 attacks from November 1, 2016, through December 31, 2017: seven attacks on IC members’ property, three attacks against SOC cemeteries, and one against property of the Catholic Church. The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance. There were several instances of vandalism of religious buildings, including a mosque in Kiseljak (in December 2017), an SOC church in Visoko, and a Catholic church in Zenica. The IRC continued to take steps to promote interfaith dialogue, including organizing joint visits of senior religious leaders representing each of the major religious groups to sites of suffering in the past wars, supporting open-door days of religious communities, and sponsoring various projects with women believers and youth.
U.S. embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to promote respect for religious diversity and to enforce equal treatment under the law, including for religious minorities. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these groups to improve interreligious dialogue in order to contribute to the development of a peaceful and stable society. In December the Deputy Secretary of State met with leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH to discuss religious freedom and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials continued to attend significant events in the various religious communities, including events to commemorate Eid al-Fitr, Catholic Christmas, and Orthodox Christmas, to support religious tolerance and dialogue. In December 2017, embassy officials attended a meeting in Banja Luka with the local mufti, Catholic bishop, and Orthodox bishop to discuss ways to encourage increased interreligious dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population of BiH at 3.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population; Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent; Roman Catholics 15 percent; and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.
There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion. The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.
The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It guarantees equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.
A state law on religion guarantees freedom of conscience; grants legal status to churches and religious communities; and grants numerous rights to registered religious communities, including the rights to assemble, conduct collaborative actions such as charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.
According to state law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Other requirements for registration include the development of a statute defining the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application, and a group may appeal a negative decision to the state-level Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction. The law also stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.”
The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.
A concordat with the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including rights to establish educational and charitable institutions, carry out religious education, and officially recognize Catholic holidays. The commission for implementation of the concordat comprises five members from the government and five from the Holy See. A similar agreement exists with the SOC, but a commission for implementation does not yet exist, due to inaction from the government and also from the SOC.
The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.
The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to be responsible for teaching religious studies in public and private pre-, primary, and secondary schools and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers. These individuals are employees of the schools where they teach, but they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.
The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions. Secondary students who do not wish to attend the religion class have the right to opt out if their school offers a class in ethics as an alternative, which many schools do. Parents of primary school students may request an exemption for their child from religion class attendance.
In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. In Sarajevo and Tuzla Cantons, primary and secondary students may either opt out or take ethics courses in lieu of religious education classes. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. In September the RS Ministry of Education introduced religious education in secondary schools.
A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.
The state constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion. Parliamentary seats and government positions are apportioned among the three constituent major ethnicities – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – according to quotas set by constitutional provisions.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Officials publicly acknowledged the need to the address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house, but they took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups. Individuals who were not members of the three major ethnic/religious groups reported they could not hold any of the proportionally guaranteed government positions, including the presidency. There were reports of the various levels of government making little progress in resolving longstanding issues pertaining to religious freedom and rights.
NGOs, academics, and government agencies reported the continued association of each of the country’s major political parties with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership. The biggest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the biggest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.
NGOs continued to report that government authorities were not enforcing the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. During the year, the Border Police complied with a November 2017 state Constitutional Court ruling that declared their January 2017 regulation prohibiting beards for the police to be unconstitutional and ordering the police to abolish the regulation.
According to IC officials, the Presidency again did not approve an agreement, reached in 2015, between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers as well as to take a one-time trip to Mecca for the Hajj. During the year, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency refused to put this issue on the agenda of the Presidency sessions due to disputes over the proposed text of the agreement.
According to representatives of the Catholic Church, there had been no meeting of the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest. Earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays, remained unimplemented by the government and parliament.
In December SOC officials reported the government had taken no steps to establish a commission to implement the government’s agreement with the SOC.
According to officials of religious groups that are in a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits for new religious properties. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse construction permits for a new Catholic church, despite repeated requests from the local Catholic priest, the Banja Luka Catholic Diocese, and representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which became directly engaged on the issue. In pursuit of a solution, Drvar Catholics, led by their priest, began raising funds to purchase private land to build the church.
In December leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH lamented the lack of any BiH institution responsible for the rights of religious communities. They said this lack hindered efforts on the part of the religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965.
According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provisions of the law regarding the religious education of returnee children remained unimplemented, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government authorities seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a sixth year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.
Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions.
Authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. These members of religious minorities reported discrimination regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They stated that refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Leaders of religious minority communities and NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, reported the continued failure of authorities to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. NGOs reported that representatives of minority communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc were discriminated against particularly when it concerned access to education in their mother tongue and employment in public companies. The community leaders also said local authorities continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to an annual report published by the IRC in May, only 45 percent of perpetrators were identified in these cases. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.
On March 6, the Sarajevo Canton Assembly annulled its 2016 decision to name an elementary school and a street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad after Mustafa Busuladzic, a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. As of the end of the year, the decision remained unimplemented. The school’s website continued to list the school name as Mustafa Busuladzic, and the street was still named after him. During the year, the president of the Jewish Community strongly condemned the continued use of the name.
In April seven individuals were convicted for a 2015 attack on a mosque in Tomislavgrad and sentenced to one and one-half years in prison, but their sentences were suspended pending two years of probation. In 2017, a different defendant in the same case pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a similar one-year suspended prison sentence.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the IRC, which records and tracks cases of intolerance and hatred in an annual report when members of affected religious communities report them, released data it had collected between November 2016 and December 2017. The data showed 11 attacks on religious sites, religious officials, or believers during that period (compared with 12 in the report covering November 2015-October 2016). One attack was against a Catholic site, seven against the IC, and three against the SOC. Of 209 attacks on religious officials and sites since 2010, the IRC reported police had identified perpetrators in 73 of the attacks. As of May 2018, the courts had prosecuted 23 of these cases. The IRC stated that while there were fewer reported attacks, authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes.
In March unknown perpetrators stole items from and desecrated the Catholic Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet in Zenica, causing significant material damage. The local chapter of the IRC condemned the incident, but as of year’s end, no perpetrators had been identified. In June individuals broke into an Orthodox church in the town of Cekrekije in the Visoko Municipality, set fire to sacral items, and stole valuables. Police arrested two suspects and forwarded the case to the Zenica Doboj Prosecutor’s Office for further proceedings. On July 10, three minors verbally accosted a Catholic nun in the central town of Fojnica. Police identified the perpetrators and discussed the incident with their parents. The local mayor condemned the attack.
The Council of Muftis of the IC continued efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease their “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. While the IC reported that 64 para‑jamaats were active in 2016, only 21 were active and operating outside the auspices of the IC in 2018.
On July 18, during a talk show on the Serbian television program Cirilica, also broadcast on Alternative TV in BiH, then RS President and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats Milorad Dodik referred to the adhan (Muslim call to worship) as “howling” that disturbed citizens in Banja Luka and caused property values to depreciate. The statement drew strong condemnation from opposition politicians, the international community, and the IC.
On July 20, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared, almost at the same time, inside the hallways of apartment buildings in Tuzla and Sarajevo, where members of the Jewish community resided. Authorities condemned the incidents. No perpetrators were identified by year’s end.
On December 28, 2017, individuals threw beer bottles at the city mosque in Kiseljak, inflicting light damage to the mosque’s facade. Police identified the perpetrators and forwarded the case to the local prosecutor’s office. No information was available what sanctions, if any, were handed down to the perpetrators.
The IRC continued to sponsor projects aimed at increasing interfaith dialogue involving women and youth. On April 23, in cooperation with the German Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, the IRC organized its fourth “European Workshop on Facing the Past Burdened with Violence,” which also involved participants from other European countries. Within the project, religious leaders visited places of suffering of each ethnic/religious group from past wars. The visits included the testimonies of victims in those places.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, the BiH Minister of Security, and other ministries to discuss the government’s efforts to combat violent extremism related to religion and religious freedom. They also underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law, including for religious minorities, emphasizing that restrictions on minority religious groups can lead to their marginalization and possible radicalization.
In a December meeting with leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH, the Deputy Secretary of State stressed the importance of religious freedom and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to promote interreligious dialogue in regular meetings with leaders and representatives of the four “traditional” religious communities and other religious groups, including discussing ways the groups could contribute to the further development of a peaceful and stable society. In December 2017, the embassy met with the local mufti, Catholic bishop, and Orthodox bishop in Banja Luka to discuss ways to promote interreligious dialogue.
As part of a U.S. government program with the IRC to promote peace, reconciliation, tolerance, and coexistence among the country’s diverse religious and ethnic communities, embassy officials regularly attended significant events in the different religious communities – Eid al-Fitr celebrations with the IC, Christmas and Easter celebrations with the Orthodox and Catholic communities, and a Passover seder with the Jewish community. At these events, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity.
The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and support its activities, including the development of its first communication strategy, 14 small grant applications to be administered by local IRC chapters, and other activities to help the IRC further develop its institutional capacity. The IRC continued to participate in U.S. government-funded programs designed to help overcome ethnic and religious divisions through dialogue and restore trust among the country’s religious groups. Such events included multiple roundtables featuring prominent women and a youth summit.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred. All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law, and are free to worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and favorable tax and other treatment; 53 other registered religious communities that have agreements with the state receive equivalent treatment that registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups do not receive. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations reported instances of border police subjecting migrants to treatment inconsistent with their religious beliefs. The government denied these reports. The ombudsperson covering human rights reported some health institutions denied operations to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions for religious reasons, despite the ombudsperson having issued a recommendation that public hospitals provide treatment in such cases. Jewish leaders said the government did not take concrete steps to restitute private or communal Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust. According to observers, the government made no significant progress on such issues during the year. Atheists and Jewish organizations said non-Catholic children were discriminated against in public schools. Senior government officials attended an annual commemoration for victims of the World War II (WWII)-era Jasenovac concentration camp. Jewish and Serb leaders, the latter largely Orthodox, boycotted the commemoration for the third year in a row, the former stating the government failed to address anti-Semitism. Leaders of the Islamic community reported overall good relations with the government.
Jewish community leaders continued to report Holocaust revisionism and public use of Ustasha (WWII pro-Nazi regime) symbols and slogans. The Council of Europe and the national ombudsperson reported an increase in religious intolerance, particularly online. The ombudsperson’s report said comments on various online portals accused Jews of undermining democracy, freedom, and financial institutions.
The U.S. embassy continued to encourage the government to restitute property seized during and after WWII, particularly from the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and advocated amendments to existing legislation that would allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications. The embassy sponsored a visit by two teachers to the United States for a Holocaust education exchange program and sponsored the visit to the United States of the director of the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site on a leadership study program.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.3 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 86.3 percent of the population is Catholic, 4.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 1.5 percent Muslim. Nearly 4 percent self-identify as nonreligious or atheist. Other religious groups include Jews, Protestants, and other Christians. According to the Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia, there are between 2,000 and 2,500 Jews.
Religious affiliation correlates closely with ethnicity. Ethnic Serbs are predominantly members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and live primarily in cities and areas bordering Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most members of other minority religious groups reside in urban areas.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for equality of rights regardless of religion, as well as freedom of conscience and religious expression. It prohibits incitement of religious hatred. According to the constitution, religious communities shall be equal under the law and separate from the state; they are free to publicly conduct religious services as well as open and manage schools and charitable organizations under the protection and assistance of the state.
The Catholic Church receives state financial support and other benefits established by four concordats between the government and the Holy See. These agreements provide for state financing for salaries and pensions of some religious officials associated with religious education through government-managed pension and health funds. These agreements also stipulate state funding for religious education in public schools.
The law defines the legal position of religious communities and determines eligibility for government funding and tax benefits. Registered religious communities are exempt from taxes on the purchase of real estate, the profit/capital gains tax, and taxes on donations. According to the law, a religious community previously active as a legal entity before enactment of the current law need only submit its name, the location of its headquarters, information on the office of the person authorized to represent it, and the seal and stamp it uses to register. To register as a religious community, a religious group without prior legal status must have at least 500 members and have been registered as an association, with at least three members for at least five years. To register as a religious community, a group submits a list of its members and documentation outlining the group’s activities and bylaws and describing its mission to the Ministry of Administration. Nonregistered religious groups may operate freely but do not receive tax benefits. They may conduct financial transactions as legal entities. A contractual agreement with the state, which grants a registered religious community eligibility for further funding and benefits, defines the community’s role and activities and provides for collaboration with the government in areas of joint interest, such as education, health, and culture.
There are 54 registered religious communities, including the Catholic Church, SOC, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Christian Adventist Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Croatian Old Catholic Church, Evangelical Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Reformed Christian Church, Union of Baptist Churches, Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Union of Pentecostal Churches of Christ, Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia (an umbrella group of nine distinct Jewish communities), Jewish Community of Virovitica, Bet Israel (a Jewish group), and the Islamic Community of Croatia. Besides the Catholic Church, 19 religious communities have agreements with the state.
The state recognizes marriages conducted by registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state, eliminating the need for civil registration. Marriages conducted by registered communities that have not concluded agreements with the state, or by nonregistered religious groups, require civil registration.
Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may not conduct religious education in public schools or access state funds in support of religious activities, including charitable work, counseling, building costs, and clergy salaries; however, they may engage in worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature. Only registered religious communities, with or without agreements with the state, may provide spiritual counsel in prisons, hospitals, and the military.
Public schools must offer religious education, although students may opt out without providing specific grounds. The Catholic catechism is the predominant religious text used. Other religious communities that have agreements with the state may also offer religious education classes in schools if there are seven or more students of that faith. Eligible religious communities provide the instructors and the state pays their salaries. Private religious schools are eligible for state assistance and follow a national curriculum. Registered religious communities may have their own schools. Unregistered religious groups may not have their own schools.
Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in the seventh and eighth grades of elementary school and during four years of high school education.
The law does not unequivocally allow foreign citizens whose property was confiscated during and after the Holocaust era to seek compensation or restitution. According to law, an applicant’s country must have a bilateral restitution treaty with Croatia, but no such bilateral treaties currently exist. Two court cases have held such treaties are not required; however, the law has not changed. The law does not allow new property claims, because the deadline expired in 2003.
The ombudsperson is a commissioner of the parliament responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom. The ombudsperson examines citizens’ complaints pertaining to the work of state bodies; local and regional self-government; and legal persons vested with public authority. The ombudsperson may issue recommendations to government agencies regarding human rights and religious freedom practices but does not have authority to enforce compliance with his or her recommendations.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
According to the Office of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the government budgeted 288.2 million kuna ($45.67 million) during the year for the Catholic Church for salaries, pensions, and other purposes, compared with 299.5 million kuna ($47.46 million) in 2017. The government offered funding to other religious communities that had concluded agreements with the state, a portion of which was based on their size, in addition to funds provided to support religious education in public schools, as well as the operation of private religious schools. The government provided 21.4 million kuna ($3.39 million) to these groups.
Some minority groups said the Catholic Church continued to enjoy a special status in relation to other religious communities, in part because of its concordats with the government and in part because of its cultural and political influence as the majority religion.
Atheist, Jewish, and Serbian Orthodox organizations said that although the law allows students to opt out of religious education, in practice most public schools did not offer viable alternatives to Catholic catechism. They also said public schools did not take adequate steps to prevent bullying of nonparticipating children. The press covered several specific instances of such bullying during the year. Atheist groups said Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals. They said they believed this practice was inconsistent with the constitution, which states religious communities shall be separate from the state. The courts have not ruled on this question to date.
NGOs and international organizations reported incidents of border police using religious epithets in interactions with migrants and subjecting migrants to situations that conflicted with their religious values. For example, one NGO said border police conducted a strip search of a Muslim woman in the presence of Muslim men. Ministry of Interior authorities denied all such reports.
The ombudsperson reported continued obstacles encountered by Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding their right to health care in accordance with their religious beliefs. During the year, the ombudsperson stated that in 2017, the latest year for which figures were available, there were 24 cases in which state healthcare institutions denied surgery to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions because of their religious beliefs. Of the 24 cases, 15 patients eventually received adequate medical care in private hospitals in the country. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community reported again having to use its own finances to send patients to different hospitals for procedures, including hospitals outside of the country. The ombudsperson’s report on 2017 recommended the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor and Pension System improve hospital procedures and policies to provide adequate health care to patients in accordance with their religious beliefs.
The ombudsperson’s 2017 report said Jews faced frequent online hate speech, threats, and accusations, e.g., that Jews undermined Croatian society, democracy, and financial institutions; Jews should leave the country; and the extermination of the Jewish people during WWII should have been completed. Jewish groups said the government did not take adequate steps to prevent or punish such speech.
Following a September meeting with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, Mufti Aziz Hasanovic, leader of the Islamic Community of Croatia, publicly described cooperation between his community and the government as excellent and a positive example for other countries in Europe. Hasanovic cited as an example his cooperation with the government to provide religious and cultural instruction to soldiers before they deployed to Muslim countries, particularly Afghanistan. The mufti accompanied President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic on state visits to majority-Muslim countries.
Following an April meeting with Prime Minister Plenkovic, Metropolitan Porfirije Peric, leader of the SOC, publicly stated he was satisfied with the legal status of the Church.
On April 22, the government held its official annual commemoration of victims killed by the WWII-era Ustasha regime at Jasenovac concentration camp. The Jewish community, along with the Serb National Council and the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters, boycotted the official commemoration for the third year in a row, instead holding their own commemorations. Members of Jewish groups said the boycott was necessary to condemn what they said was the government’s lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution. Observers said the government made no significant progress on such issues during the year.
Representatives of the SOC reported the government resolved three outstanding property restitution cases related to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, although several others remained unresolved.
On the same day the government commemorated victims of Jasenovac, and again on May 6, police prevented members of the extra-parliamentary Autonomous Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP), described widely in both media reports and academic analyses as far right, from entering Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site to hold a meeting. Prior to both attempts, A-HSP President Drazen Keleminec sent the media an online invitation that included the WWII-era Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (“For the Homeland Ready”).
In June Jasenovac Memorial Site released a statement criticizing state-owned television (HRT) for airing an interview with Igor Vukic, author of a book published during the year minimizing the crimes committed at Jasenovac during the Holocaust. The officials said taxpayer-funded state-owned television should not be a platform for what they termed Holocaust revisionism.
Jewish community leaders said some government officials made statements downplaying the country’s role in the Holocaust. For example, they highlighted as problematic President Grabar-Kitarovic’s March statement in Buenos Aires that, “After World War II, many Croats found a space of freedom in Argentina where they could testify to their patriotism,” saying that some Croats who settled there after the war were Ustasha fleeing prosecution for war crimes.
On February 28, a special government-appointed council tasked with examining the use of totalitarian symbols made a nonbinding recommendation to legalize limited use of such symbols for commemorative or ceremonial purposes. Many civil society organizations criticized this recommendation, believing it would allow for continued use of symbols from the country’s WWII-era Ustasha regime by some veterans groups and nationalist political organizations who minimize the country’s role in the Holocaust.
The Office of the President continued to maintain a special advisor for Holocaust issues, who was involved in developing and implementing religious freedom projects, including a film festival on religious tolerance and a competition to choose an architect for a new Holocaust memorial in downtown Zagreb.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the Council of Europe released a report saying religious intolerance, including pro-Ustasha graffiti and online speech, were on the rise in the country. Minority religious communities reported occasional instances of verbal harassment and physical assault, including of religious workers. One NGO said that in Zagreb in September, volunteers in the process of removing graffitied swastikas from a building were beaten by unknown assailants and hospitalized, one with severe injuries. Although police initiated an investigation, the volunteers ultimately declined to press charges, stating concern for potential social repercussions.
SOC representatives reported fewer incidents of targeted crime compared with the previous year. For example, they reported to police two burglaries (compared with 10 in 2017) of SOC religious properties. SOC representatives reported frequent verbal attacks on Metropolitan Peric in public spaces in Zagreb; however, they said Peric did not file police reports.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy staff regularly discussed religious freedom issues, including the status and treatment of religious minorities, property restitution, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Culture; the ombudsperson; representatives of parliament; and other officials. The embassy also discussed the religious freedom of migrants and asylum-seekers with officials from the Ministry of Interior.
In March the Ambassador, embassy staff, and the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with the minister of justice, the minister of culture, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, leaders of Jewish organizations, and a panel of Holocaust survivors. The U.S. officials encouraged the government to adopt amendments to existing legislation to provide for restitution of private and communal or religious property seized during and after WWII, including provisions that would unequivocally allow for foreign claims and that would reopen the deadline for potential new claims. Embassy engagement also focused on the restitution of Jewish communal properties such as cultural centers, synagogues, and cemeteries, as well as private property, and creation of a claims process for victims.
Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with NGOs such as the Society for Promotion of Religious Freedom, Human Rights House, Documenta, Protagora, and Zagreb Pride, as well as with representatives from Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups.
In cooperation with the Ministry of Science and Education, the embassy again funded Holocaust education training in the United States for two high school teachers, who later applied the training in the classroom. The Department of State, Association of Holocaust Organizations in New York, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum organized the annual program. The program continued to focus on new teaching methods and techniques, facilitated an exchange of ideas and experiences, and provided resources and materials for classroom instruction.
The embassy sponsored the participation of the director of Jasenovac Memorial Site in a program in the United States focused on religious freedom and human rights.
The embassy posted a range of religious freedom issues on social media platforms, including support for Holocaust commemorations.
Since 1974, the southern part of Cyprus has been under the control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus. The northern part, administered by Turkish Cypriots, proclaimed itself the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (“TRNC”) in 1983. The United States does not recognize the “TRNC,” nor does any country other than Turkey. A substantial number of Turkish troops remain on the island. A buffer zone, or “green line,” patrolled by the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP), separates the two parts. This report is divided into two parts: the Republic of Cyprus and the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. For areas in the north that have different Greek and Turkish names, both are listed (e.g., Kormakitis/Korucam).
IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS (BELOW) | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the freedom to worship, teach, and practice one’s religion. It grants the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and recognizes the Vakf, an Islamic institution that manages sites of worship and land Muslims have donated as a charitable endowment. Authorities closed the only functioning mosque in Paphos from October 2017 to May due to construction in the area and denied the Muslim community’s request to use the Grand Mosque as an alternative. The government granted Turkish Cypriots and foreigners in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots access to religious sites in the area it controls, including for three visits to Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque during Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Mawlid al-Nabi. On June 11, the government allowed Mufti of Cyprus Talip Atalay to attend an iftar with the Muslim community at Kato Paphos Mosque, marking the first time in more than four decades the mufti visited and prayed with the Muslim community of Paphos during Ramadan. A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative reported difficulties accessing municipal cemeteries and in distributing pamphlets in Ayia Napa. The Cyprus Humanists Association said the Ministry of Education (MOE) and public schools discriminated against atheist students, and the MOE on its website advised students to reject atheism.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Caritas reported instances of physical attacks and threats against Muslim students in Paphos. The Jewish community reported incidents of anti-Semitic threats and verbal harassment. Some religious minority groups reported pressure to engage in religious ceremonies of majority groups. Greek Orthodox Christians reported they sometimes faced ostracism from that community if they converted to another religion. Leaders of the main religious groups continued to meet and reaffirmed their commitment to promoting religious freedom across the island.
The U.S. Ambassador attended language classes for interfaith leaders coordinated by the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCYPP), an initiative of the Swedish embassy that facilitates cooperation among religious leaders to advocate peace and access to and protection of religious sites and monuments. The Ambassador discussed access to religious sites and interfaith dialogue with Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos. Embassy staff met with the government, NGOs, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom, including access to religious sites island-wide and discrimination against minority religious groups. Embassy officials encouraged continued dialogue among religious leaders and reciprocal visits to places of religious significance on both sides of the “green line.”
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population of the island at 1.2 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the population of the government-controlled area was 840,000. Of that total, 89.1 percent is Greek Orthodox Christian and 1.8 percent Muslim. Other religious groups include Roman Catholics (2.9 percent), Protestants (2 percent), Buddhists (1 percent), Maronite Catholics (0.5 percent), and Armenian Orthodox (0.3 percent), with small populations of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’is. Recent immigrants and migrant workers are predominantly Roman Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist. The country’s chief rabbi estimates the number of Jews at 3,000, most of whom are foreign born. A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative estimates the group has 2,600 members.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and protects the right of individuals to profess their faith and to worship, teach, and practice or observe their religion, individually or collectively, in private or in public, subject to limitations due to considerations of national security or public health, safety, order, and morals, or the protection of civil liberties. The constitution specifies all religions whose doctrines or rites are not secret are free and equal before the law. It protects the right to change one’s religion and prohibits the use of physical or moral compulsion to make a person change, or prevent a person from changing, his or her religion. The ombudsman is an independent state institution responsible for protecting citizens’ rights and human rights in general. The ombudsman has the power to investigate complaints made against any public service or official for actions that violate human rights, including freedom of religion, or contravene the laws or rules of proper administration. The ombudsman makes recommendations to correct wrongdoings but cannot enforce them.
The constitution grants the Autocephalous Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Church of Cyprus) the exclusive right to regulate and administer the Church’s internal affairs and property in accordance with its canons and charter. By law, the Church of Cyprus pays taxes only on commercial activities.
The constitution sets guidelines for the Vakf, which is tax exempt and has the exclusive right to regulate and administer its internal affairs and property in accordance with its laws and principles. According to the constitution, no legislative, executive, or other act may contravene or interfere with the Church of Cyprus or the Vakf. The Vakf, which acts as caretaker of religious properties in the Turkish Cypriot community, operates only in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots. The government administers and provides financial support to mosques in government-controlled areas.
Besides the Church of Cyprus and Islam, the constitution recognizes three other religious groups: Maronite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, and Latins (Roman Catholics). Their institutions are tax exempt and eligible for government subsidies for cultural and educational matters, including to cover costs to operate their own schools, for school fees of group members attending private schools, and for activities to preserve their cultural identity.
Religious groups not recognized in the constitution must register with the government as nonprofit organizations in order to engage in financial transactions and maintain bank accounts. To register, a religious group must submit through an attorney an application to the Registrar of Companies under the Ministry of Energy, Commerce, Industry, and Tourism, stating its purpose and providing the names of its directors. Religious groups registered as nonprofit organizations are treated the same as other nonprofit organizations; they are tax exempt, must provide annual reports to the government, and are not eligible for government subsidies.
The law requires animals to be stunned before slaughter.
The government requires Greek Orthodox religious instruction and attendance at religious services before major holidays in public primary and secondary schools. The MOE may excuse primary school students of other religious groups from attending religious services and instruction at the request of their guardians, but Greek Orthodox children in primary school may not opt out. The MOE may excuse secondary school students from religious instruction on grounds of religion or conscience, and may excuse them from attending religious services on any grounds at the request of their guardians, or at their own request if over the age of 16.
Conscientious objectors on religious grounds are exempt from active military duty and from reservist service in the National Guard but must complete alternative service. The two options available for conscientious objectors are unarmed military service, which is a maximum of four months longer than the normal 14-month service, or social service, which is a maximum of eight months longer than normal service but requires fewer hours of work per day. The penalty for refusing military or alternative service is up to three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 6,000 euros ($6,900), or both. Those who refuse both military and alternative service, even if objecting on religious grounds, are considered to have committed an offense involving dishonesty or moral turpitude and are disqualified from holding elected public office and ineligible for permits to provide private security services.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to allow the community access for religious services to only six of 19 mosques located on cultural heritage sites, as well as to two other mosques not located on such sites. Of the eight functioning mosques, seven were available for all five daily prayers, and six had the necessary facilities for ablutions. The government again failed to respond to the Muslim community’s long-standing request for permission to make improvements at the functioning mosques, and there was no change from previous years in either the number of open mosques or the number of ablution and bathroom facilities available at those mosques. Bayraktar and Dhali Mosques had no ablution facilities and no bathrooms, and the government again removed temporary bathrooms installed during Ramadan at Dhali Mosque. Although the government approved architectural plans for ablution and bathroom facilities at Dhali Mosque in 2016, construction had still not begun by year’s end. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) stated the local imam did not approve the plans and instead requested that ablution facilitates be built at his nearby house. A survey found structural problems in the house that prevented construction, and the MOI continued to evaluate alternatives at year’s end. The Ministry of Communications and Works’ Department of Antiquities reported it provided bathroom facilities at a distance of approximately 330 feet from Bayraktar Mosque. Authorities said the mosque was part of the medieval Venetian wall of the city, making it impossible to install sewage pipes.
Authorities closed Kato Paphos Mosque, which was the only functioning mosque in the city of Paphos and served approximately 1,500 Muslims, from October 2017 to May due to a construction project to upgrade the surrounding area. According to the ombudsman, the Department of Antiquities rejected the local Muslim community’s request to use the nearby Grand Mosque as an alternative because it lacked hygiene facilities and because of scheduled restoration works. After examining a complaint submitted by the executive coordinator of the RTCYPP, the ombudsman on May 11 called on the minister of interior, the mayor of Paphos, and the director of the Department of Antiquities to take immediate action to provide a suitable place of worship. Authorities reopened the mosque on May 15 to allow the community to use the mosque for Ramadan, and it remained open during the rest of the year.
The only one of the eight functioning mosques not open for all five daily prayers was Hala Sultan Tekke Mosque, the most important Islamic religious site in the country. The Department of Antiquities continued to keep it open during standard museum hours only, limiting access to the mosque to two of the five daily prayer times. The mosque’s imam had to ask permission of the MOI and Department of Antiquities to keep the mosque open after 5 p.m. in the autumn/winter months and after 7:30 p.m. in the spring/summer months; the imam said the authorities routinely granted permission.
The government continued to waive visa requirements for the movement of non-Turkish Cypriot pilgrims south across the “green line” to visit Hala Sultan Tekke to conduct prayers and services on special occasions. To cross the “green line” without identification checks to visit religious sites, Turkish Cypriots and foreign nationals residing in the area administered by Turkish Cypriots were required to submit requests to UNFICYP, which then facilitated the approval process with the government. On June 20, 884 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled area for a pilgrimage to Hala Sultan Tekke on Eid al-Fitr. On August 28, police escorted approximately 300 Turkish Cypriots, Turks, and other foreign nationals to Hala Sultan Tekke for prayers on Eid al-Adha. On November 20, 655 pilgrims crossed into the government-controlled area to attend prayers at Hala Sultan Tekke on Mawlid al-Nabi.
On June 11, in response to a request facilitated by the RTCYPP, the government allowed Mufti of Cyprus Atalay to attend an iftar with the Muslim community at Kato Paphos Mosque. It marked the first time in more than four decades the mufti visited and prayed with the Muslim community of Paphos during Ramadan.
A representative of the Buddhist community reported it no longer encountered difficulties operating a place of worship in an apartment in Nicosia. A 2015 criminal case against a Buddhist priest for unlicensed alterations and additions to a building in Pera that the community had previously used as a temple was resolved during the year; the priest complied with the building regulations and in June paid three fines of 250 euros ($290) each. A Buddhist community representative said two of the fines were for unlicensed alterations to the building made by the previous owner, a Cypriot national, who was never prosecuted.
Representatives of the Jewish community reported authorities continued to perform autopsies on deceased members of the community for deaths that were not suspicious, a practice they said violated Jewish religious beliefs. They stated that, despite raising the issue repeatedly with the relevant government authorities, the issue remained unresolved. Jewish representatives also said local Department of Veterinary Services officials initially prevented them from performing religious animal slaughter, despite granting exemptions from the requirement to stun animals before slaughter in previous years. A Department of Veterinary Services official said the department no longer granted exemptions for religious slaughter. A Jewish community representative said, after engaging local government officials, the officials ultimately allowed the community to perform the slaughter without prior stunning. The Muslim community said it had not encountered problems in carrying out ritual slaughter.
Jewish representatives said the government had not responded to their long-standing request to grant the Chief Rabbinate of Cyprus the right to officiate documents such as marriage, death, and divorce certificates.
A Jehovah’s Witnesses representative said the community was not allowed to bury its dead in municipal cemeteries, which were often managed by local Greek Orthodox churches. The representative also said local police fined some of its members for “peddling without a license” for distributing free pamphlets in Ayia Napa. He said the community had been unsuccessful in resolving the issue with municipal authorities, and that he had written letters to the minister of interior, the chief of police, Ayia Napa municipality, and the ombudsman about the incidents. The MOI responded in December that, provided there was space available, municipalities were legally bound to provide burial space in municipal cemeteries regardless of the deceased person’s religion. The chief of police replied the Ayia Napa incidents were under the purview of municipal police, and Ayia Napa municipality had not responded by year’s end. The ombudsman was examining the case at year’s end.
The Cyprus Humanists Association stated the MOE and public schools took actions that discriminated against atheist students. In January the MOE posted a presentation on its official website advising rejection of atheism and describing atheists as materialistic and immoral. By April the MOE had removed the presentation from its website. The Cyprus Humanists Association also reported in December 2017 that a public primary school invited Greek Orthodox priests to hear confessions of students during school time. The association submitted a complaint to the ombudsman about the incidents, but there was no information available as to whether the ombudsman had examined the complaint.
The military continued to require recruits to take part in a common prayer led by Church of Cyprus clergy during swearing-in ceremonies. Recruits of other faiths, atheists, and those who did not wish to take the oath for reasons of conscience could refrain from raising their hand during the ceremony. They instead recited a pledge of allegiance at a separate gathering.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Caritas reported three 10-year-old students in Paphos pushed a Muslim student of the same age off a veranda in January, resulting in injuries that required multiple hospital visits for treatment. The victim’s mother filed a complaint with the local MOE office, which did not take any action. The victim’s mother did not file a complaint with police. According to Caritas, in December the Cypriot father of another student threatened the 14-year-old sister of the first victim and pushed her to the ground while on the school grounds. The school manager refused to file a police complaint, saying the alleged perpetrator was dangerous, and advised the victim’s mother against filing a police report to avoid creating problems. The victim’s mother reported the attack to police, who reportedly had not taken action by year’s end. Caritas also said students discriminated against Muslim students, teasing and excluding girls who wore hijabs, calling them names, and pressuring them to eat pork.
Representatives of the Jewish community reported instances of anti-Semitic threats and harassment. The Jewish community said that, on three occasions in August and October, Muslim men verbally abused members of the Jewish community in Larnaca with anti-Semitic slurs and death threats. The victims had not filed complaints with police at year’s end. The Jewish community also cited an incident in which an elementary school student, whose father is Palestinian, verbally harassed a Jewish student with anti-Semitic language in May. The school principal reportedly spoke with the student, who apologized.
Members of minority religious groups continued to report societal pressures to participate in public religious ceremonies. For example, children of various religious minorities said they faced social pressure to attend religious ceremonies at school.
Some Greek Orthodox adherents who converted to other faiths, including Islam, reportedly continued to hide their conversion from family and friends due to fear of social ostracism.
During the year the Technical Committee on Cultural Heritage (TCCH), one of the bicommunal working groups set up as part of the UN-facilitated settlement negotiations process, completed the restoration of Camii-Kebir Mosque in Paphos. The project was scheduled to be inaugurated in early 2019. The TCCH restored religious sites for purposes of cultural preservation, and restored sites were not necessarily available for use by religious groups. In November 2017, the TCCH completed the restoration of the mosques of Ayios Nicolaos (Aynikola) and Ayios Yiannis (Ayianni) in Paphos district. Neither building functioned as an active mosque after the restoration.
The leaders of the main religious groups on the island continued to meet regularly and visit places of worship on both sides of the buffer zone. On June 19, the RTCYPP released a joint video statement featuring the country’s main religious leaders appealing for inclusion, understanding, and support for refugees and asylum seekers to mark World Refugee Day. A joint project of religious leaders through the RTCYPP offering Greek and Turkish language classes for members of the Greek Orthodox, Muslim, Armenian Orthodox, Maronite, and Latin Catholic communities continued; participants included priests, imams, nuns, and laypersons who worked for faith-based organizations.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy representatives continued to meet frequently with government officials – from the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs, and Justice, as well as the Department of Antiquities and the Office of the Ombudsman – to discuss religious freedom issues, such as access to religious sites on either side of the “green line” dividing the country.
The Ambassador discussed restrictions on access to religious sites and interfaith dialogue with Church of Cyprus Archbishop Chrysostomos. In June the Ambassador met with interfaith leaders taking Greek and Turkish language classes organized by the RTCYPP and held at the Home for Cooperation in the buffer zone.Ambassador also met with the Swedish Ambassador to discuss ways of promoting religious freedom on the island and support the efforts of the RTCYPP to encourage cooperation among religious leaders.
Embassy staff continued to discuss religious freedom issues, including religious-based discrimination, with NGOs Caritas and Movement for Equality, Support, Anti-Racism. They met with representatives of the Armenian Orthodox, Baha’i, Buddhist, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Maronite, Roman Catholic, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslim communities to hear their concerns about access to and the condition of religious sites and cemeteries, incidents of religious-based harassment and discrimination, societal attitudes toward minority religions, and obstacles to religious freedom. Embassy officials supported religious leaders’ ongoing dialogue and encouraged the continuing reciprocal visits of Christian and Muslim leaders to places of worship on both sides of the “green line.”
IN THIS SECTION: REPUBLIC OF CYPRUS (ABOVE) | AREA ADMINISTERED BY TURKISH CYPRIOTS
All references to place names within this report are for reference purposes only and are meant to convey meaning. They should not be interpreted as implying or indicating any political recognition or change in long-standing U.S. policy.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplement to the constitution, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and states everyone has the right to change, abstain from, and freely practice religion. The Ministry of Culture (MOC) registered two religious groups in June; applications of three other groups and legal appeals by two other groups of registration denials remained pending at year’s end. The High Court in Olomouc upheld a lower court conviction in absentia of Path of Guru Jara (PGJ) leader Jaroslav Dobes and another PGJ member and sentenced them to prison. The high court also reversed and remanded the lower court’s convictions on seven other counts of rape involving PGJ; reportedly, the lower court later dismissed those charges. The government stated that in the first nine months of 2017 it settled 638 claims by religious groups for property confiscated during the communist period. President Milo Zeman awarded a medal to a nursing school head for “fighting intolerant ideology” after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab. The opposition Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) campaigned on an anti-Muslim platform in October elections.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) In IUSTITIA reported 17 religiously motivated incidents – 13 against Muslims and four against Jews – compared with 34 in 2017. The government reported 27 anti-Semitic and three anti-Muslim incidents in 2017, compared with 28 and seven, respectively, in 2016. A survey by the Median polling agency found 80 percent of citizens did not want Muslims as their neighbors. The government reported an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric online. A theater in Zlin received a letter stating Jews were unwanted immigrants who should “disappear abroad or in gas” after presenting a play on efforts to restore a Jewish cemetery in Prostejov. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported 18 concerts in which participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views.
U.S. Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, such as property restitution for religious groups and religious tolerance, with government officials. In June embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues (SEHI) discussed the welfare of Holocaust survivors and other issues of concern with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Embassy officials met with Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders to reaffirm U.S. government support for religious freedom and tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.7 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 census, of the 56 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 62 percent held none, 18 percent were Catholic, 12 percent listed no specific religion, and 7 percent belonged to a variety of religious groups, including the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, other Protestant churches, other Christian groups, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. Academics estimate there are 10,000 Jews; the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000. Leaders of the Muslim community estimate there are 10,000 Muslims, most of whom are immigrants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all regardless of their faith or religion. It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, observance.” The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state. It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law. The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”
The law states the MOC Department of Churches is responsible for religious affairs. While religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering, they have the option to register with the MOC. The law establishes a two-tiered system of registration for religious groups. The MOC reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies, such as the Office for Protection of Private Data and outside experts on religious affairs. The law does not establish a deadline for the MOC to decide on a registration application. Applicants denied registration can appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if again denied, to the courts.
To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present the signatures of at least 300 adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities. First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from a tax on the interest earned on current account deposits and taxes on donations and members’ contributions, and establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and use of funds.
For second-tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons. The group must provide this number of signatures as proof. Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies. In addition, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform officially recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons. Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy, outside of the prison chaplaincy system.
Religious groups registered prior to 2002 have automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration.
There are 40 state-registered religious groups; 18 groups are first tier and 22 are second tier.
Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property. Unregistered groups may form civic associations to manage their property.
The law authorizes the government to return to 17 religious groups (including the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and the Hussite Church) land and other property confiscated during the communist era and still in the government’s possession, the total value of which is estimated to be approximately 75 billion koruna ($3.42 billion). It also sets aside 59 billion koruna ($2.69 billion) for financial compensation for property that cannot be returned, to be paid to these 17 groups over a period of 30 years, ending in 2043, according to a fixed timetable. Using a mechanism prescribed by law based on an agreement among the religious groups concerned, the government allocates slightly more than 79 percent of the financial compensation to the Catholic Church. Religious groups had a one-year window, which ended in 2013, to make restitution claims for confiscated land and other property, which the government is processing. If the government rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in the courts. The law also contains provisions for phasing out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period, ending in 2029.
The law permits second-tier registered religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools; 11 of the 22 second-tier groups have applied and received permission. The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state. If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, teachers are paid by parishes or dioceses. Although the law makes religious instruction in public schools optional, school directors must provide instruction in the beliefs of one of the 11 approved religious groups if seven or more students register for the optional class at the beginning of the school year, in which case the school provides the religious instruction only to the students who registered.
The government does not regulate instruction in private schools.
The penal code outlaws denial of Nazi, communist, or other genocide, providing for prison sentences of six months to three years for public denial, questioning, approval of, or attempts to justify the genocide committed by the Nazis. The law also prohibits the incitement of hatred based on religion and provides for penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.
Foreign religious workers from European Economic Area countries or Switzerland must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country for more than 90 days. There is no special visa category for religious workers; foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.
The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June the MOC registered two religious groups – the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X and Theravada Buddhism – both of which had applied in 2016. Registration applications by the Community of Baptist Congregations, which applied in January, and Ecclesia Risorum, which applied in March, remained pending at year’s end.
In March the Municipal Court in Prague, ruling on an appeal by the Cannabis Church, overturned the MOC’s December 2016 decision to halt that group’s registration application. The court ordered the MOC to reopen the registration procedure. The MOC asked the Cannabis Church to supplement the registration application with additional information. The Cannabis Church’s application remained pending at year’s end. An appeal filed in 2017 with the Municipal Court in Prague by the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown, whose registration application the MOC rejected in 2016, remained pending at year’s end. In January the Municipal Court confirmed with the PGJ its wish to continue its legal appeal against the MOC, which twice rejected the group’s application in 2017. PGJ’s lawsuit against the government’s Office for Personal Data Protection, alleging an interrogative and abusive investigation of the PGJ’s registration application in 2017, remained pending at year’s end.
According to local news media, on October 11, the High Court in Olomouc upheld the January conviction in absentia by the Regional Court in Zlin of PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and PGJ member Barbora Plaskova on one count of rape and sentenced them to prison terms of five and five and a half years, respectively, and ordered them to pay the victim 60,000 koruna ($2,700). The high court voided convictions by the Zlin Regional Court of Dobes and Plaskova on seven other counts of rape and remanded the cases back to the Zlin court for retrial. In January the Zlin Regional Court had sentenced Dobes and Plaskova to seven and a half years in prison each after convicting them in absentia on eight counts of rape involving six women. Defense lawyers had appealed the verdict to the High Court in Olomouc. On December 21, according to PGJ representatives, the Zlin Regional Court dismissed the remaining seven charges of rape against Dobes and Plaskova and halted all criminal proceedings. Dobes and Plaskova reportedly remained in immigration detention in the Philippines.
The government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.3 billion koruna ($150.4 million), 1.2 billion koruna ($54.69 million) as a subsidy and 2.1 billion koruna ($95.71 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned. Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding. While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept the compensation for unreturned property. The MOC provided 2.8 million koruna ($128,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from a variety of religious groups.
Throughout the year, the Communist Party (a supporter of the coalition government but not an official coalition member and holding no ministries) supported legislation (which it introduced in 2017) to tax the remaining portion of financial compensation for property that could not be returned, estimated at approximately 46 billion koruna ($2.1 billion). The draft legislation, which some parliamentarians said they opposed, was scheduled to be voted on in 2019.
The government reported that, between January and September 2017, the most recent period for which data were available, it settled 446 claims with religious groups for agricultural property and 192 claims for nonagricultural property. (An earlier government report had incorrectly cited a higher number of settled claims for agricultural and nonagricultural property in the first three months of 2017.) At the end of this period, 66 agricultural and 89 nonagricultural property claims had not been adjudicated, and 1,318 lawsuits filed by religious groups in the courts to appeal government restitution decisions were pending.
In August the Supreme Court upheld the 2017 ruling by the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno that overturned a decision by the Brno Municipal Court earlier that year holding that the Brno Jewish Community (BJC) had legal title to a property in possession of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Supreme Court and the South Moravian Regional Court both held the property belonged to the ministry. The BJC had filed its claim in 2013 based on church restitution legislation, and the ministry had rejected the claim in 2014.
The city of Prostejov continued to oppose the restoration of a former Jewish cemetery by the Kolel Damesek Eliezer Foundation, a U.S. charity, and the FJC. The cemetery, which along with its remaining tombstones the MOC designated as a cultural monument, was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted into a park. Vladimir Spidla, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, continued to mediate the dispute.
In July a district court in Prague convicted former SPD Party Secretary Jaroslav Stanik of hate speech after he stated publicly in November 2017 that Jews, Roma, and homosexuals should be shot right after birth. The court issued a criminal order allowing for a suspended sentence up to one year or a fine if the defendant did not appeal it. Stanik appealed the criminal order. The Prague 1 District Court indefinitely postponed an appeals hearing scheduled for September for reasons of Stanik’s health.
In October President Zeman bestowed the Medal for Merits to the director of a state nursing school in Prague for “fighting intolerant ideology,” widely seen as a reference to Islam, after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab at school.
During municipal and senate elections in October, the SPD Party and its leader Tomio Okamura ran on an anti-Islam platform, posting notices on billboards reading “No to Islam, No to Terrorists.” The party did not win any senate seats and attained 155 out of 61,892 seats in municipal assemblies.
In February the government granted asylum to eight Chinese Christians and rejected asylum applications of 70 others. The Chinese Christian applicants had all applied in 2016 on the grounds of religious persecution in China. Fourteen other applicants withdrew their applications before the government announced its decisions. The 70 applicants whom the government rejected remained in the country at year’s end while they appealed their cases.
In April then-Deputy Chairman (later Chairman) of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera again sponsored and participated in an annual march and concert against anti-Semitism. The march opened the government-funded 15th annual Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival. Festival-goers signed a petition against anti-Semitism initiated by Senator Daniela Filipiova. Approximately 600 people attended the event.
The government funded religiously oriented cultural activities, including the Night of Churches held in several cities, the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus, KRISTFEST (a festival of seminars, workshops, and musical performances on religious themes), the Concert in Memory of Holocaust Victims, the annual Hussite Festival (commemorating the religious teaching of reformation leader Jan Hus), and the Romani Pilgrimage, organized by the Catholic Diocese of Olomouc.
The MOI said it continued to cooperate with the Jewish community on protection of Jewish sites in Prague and across the country, but did not provide details.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to NGO In IUSTITIA, there were reports of 17 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, 13 against Muslims and four against Jews, compared with 34 such cases in 2017. In IUSTITIA did not provide details of the incidents.
In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the MOI reported 27 criminal offenses with anti-Semitic motives, compared with 28 cases in 2016. The MOI reported three crimes with anti-Muslim motives in 2017, compared with seven in 2016. The MOI did not provide details of the incidents.
In March press reported police had arrested a 70-year-old man who in 2017 caused two trains to derail near Mlada Boleslav, approximately 40 miles north of Prague, and left Arabic messages at the scene in what authorities described as an attempt to provoke a reaction against Muslims. According to state attorney Marek Bodlak, the man left leaflets “containing linguistically garbled threatening texts to evoke that they were written by a jihadist.” Bodlak told newspaper Lidove noviny, “The accused is a native Czech citizen, motivated by the effort to raise concerns among the population about the Muslim migration wave and the commission of terrorist attacks.” The man’s trial was pending at year’s end.
According to a July survey of more than 800 persons by the Median polling agency, 35 percent said they did not mind interacting with Muslims in public places, but 80 percent did not want them as neighbors or want a mosque in their neighborhood, and 81 percent said they would be bothered if their child had a relationship with a Muslim. Citizens with less education and over the age of 45 were more likely to cite fear of Muslims. Respondents with greater interactions with Muslims reported more positive attitudes towards them.
In March the Municipal Theatre in Zlin received an anonymous anti-Semitic letter after it presented a play based on local developments following the efforts to restore the former Jewish cemetery in the nearby city of Prostejov. The letter stated, “The Jews are unwanted immigrants who have the obligation to immediately disappear abroad or in gas.” Police were investigating the case at year’s end.
The MOI reported 18 private “white power” music concerts took place in the country, where participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views. The MOI estimated approximately 50 to 100 persons attended a typical “white power” concert.
According to press reports, at a soccer match on November 4 between the Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague clubs, fans of the former shouted anti-Semitic taunts at Slavia, including “Jude Slavia,” alluding to the club’s supposed Jewish links. An interior ministry spokesperson said the chant was not motivated by “hatred towards a group of people for their alleged or actual race, ethnic group…” and that the football association should address the issue. Pavel Stingl, a documentary filmmaker, organized an exhibition, titled “Football: A Century of Fouls,” examining the sport’s relationship with fascism when the country was under Nazi occupation and highlighting the involvement of Jews in soccer’s development in the country. Stingl said he was motivated by the failure of government and soccer officials to address the problem of anti-Semitism among fans and because Sparta fans had posted anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi messages on social media.
Anti-Muslim rhetoric on the internet increased, according to the MOI. Discussions on social networks or in the comments sections under news articles featured anti-Muslim hate speech. For example, a discussion under an online series of articles on the Muslim community in the country published by mainstream newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes included anti-Islamic posts, including one stating that “Islam is a cancer on democracy.” In contrast to the previous year, there were no reports of demonstrations protesting against Islam or the acceptance of refugees from Muslim countries.
In May the state prosecutor’s office in Ceske Budejovice halted the prosecution of Martin Konvicka, leader of the Block Against Islamization Party (BPI), whom it had charged in 2016 with incitement of hatred and suppression of rights and freedoms. The prosecutor’s office dropped the charges due to a failure to secure evidence in a timely fashion from the online social network in which it alleged Konvicka posted statements calling for the creation of concentration camps for Muslims and their physical annihilation. The BPI held no seats in parliament.
In January the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a regional court in Jihlava that sentenced well-known anti-Semitic blogger Adam Bartos to a conditional sentence of one year in prison with two years of probation (meaning he would serve the prison sentence if found guilty of another crime during the two-year probation period) for incitement to hatred and defamation in March 2017. The verdict concerned a note Bartos wrote in 2015 supporting an 1899 Jewish blood libel trial. In June the Prague 1 District Court convicted Bartos of incitement to hatred and Holocaust denial on the internet, in public speeches, and books and sentenced him to a conditional sentence of two years in prison. Bartos appealed the verdict. In November the Municipal Court in Prague upheld the decision. Bartos appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case remained pending at year’s end.
In May the Czech Bar Association fined bar member Klara Samkova 25,000 koruna ($1,100) for publicly cursing the Turkish ambassador in June 2016. Samkova compared Islam to Nazism in a statement read in front of the Turkish embassy.
The government-funded Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims, established by the FJC, again contributed 4.5 million koruna ($205,000) to 13 institutions providing health and social care to approximately 500 Holocaust survivors.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy continued to engage government officials from the MOC, especially the Department of Churches, on issues such as property restitution to religious groups and religious tolerance. In June SEHI and embassy representatives met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reiterate continued support for the goals of the Terezin Declaration, the welfare of Holocaust survivors, and issues of concern to them and others, including property restitution, eligibility for state pensions, and the status of the Prostejov Jewish cemetery.
The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim groups to reaffirm U.S. commitment to religious tolerance and to hear the groups’ views on interfaith relations.
The constitution guarantees the right of individuals to worship according to their beliefs. It establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the national church, which has privileges not available to other religious groups. Other religious groups must register with the government to receive tax and other benefits. In August a law to ban masks and face coverings in public spaces, including burqas and niqabs, entered into force. The government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list during the year, banning them from entering the country. In December parliament enacted a law instituting a handshake requirement for persons becoming citizens that critics said targeted Muslims. In June a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision for individuals younger than age 18 acquired enough signatures to be debated in parliament. The measure, strongly opposed by the Jewish and Muslim communities, was scheduled for a vote in 2019, and a majority of political parties said they would vote against it. In January the government unveiled an action plan against what it called “ghetto” communities, which critics interpreted to mean Muslims, that included mandatory religious teaching on Christmas and Easter during day care for children receiving government benefits. The immigration and integration minister made statements critical of Islam.
Police reported 142 religiously motivated crimes in 2017, 61 percent more than in 2016. There were 67 incidents, including assault and a death threat, against Muslims and 38 against Jews. Separately, the Jewish community in Copenhagen reported 30 anti-Semitic acts in that city in 2017, including aggravated harassment, threats, and hate speech. Jewish and Muslim community leaders stated most victims did not report incidents because they believed police would not follow up. The Nye Borgerlige Party adopted a platform critical of Islam.
The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with foreign ministry and other government representatives, including at the cabinet level, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over proposals to ban male circumcision and the prohibition on masks and face coverings. They also met with religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, the ELC, Buddhists, and humanists and atheists, as well as nongovernmental organizations, to discuss their concerns and stress the importance of religious tolerance and diversity.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (July 2018 estimate). According to an October estimate by Statistics Denmark, the government statistical office, 75 percent of all citizens are members of the ELC.
The University of Copenhagen’s Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies estimated in October 2017 that Muslims constitute 5.3 percent of the population. Muslim groups are concentrated in the largest cities, particularly Copenhagen, Odense, and Aarhus. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates other religious groups, each constituting less than 1 percent of the population, include, in descending order of size, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, and nondenominational Christians. Although estimates vary, the Jewish Society (previously known as Mosaike) stated the Jewish population numbers approximately 7,000, most of whom live in the Copenhagen metropolitan area. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found 30 percent of persons identified as religiously unaffiliated.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the ELC as the country’s established Church, which shall receive state support and to which the reigning monarch must belong. The constitution also states individuals shall be free to form congregations to worship according to their beliefs, providing nothing “at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done.” It specifies that, “rules for religious bodies dissenting from the established Church shall be laid down by statute.” It stipulates that no person may be deprived of access to the full enjoyment of civil and political rights because of religious beliefs, and that these beliefs shall not be used to evade compliance with civic duty. It prohibits requiring individuals to make personal financial contributions to religious denominations to which they do not adhere.
The law prohibits hate speech, including religious hate speech, and specifies as penalties a fine (amount unspecified) or a maximum of one year’s imprisonment. If a religious leader disseminates the hate speech, the penalties increase to a fine or a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.
The law permits the government to prevent religious figures who are foreign nationals and do not already have a residence permit from entering the country if the Ministry of Immigration and Integration determines their presence poses a threat to the public order. In such cases, the ministry places the individuals on a national sanctions list and bars them from entry into the country for a two-year period, which may be renewed.
The ELC is the only religious group that receives funding through state grants and voluntary taxes paid through payroll deduction from its members. Members receive a tax credit for their donations to the ELC. The voluntary taxes account for an estimated 86 percent of the ELC’s operating budget; the remaining 14 percent is provided through a combination of voluntary donations by congregants and government grants. Members of other recognized religious communities cannot contribute via payroll deduction but may donate to their own community voluntarily and receive an income tax credit. The ELC and other state-recognized religious communities carry out registration of civil unions, births, and deaths for their members.
On May 31, the government enacted a law prohibiting masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, in public spaces. Violators may be fined 1,000-10,000 kroner ($150-$1,500). The maximum fine is for those who violate the law four or more times.
The Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs has responsibility for granting official status to religious groups besides the ELC through recognition by royal decree (for groups recognized prior to 1970) or through official registration. According to the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs, there are (as of November) 315 religious groups and congregations the government officially recognizes or that are affiliated with recognized groups: 208 Christian groups, 62 Muslim, 17 Buddhist, nine Hindu, three Jewish, and 16 other groups and congregations, including the Baha’i Faith, the Alevi Muslim community, and followers of the indigenous Norse belief system Forn Sidr.
Recognized religious groups have the right to perform legal marriage ceremonies, name and baptize children with legal effect, issue legal death certificates, obtain residence permits for foreign clergy, establish cemeteries, and receive tax-deductible financial donations and various valued-added tax exemptions. A religious community law enacted in December 2017 effective on January 1 allows only religious communities recognized before 1970 to issue name, baptismal, and marriage certificates. According to the law, this privilege will expire for all religious communities except the ELC in 2023. Members of other religious communities or individuals unaffiliated with a recognized religious group may opt to have birth and death certificates issued by the health authority.
Groups not recognized by either royal decree or a government registration process, such as the Church of Scientology, are entitled to engage in religious practices without any kind of public registration, but members of those groups must marry in a civil ceremony in addition to any religious ceremony. Unrecognized religious groups are not granted fully tax-exempt status, but they have some tax benefits; for example, contributions by members are tax-deductible.
The religious community law that came into force in January codifies for the first time the registration process for religious communities other than the ELC and eliminates the previous distinction between those recognized by royal decree and those approved through registration. For a religious community to be recognized, it must have at least 150 members, while a congregation, which the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs considers as a group within one of the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam), must consist of at least 50 adult members to be approved. For congregations located in sparsely populated regions, such as Greenland, the government applies a lower population threshold, varying according to the total population of the region. The guidelines for approval of religious organizations require religious groups seeking registration to submit a document on the group’s central traditions; descriptions of its most important rituals; a copy of its rules, regulations, and organizational structure; an audited financial statement; information about the group’s leadership; and a statement on the number of adult members permanently residing in the country. Groups must also have formal procedures for membership and make their teachings available to all members. The Ministry of Justice makes the final decision on registration applications after receiving recommendations from a group consisting of a lawyer, religious historian, sociologist of religion, and nonordained theologian.
The law bans judges from wearing religious symbols such as headscarves, turbans, skullcaps, and large crucifixes while in court.
All public and private schools, including religious schools, receive government financial support. Public schools must teach ELC theology; the instructors are public school teachers rather than persons provided by the ELC. Religious classes are compulsory in grades 1-9, although students may be exempted if a parent presents a request in writing. No alternative classes are offered. The ELC course curriculum in grades 1-6 focuses on life philosophies and ethics, biblical stories, and the history of Christianity. In grades 7-9, the curriculum adds a module on world religions. The course is optional in grade 10. If the student is 15 years old or older, the student and parent must jointly request the student’s exemption. Private schools are also required to teach religion classes in grades 1-9, including world religion in grades 7-9. The religion classes taught in grades 1-9 need not include ELC theology. Collective prayer in schools is allowed if it does not include proselytizing. Prayers are optional at the discretion of each school. They may consist of ELC, other Christian, Muslim, or Jewish prayers, and students may opt out of participating.
Military conscription is mandatory for all physically fit men older than 18. Women may participate but are not obligated to do so. Military service is typically four months. There is an exemption for conscientious objectors, including on religious grounds, allowing conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service, which also has a period of four months, instead. An individual wishing to perform alternative service as a conscientious objector must apply within eight weeks of receiving notice of military service. The application is adjudicated by the Conscientious Objector Administration and must show that military service of any kind is incompatible with the individual’s conscience. The alternative service may take place in various social and cultural institutions, peace movements, organizations related to the United Nations, churches and ecumenical organizations, and environmental organizations throughout the country.
The law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, including kosher and halal slaughter. The law allows for slaughter according to religious rites with prior stunning and limits such slaughter to cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens. All slaughter must take place at a slaughterhouse. Slaughterhouses practicing ritual slaughter are obliged to register with the Veterinary and Food Administration. Violations of this law are punishable by fines or up to four months in prison. Halal and kosher meat may be imported.
A law that came into force on May 1 requires clergy members with legal authorization to officiate at marriages to have an adequate mastery of the Danish language and to complete a two-day course on family law and civil rights, administered by the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs. The law also includes a requirement that religious workers “must not behave or act in a way that makes them unworthy to exercise public authority.” Religious workers perceived as not complying with the new provisions may be stripped of their right to perform marriages.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
During the year, the government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list that barred those individuals from entering the country. The Ministry of Immigration and Integration stated these individuals threatened the nation’s values and public security.
In April Minister of Justice Soren Pape Poulsen stated the government enacted the law banning face coverings because concealing the face was antithetical to the social interaction and coexistence that was crucial in a society. According to a 2010 survey by the University of Copenhagen, an estimated 150 to 200 women in the country wore a niqab and three wore a burqa. Widespread media reporting portrayed the ban as targeting Muslim women. Poulsen called the niqab “incompatible with the values in Danish society,” while Martin Henriksen, the immigration spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, one of the country’s largest political parties, called the vote a “statement from parliament that the burqa and niqab do not belong in Denmark.” Religious groups and several human rights groups protested the ban. Amnesty International said the law “essentially criminalizes women for their choice of clothing, making a mockery of the freedoms Denmark purports to uphold.”
In August an estimated 1,300 Muslims and non-Muslims wearing veils marched from Norrebro, a neighborhood in Copenhagen with a high concentration of immigrants, to a local police station to protest the law banning face coverings. Ministry of Justice officials declined to prosecute protesters, stating wearing a burqa or niqab in this instance was an act of protest and protected as freedom of expression.
In the first six months of the ban, 109 violations were filed with the National Police, resulting in 22 charges and 13 fines; 31 other cases resulted in a warning, with the person either removing the face covering or leaving the public space. Eight other inquiries were dismissed because the violation was in connection with a demonstration. Media reports stated the first fine involved a woman who wore a niqab in a shopping complex. She received a 1,000 kroner ($150) fine, and authorities asked her to remove the veil or leave the public space; she chose to leave. The Muslim community reported one family emigrated because of the law.
According to the a November 15 executive order from the minister of church affairs, the religious community law that entered into force in January incentivized individual congregations within a religious community to formally register with the government in order to receive tax benefits. Some religious groups also anticipated that under the new law, individuals would be able to make tax-deductible donations to specific congregations rather than to the broader religious community to which the congregation belonged. As such, the total number of registered religious communities and congregations was expected to increase.
In June parliament debated a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision of individuals younger than 18. Although the petition proposed banning circumcision of minors of both sexes, the law already prohibited female circumcision. The petition acquired the necessary signatures pursuant to a new law requiring petitions with more than 50,000 signatures to be debated in parliament. According to a January poll by research firm Megafon, 83 percent of persons expressed public support for the ban. Advocates of the ban led by NGO INTACT Denmark stressed their concern for the rights of children, but Muslim and Jewish communities opposed it and formed an interreligious working group to lobby the government against it. The debate on banning circumcision also played out on social media. For example, individuals posted anti-Semitic comments – such as “bloody child abuse is part of Jewish rituals” – on INTACT Denmark’s Facebook page. On July 11, Rabbi Melchior of the Jewish Society said, “The opponents of circumcision are not anti-Semites, but if they succeed in convincing the politicians into banning it, it will be an anti-Semitic act.” Finn Rudaizky, a former leader of the Jewish Society of Denmark, stated in June that, “In addition to children’s welfare activists, many others use the situation to show that they are against Jews, Muslims, and they can express anti-Semitism and xenophobia without admitting to it.”
In October Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen linked the country’s historical rescue of the Jews in 1943 to the debate on circumcision, vowing to protect the Jews once again. A majority of parliamentarians came out against the ban on its first reading in November, and at year’s end, the bill sat with the Health and Elderly Committee for further study before a final parliamentary vote scheduled for the spring of 2019.
In January the government announced a new action plan to eliminate “parallel societies” emerging from what it called “ghetto” communities. Part of the government’s definition of “ghetto” community was a non-Western majority population, which media widely interpreted to mean Muslims. Initiatives parliament enacted during the year included doubling of penalties for crimes committed in ghetto-designated communities and mandatory enrollment of children in day care or loss of child benefits. The Muslim community expressed concerns about the compulsory day care, which had a component of 25 hours per week of instruction, including religious teaching about Christmas and Easter.
In February Minister of Immigration and Integration Inger Stojberg wrote an article titled “The Sad Truth about Islam” for the BT newspaper and also posted on social media. Stojberg stated Danes had “lost” and “become scared by a religion [Islam] whose fanatics have threatened us to silence.” She said, “[I]t is primarily the followers of the so-called religion of peace, Islam, which actually engages [sic] with weapons, violence, and terror.” Citing the play The Book of Mormon, which had recently opened in Copenhagen, in the article, Stojberg said performing a similar play in the country about Islam was “unthinkable.” Stojberg has had round-the-clock police protection since 2015 due to numerous threats against her.
In May Stojberg called for Muslims fasting during Ramadan to take time off from work because she believed they were unable to perform their jobs safely. Colleagues from her own Liberal (Venstre) Party called for Stojberg to provide evidence to support her statement; she did not respond.
On December 20, parliament enacted into law a proposal introduced by the Conservative and Danish People’s Parties requiring persons obtaining Danish citizenship to shake hands during naturalization ceremonies. Critics said the law, scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019, targeted Muslims, who declined on religious grounds to shake hands with members of the opposite sex. Media reported some of the mayors who conducted naturalization ceremonies objected to the law, which they called awkward and irrelevant to an applicant’s qualifications. Mayor of Sonderborg Erik Lauritzen announced he would overlook the handshake requirement if applicants showed respect for authorities another way; Mayor of Aabenraa Thomas Andresen stated he would not feel comfortable reporting a noncompliant applicant and urged the national government to administer the ceremony rather than the municipality. Imam Falah Malik from Nusrat Djahan Mosque called on applicants to show respect another way but, if a handshake was required between members of the opposite sex, to skip the ceremony. Parliamentarian and spokesperson on immigration for the Danish People’s Party Henriksen said of the law, “If one can’t do something that simple and straightforward [shake hands], there’s no reason to become a Danish citizen.”
In September TV2 Ostjylland reported the municipality of Horsens would offer citizens a chance to specifically opt out of halal or kosher meat at municipal institutions starting in January 2019. Horsens city councilor from the Danish People’s Party Michael Nedersoe said, “This is an offer for those people who don’t want a Muslim prayer over their food or think halal slaughter is on the edge of animal abuse.” The Danish People’s Party had called on municipal authorities to try to ban halal meat from municipal institutions during local elections in November 2017. Henriksen, the party’s immigration spokesperson, said at the time, “It’s wrong when the food in public institutions is blessed by an imam.” Opponents in Horsens to the originally proposed ban on halal meat, such as Horsens city councilor Saliem Bader from the Social Democratic Party, stated the new proposal did not ban halal meat but rather offered people a chance to opt out of eating it.
The government continued to provide armed security, consisting of police and military, for Jewish sites it considered to be at high risk of terrorist attack, including Copenhagen’s synagogue and community center and schools. Officials from the Jewish Society reported continued good relations with police and the ability to communicate their concerns to authorities, including the minister of justice.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of religiously motivated incidents against Muslims, Jews, and members of other religious groups. Jewish community leaders from the Jewish Society and B’nai B’rith stated anti-Semitic behavior emanated from Muslims rather than far-right or far-left ideologues. Both Jewish and Muslim community leaders said most incidents were not reported because of a widespread belief police would not follow up or prosecute perpetrators.
According to police statistics for 2017, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 67 religiously motivated hate crimes against Muslims, 38 against Jews, and 37 against other religions. The total of 142 crimes was 61 percent higher than the 88 reported in the previous year. Forty-two crimes, typically vandalism, occurred at gravesites or religious institutions; 43 in public settings such as supermarkets, parks, or buses; 31 on the internet; 21, typically involving graffiti, at private residences; and five in the workplace or schools.
Representatives of Copenhagen’s Jewish Society separately reported 30 anti-Semitic acts against Copenhagen’s Jewish community, its community center, or synagogue in 2017. The acts included two cases of aggravated and physical harassment, three cases of threats or intimidation, 24 cases of anti-Semitic slurs or language, and one uncategorized case.
In July the Copenhagen District Court charged Imam Mundhir Abdallah from the Masjid al-Faruq Mosque under the law against hate speech in religious preaching for posting a YouTube video in 2017 calling on Muslims to kill Jews. Omar El-Hussein, who committed a terrorist attack at the Jewish synagogue in Copenhagen in 2015, had attended the same mosque the day before going on his shooting spree. At year’s end, the case was pending trial.
In August a woman in the city of Odense prevented a Muslim woman from taking her parking space. A video recording showed the woman stating she would not give up her parking spot because the other woman wore a headscarf. The incident received prominent national news coverage.
police reported in 2017 was one where three men beat up a man in a parking lot after asking if he was Muslim. In another case, a man threatened a Muslim woman with his dog and said, “You’re going to die… I don’t like Muslims…you are going to hell.”
In October 2017, a man posted threats of violence against Muslims as part of a self-described “poem as cultural input” on his Facebook page that authorities determined to be “macabre and threatening words.” In October the Aalborg District Court convicted the man of hate speech and fined him 4,000 kroner ($610).
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 592 individuals identifying themselves as Jewish residents of Denmark responded to the online survey. One-quarter said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 29 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Twenty-four percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 85 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
Members of both the Jewish and Muslim communities spoke highly of each other’s efforts in forming an interreligious working group to lobby government leaders against the proposed ban on circumcision.
A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found 20 percent of persons agreed that government policies should support religious values and beliefs in the country; 43 percent agreed with the statement that Islam was fundamentally incompatible with the country’s culture and values.
Nye Borgerlige, a political party established in 2015 and holding a single municipal political office in the country, described Islam as incompatible with Danish values. The party, which said it would contest national elections in 2019, called on the state not to grant recognition to Muslim communities or award grants to Muslim schools and to refrain from selling public land on which to build mosques. The party also advocated a ban on headscarves in public schools and for public officeholders. In June Nye Borgerlige leader Pernille Vermund cited Mogens Glistrup, founder of the Progress Party, which was widely described as anti-Muslim, as her party’s inspiration.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with foreign ministry and other government officials, including cabinet members, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over the ban on masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, and the proposed ban on circumcision of minors.
Embassy officials met with various religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities throughout the year. In January the U.S. Department of State’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia met with government officials and religious community leaders on ways to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment.
In February the Ambassador met with Jewish community leaders from the Jewish Society to discuss the community’s concern regarding the proposed ban on circumcision. In March embassy officials met with the Muslim Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim associations to discuss circumcision, the then-proposed ban on masks and face coverings, and its general views regarding religious freedom and tolerance in the country. The Ambassador also met with the bishop of the ELC to reaffirm U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and tolerance.
In February and March embassy officials met with representatives from the Buddhist, humanist, and atheist communities to discuss concerns regarding registration as religious organizations and their access to politicians. In October embassy representatives raised concerns about the pending circumcision ban with members of parliament’s Ecclesiastical Affairs Committee.
In October the Ambassador gave the keynote speech for Jewish organization B’nai B’rith, emphasizing the strong U.S. government commitment to religious freedom. Her remarks were widely shared among the organization’s European branches. The embassy amplified the Ambassador’s engagements with religious community officials throughout the year in embassy social media postings and on Facebook and Twitter.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community. The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Religious communities must register to receive government funds. In September an appeals court upheld a 2017 lower court ban of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country. After a court ruled that a long-standing military service exemption which applied only to Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution, parliament began debating a bill to end the exemption. Some politicians again made negative remarks against Muslims in social media. The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) advocated banning circumcision and stricter religious registration criteria.
The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 55 complaints of religious discrimination during the year, compared with 46 in the previous year. Police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2017, 10 of which it determined were specifically motivated by the victim’s religion. After its banning, the NRM continued to publish anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim language online, as did other groups. Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population after plans for a “Grand Mosque” in Helsinki failed to materialize. Groups promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year, with government support.
U.S. embassy staff met with various ministry officials to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, religious education, and male circumcision. Embassy staff also discussed with the Jewish and Muslim communities their concerns about the law banning certain forms of animal slaughter, government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and a rise in religiously motivated harassment. They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minorities, youth groups, and interfaith networks.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (July 2018 estimate). The government statistics office estimates that, as of December 2017, approximately 71 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent identifies as Muslim, and 26.3 percent does not identify as belonging to any religious group. Census results combine the other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.3 percent of the population.
According to a survey from the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population was approximately 65,000 in 2016; Muslim religious leaders estimate the number rose to 100,000 in 2018, of which approximately 80 percent are Sunni and 20 percent Shia. With the exception of Tatars, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia and North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The Muslim population has been growing rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.” It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community. It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion. The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes blaspheming against God, publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies. Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment for up to six months. Authorities have rarely applied the law, most recently in 2009.
The law explicitly prohibits religious discrimination and prescribes a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law and investigating individual cases of discrimination and having the power to levy fines on violators. The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling and promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities. Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal or through the district court system. Litigants may appeal the decisions of the tribunal and the district court system to the higher Administrative Court.
In May parliament unanimously approved a reform of the Church Act, which governs the practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Among other changes, the new act, scheduled to come into force in 2019, devolves certain responsibilities back to the Church that previously required parliamentary approval, such as allowing Church authorities to present new policy proposals and hold votes online rather than requiring in person meetings.
Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government. To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community. To register as a community, a group must have at least 20 members, have as its purpose the public practice of religion, and have a set of rules to guide its activities. A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims. Nonprofit associations, including registered and unregistered religious groups, are generally exempt from taxes. According to the MEC, there are approximately 130 registered religious communities, most of which have multiple congregations. Persons may belong to more than one religious community.
All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments. Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, now set at between 1 to 2 percent of member income. Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership. Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person. Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.
Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Orthodox Church are also eligible to apply for state funds. The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements (a minimum of 20 members and the ability to collect fees) may receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.
The ELC is required to maintain public cemeteries and account for the spending of government funds. Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries. All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy. The law authorizes the ELC and Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Population Register Center. State registrars do this for other persons.
Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12 years of age. The parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 17 must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate religious affiliation.
All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion. All students must take courses either in ethics or in religious studies, with the choice left up to the student. Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community. Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics. Students age 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or ethics. If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates. The government does not prohibit or restrict private religiously based schools.
Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and general instruction in ethics. Teachers of religion must have the required state-mandated training for religious instruction. The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community. The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.
The government allows conscientious objectors to choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service. In February the Helsinki Court of Appeals overturned a long-standing exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses from military service. After a conscientious objector who was not a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged the exemption policy, the court ruled in his favor, stating the legal exemption gave preferential treatment to one particular religion and thus violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution. Per current legislation, conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service. Following the court ruling, all conscientious objectors are entitled to the same exemption from duty regardless of their religion. Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.
The law bans certain types of animal slaughter, requiring that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be killed and stunned simultaneously in cases of religious practice.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On September 28, the Court of Appeals in Turku upheld a 2017 Pirkanmaa District Court ban on the NRM, its regional chapters, and the NRM-linked Nordic Tradition group, which had distributed anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic material and spoken out against what the group called “the criminal capitalist world order and Zionism.” The NRM criticized the decision and stated the prohibition would lead to greater popular support, citing an October announcement of solidarity from the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group.
The Helsinki police reduced by half the staffing for a police unit dedicated to addressing hate crimes and crimes involving infringements on the rights of individuals to practice their religion. The unit, established in 2017, had precipitated a large rise in investigations of incitement to violence, some of which involved violations of religious freedom. Police spokesmen described the reduction in force as a reallocation of resources, as parliament had declined to renew the 1.26 million euro ($1.44 million) grant for the unit, requiring it to draw funding from the general police budget.
On January 14, then speaker of parliament Maria Lohela spoke at an event at the Helsinki Synagogue and pledged the government’s support to defend all Jews in the country.
The ombudsman for children at the MOJ continued to advocate a change to the registration process for religious organizations, whereby a board of experts assesses groups for their compliance with certain criteria prior to issuing a formal registration. In a February media interview, the ombudsman criticized the child-rearing practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular what he said were reports of the shunning of minors who renounced the Church and the reliance by Jehovah’s Witnesses on their own internal investigations rather than on the police in cases of alleged abuse against children. He stated the government should amend the law to include regular review of religious organizations to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights, in particular the best interests of children. According to the ombudsman, a religion deemed noncompliant could be compelled to redress its treatment of children or face revocation of its registration. Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives in the country criticized the statements as a threat against their religion.
Press reports described the reform of the Church Act governing the practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a move toward greater autonomy for the Church administration and greater transparency in internal decision making. Minister of Education and Science Sanni Grahn-Lassonen told a meeting of the Church synod that “the easing of regulations will improve the flexibility of administration and church autonomy,” comments that official church press statements echoed shortly thereafter.
Parliament debated an animal welfare bill, scheduled for a vote in 2019, that would require prior stunning of animals before slaughter in all cases, eliminating the existing exemption allowing simultaneous stunning and killing in cases of religious slaughter. Jewish and Muslim leaders criticized the proposed amendment, saying it would ban all kosher and halal slaughter. These leaders also criticized the restrictions in the existing law, which hindered their communities’ ability to slaughter animals in a religiously approved manner and forced them to import meat at higher prices.
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public health-care funding for such procedures. In its guidelines, the ministry stated that only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent. Religious communities, including members of Muslim and Jewish communities, expressed disagreement with the guidelines; however, the ministry stated it had not received any protest during the year from religious representatives regarding the recommendation that only a licensed physician perform circumcision.
In April the ombudsman for children at the MOJ sent a public request to the MSAH that it establish legally binding regulations for nonmedical circumcision and ensure it is performed on minors only with informed consent or prohibited entirely. The request stated the ombudsman would prefer to prohibit all nonmedical circumcision of minors. There were reports the government continued to discuss the possibility of criminalizing male circumcision. By year’s end neither the Jewish nor the Muslim community had made an official response to the ombudsman’s proposal.
In July the Ministry of Defense published a report advocating a repeal of the conscription exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses, citing changes since the government first instituted the exemption in 1987 that allowed men to complete their conscription duties as an employee in the civil service. The representative body for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country stated the alternative civil service could be an adequate substitute, although the organization did not take an official stand on participation in military service, leaving the decision to the approximately 100 male Jehovah’s witnesses who reached conscription age each year. On September 20, parliament accepted a bill for debate that would terminate the legal exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses. The bill was under debate at year’s end.
In February police raided a mosque located in a Helsinki shopping mall. While a police spokesperson described the raid as a response to general complaints of criminal activity in the building, Muslim community representatives said it exacerbated already tense relations between Muslims and the police and showed ignorance on the part of the authorities.
Responding to media reports that school districts had been unable to provide sufficient faculty to provide instruction in all of the faiths to which their students belonged, the minister of education stated in August that her ministry would continue to adhere to the established religious education policy and not offer combined religious courses. According to the minister, “The current model, which protects the teaching of individual religion, the knowledge of religion, and the ability to understand different religions, has proved its value in Finnish society.”
Following news reports in 2017 that large numbers of Muslim asylum seekers had converted to Christianity during their time in the country and would face persecution should the government reject their application and remove them to their country of origin, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) sought out training from the Finnish Ecumenical Council and representatives from other faiths. With ministry sponsorship, the council conducted training in late 2017 and 2018 for more than 200 asylum review officers on how to assess converts during asylum adjudication.
NGOs working with migrants continued to advocate for improved interpreting services for asylum seekers, many of whom belonged to religious minorities. They also raised concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without persecution by other migrants held within the same center.
While the government did not release detailed reports on asylum applicants categorized by religion, it stated the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia applying for asylum because of what they said was religious persecution there had increased. In addition, media reports stated more than 200 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for asylum from January to August, compared with approximately 100 who did so in all of 2017. According to the same reports, immigration courts had approved only a small number of asylum applicants, and immigration officials were careful to state that membership in the church would not in and of itself guarantee asylum.
In May the Office of the Prime Minister announced that it would fund an independent investigation into allegations Finnish volunteers in the Nazi Waffen-SS killed Jews and other civilians during World War II. The announcement followed a January letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to President Sauli Niinisto requesting the government study the participation of Finnish troops in Nazi killings, particularly in Ukraine.
In July Jussi Halla-aho, Chair of the Finns Party and Member of the European Parliament, criticized the decision by the country’s flagship school of higher learning, Helsinki University, to offer for the first time a course in Islamic theology. In a public statement online, Halla-aho stated the goal of the course in theology “is to help us Finns better understand the Islamic minority which has been forcibly created here and of course prevent them from radicalization.”
The government again allocated 114 million euros ($130.73 million) to the ELC and 2.5 million euros ($2.87 million) to the Orthodox Church. The MEC allotted a total of 524,000 euros ($601,000) to all other registered religious organizations. All of the allocations were unchanged from 2017.
The MEC awarded a total of 80,000 euros ($91,700) to promote interfaith dialogue, the same amount as in 2017. Two organizations split the funding: the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland and Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In 2017, the latest period for which data were available, police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups, including crimes involving assault, threats and harassment, discrimination, and vandalism, compared with 149 such incidents in the previous year. There were 153 incidents involving Muslims, 45 involving Christians, nine involving Jews, two involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 26 involving other or unknown religious groups. Police, however, could only ascertain that 10 of these crimes were specifically motivated by the religion of the victims. They could not determine how many of the other incidents were at least in part religiously motivated. The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 55 complaints of religious discrimination in the same year, compared with 46 complaints in 2016. Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
Despite its banning, the NRM continued to operate a website and make statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims and maintained an active online presence through its website and social media. The second priority of its political platform read, “With all means possible work towards reconquering power from the global Zionist elite.” The NRM continued to post anti-Semitic graffiti in public spaces and printed other materials glorifying Adolf Hitler.
Kansallismielisten Liittouma (Nationalist Alliance), established in 2017, mobilized hundreds of demonstrators to an August rally in Turku commemorating the one-year anniversary of a terrorist attack by a Moroccan migrant to whom authorities had denied asylum. The alliance described itself as a network for associated far-right groups in the country and contained members of established groups such as NRM, Soldiers of Odin, Finnish Defense League, and Suomen Sisu. Member of Parliament Ritva Elomaa of the Finns Party participated in the demonstration and gave a public statement of support. The demonstration sparked an anti-Neo-Nazi demonstration of approximately 1,000 marchers who condemned the presence of what they called Neo-Nazis in the city.
The website Magneettimedia, known for its anti-Semitic content, continued to post defamatory statements online. In September it published an article entitled “The Concentration of Power in the Jewish Elite” stating that the “global Jewish or Zionist conspiracy” is behind “the collapse of modern society.” The former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, continued to publish anti-Semitic editorials in the newspaper KauppaSuomi, a periodical available through his large chain of department stores with what it said was a circulation of 270,000. In addition to these two outlets, online Finnish media outlets critical of Islam and Judaism increased in popularity, notably Oikea Media and Kansalainen.fi. Major Finnish consumer brands continued to boycott the Karkkainen chain of department stores, citing anti-Semitic public statements by Karkkainen.
Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population. Plans for a “Grand Mosque and Oasis Center” in central Helsinki collapsed in December 2017 amid questions about the foreign financing of the project and political resistance both inside and outside the Muslim community. According to press reports, conservative politicians and nationalist groups said they opposed the project due to concerns it would foster violent extremism. With the exception of a handful of purpose-built mosques, the majority of mosques were located in converted commercial spaces.
According to press reports, a mosque of the Islamic Society of Northern Finland located in Oulu was vandalized twice in December. In the first incident, unknown persons defaced the interior of the mosque and destroyed its inventory of frozen halal meat. In the second incident, on Christmas Eve, the perpetrators smashed a mosque window.
A member of the Jewish community said privately that high-profile Jewish sites in Helsinki were regular targets for graffiti during the year. He said the community preferred not to publicize the incidents.
Due in part to the sponsorship of the national government, civil society groups dedicated to promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year. The National Forum for Cooperation of Religions, which brought together representatives from the largest religious denominations, gathered testimony from their respective congregations for a report on hate crimes commissioned by the public victim-support service. The group had not issued the report by year’s end, but preliminary findings indicated that Muslim women were at particular risk for harassment in public spaces. Representatives of religious groups attended ceremonies hosted in their counterparts’ houses of worship. Finn Church Aid, associated with the ELC, hosted its first interreligious iftar celebration; the late-night June event brought together representatives from the major religious denominations in the capital region, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA), and municipal governments.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy staff met with officials from the MOJ, MOI, and MFA to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the treatment of religious converts in asylum adjudication, and regulations covering male circumcision and government registration of religions.
Embassy staff met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and community activists, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country. Topics discussed with members of the Jewish and Muslim communities included their shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, the increasing number of religiously motivated crimes, proposed legislation that would prohibit forms of religious animal slaughter, and the response to efforts to build a new Islamic house of worship. Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with members of the Muslim community, most notably at an embassy-hosted iftar celebration with representatives from different Muslim congregations and youth groups. Topics discussed with representatives of the Jehovah’s Witness community included changes to the military service exemption and the increase in the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on persecution for their faith.
On November 1, the Ambassador gave public remarks condemning anti-Semitism at a memorial organized by the Central Council of the Jewish Communities of Finland for the victims of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting. Representatives of the Muslim and Christian communities of Helsinki attended in support of the victims and in opposition to acts of anti-Semitism.
The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. The president and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces to protect sensitive sites, including religious ones. In June the government thwarted an attempted extremist plot to attack Muslims. In April authorities expelled an Algerian imam because of his radical preaching in Marseille. The government denied an Algerian Muslim woman citizenship after she refused to shake the hands of male officials. The government announced a 2018-2020 action plan to combat hatred, including anti-Semitism, and a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and funding of Islam within France. In July the interior minister announced expansion of a “precomplaint” system designed to facilitate reporting of crimes, to include anti-Semitic acts. The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. President Emmanuel Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.” In May the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the application of counterterrorism laws and called the government closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.
Religiously motivated crimes and other incidents against Jews and Muslims occurred, including killings or attempted killings, beatings, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism. The government reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, compared with 1,038 in 2017, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property. According to government statistics, there were 100 crimes targeting Muslims, including an attack against Muslim worshippers outside a mosque, a 17 percent decrease compared with the 121 in 2017. The government also reported an additional 51 acts against Muslim places of worship or cemeteries. There were 541 anti-Semitic crimes, consisting of physical attacks, threats, and vandalism, an increase of 74 percent compared with the 311 incidents recorded in 2017. Anti-Semitic incidents included the killing of a Holocaust survivor, an acid attack against a rabbi’s baby, and threatening letters against Jewish groups citing the killing of the Holocaust survivor. Violent anti-Semitic crimes totaled 81, compared with 97 in 2017. A student leader at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) generated considerable debate after wearing a hijab on national television. According to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in February, 43 percent of respondents thought Islam was not compatible with the values of the republic.
The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and with the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues. The Ambassador, embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance. The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and advance tolerance. The embassy funded a visit to the United States for four nongovernmental organization (NGO) directors on an exchange program that included themes of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance. It also sponsored the participation of three imams at a conference in Rabat focused on building interfaith relationships.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.4 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent study by the National Institute for Demographic and Economic Studies, conducted in 2008 and published in 2010, 45 percent of respondents aged 18-50 reported no religious affiliation, while 43 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 8 percent as Muslim, 2 percent as Protestant, and the remaining 2 percent as Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or other.
A poll conducted in March by the private firm Opinionway found 41 percent of respondents older than 18 years identify as Catholic, 8 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 1 percent Buddhist, and 1 percent Jewish; 43 percent said they have no religious affiliation.
According to a survey conducted in March by the Catholic Institute of Paris and St. Mary’s Catholic University in the United Kingdom, 64 percent of young people aged 16-29 in France declared themselves without a religion compared with 23 percent who said they were Catholic and 10 percent who said they were Muslim.
The MOI estimates 8-10 percent of the population is Muslim. The Muslim population consists primarily of immigrants from former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa and their descendants. According to a Pew Research Center study published in November 2017, Muslims number 5.72 million, 8.8 percent of the total population.
According to a 2017 Ipsos study published in Reforme, a Protestant online news daily, there are an estimated 600,000 Lutheran, 600,000 evangelical, and 800,000 nondenominational members in the Protestant community. Many evangelical churches primarily serve African and Caribbean immigrants.
A 2016 report by Berman Jewish Data Bank estimated there are 460,000-700,000 Jews, depending on the criteria chosen. According to the study, there are more Sephardic than Ashkenazi Jews.
The Buddhist Union of France estimates there are one million Buddhists, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants. Other religious groups estimate their numbers as follows: Jehovah’s Witnesses, 120,000; Orthodox Christians, most of whom are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches, 80,000-100,000; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 66,000; Church of Scientology, 45,000; and Sikhs, 30,000.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and respect all beliefs. The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.
The law, as well as international and European covenants which France adheres to, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion. Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1700) and imprisonment of one month. Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.
Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group. Penalties for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000-75,000 euros ($51,600-86,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries. For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($51,600). The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.
Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status. Religious groups may register under two categories: associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt. Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state. An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices. Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations. Religious groups normally register under both of these categories. For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.
Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status. Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide. In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religious group. Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature. The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive. If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status. According to the MOI, 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status.
The law states “detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion. They can practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”
Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,600). The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.
The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters. If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity. Police officials may not remove it themselves. If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity. Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours. Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course. Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($34,400) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison. The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.
By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship. The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates. The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes. The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905. The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.
The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories. Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the Departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group. Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg. Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings. The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church. Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups. This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.
Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses. Public schools do not provide religious instruction, except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories. In Alsace-Moselle, religious education is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents. Religious education classes are taught by members of the faiths concerned and are under the control of the respective churches. Elsewhere in mainland France, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum. Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school. Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.
By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of an individual child’s religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.
Missionaries from countries not exempted from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country. All missionaries from non-exempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country. Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.
The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On June 23, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) arrested 10 men linked to a suspected far-right extremist plot to attack Muslims, according to media reports. The suspects were arrested in the Paris and southwestern regions and on the island of Corsica and charged with criminal association with a terrorist enterprise. Among the detainees was a retired police officer whom investigators considered the head of the network. The suspects, who were previously unknown to authorities, reportedly had an “ill-defined plan to commit a violent act targeting people of the Muslim faith,” according to a source close to the investigation. LCI TV reported the group was planning to “target radical imams, Islamist inmates released from prison, and veiled women chosen at random in the streets.” In a June 24 statement, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb hailed the arrests and welcomed “DGSI’s constant commitment to the protection of the French people from any violent action, no matter where it comes from.”
In January investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40. The magistrates said they found the evidence against Diab inconclusive and ordered his release. Prosecutors appealed Diab’s discharge, and on October 26, the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling. The court had not issued a ruling by year’s end. Diab was extradited from Canada in 2014.
On July 10, a senate report stated authorities had closed four places of worship under the counterterrorism law between November 1, 2017 and June 8. On December 13, the newspaper La Voix du Nord reported the prefect of the North Department applied the counterterrorism law to close the As-Sunnah prayer room in Hautmont for six months. According to a statement issued by the prefecture, the prayer room’s activities and the ideas disseminated there “provoke violence, hatred, and discrimination, and praise acts of terror,” and the prefecture closed the prayer room “with the sole purpose of preventing the commission of acts of terrorism.”
On April 20, authorities expelled Algerian imam El Hadi Doudi, the leader of the Salafist As-Sounna Mosque in Marseille, to Algeria. This decision followed the closing of As-Sounna for six months by the Bouches-du-Rhone Prefecture in December 2017 because of what it stated was Doudi’s radical preaching, which, according to press reports, inspired attendees to join ISIS. According to authorities, sermons at the As-Sounna Mosque, sometimes disseminated via internet, preached in favor of armed jihad and the death penalty for adulterers and apostates, and used insulting or threatening terms towards Jews. The As-Sounna Mosque, which had approximately 800 worshippers for its Friday prayers before its closure, was one of 80 places of Islamic worship in Marseille. The mosque did not reopen after the six-month closure, because, according to the Marseille online newspaper Marsactu, the city of Marseille invoked its legal “preemption right” to take possession of the site. According to a report in Le Parisien newspaper in May citing an interior ministry source, the purposed of the preemption was to prevent the mosque from reopening, while according to a report in La Provence newspaper citing a source in the Marseille municipality, the city acquired the property for purposes of urban renewal.
In an April 12 interview, President Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.” In September Interior Minister Collomb stated that since 2017, the country had expelled 300 radical imams.
On May 16, the prefect of the Herault Department closed a small Muslim prayer room in in a townhouse in Gigean, which the authorities said they had considered a Salafist “reference point” for six months. According to the prefectural decree posted on the townhouse, the prayer room was “an influential place of reference of the Salafist movement, advocating a rigorous Islam, calling for discrimination, hatred and violence against women, Jews, and Christians.” Information as to whether the prayer room reopened after the six-month period was unavailable at year’s end.
The government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship. On March 30, NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers reported the government deployed 70,000 law enforcement personnel from March 31 until April 7 to protect places of worship during Easter celebrations.
In April authorities denied an Algerian woman citizenship for refusing to shake hands with male officials at a French nationalization ceremony in the Department of Isere in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Region due to her religious convictions. The country’s top administrative court, the Council of State, ruled there were sufficient grounds to do so since the woman’s refusal “in a place and at a moment that are symbolic, reveals a lack of assimilation,” and that the decision was not detrimental to her freedom of religion.
On September 4, a court in Nanterre fined the Union of Clichy Muslim Association (UAMC) 17,000 euros ($19,500) for organizing Friday street prayers on 34 occasions without first informing city or prefecture officials of its plans. The UAMC had been conducting the street prayers as a protest in front of the mayor’s office in Clichy-la-Garenne, after the town declined to renew the UAMC’s lease on a space it had been using as a mosque and expelled the group from the site in 2017. The UAMC had rejected as inadequate an alternative space offered by the town.
According to the Ministry of Justice, as of August 2017 the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains: 695 Catholic, 347 Protestant, 224 Muslim, 76 Jewish, 54 Orthodox Christian, 170 Jehovah’s Witness, and 19 Buddhist. In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray. Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.
On June 19, the administrative court of Nice ordered the Mayor of Cannes to refund a fine levied on a woman for violating an “anti-burkini order” at the beach. In August 2016, municipal police had fined the woman and told her she could not remain at the beach while wearing a burkini. After the terrorist attack in Nice in 2016, Cannes and several other coastal cities banned burkinis on the beaches. However, later that same year, the Council of State ruled that these decrees were illegal.
On August 10, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) criticized a 2014 Supreme Court ruling upholding the 2008 dismissal of a woman from a private nursery in the town of Chanteloup-les-Vignes for refusing to remove her veil at work. The council stated that prohibiting a person from wearing a headscarf in the workplace interfered with her right to manifest her religion.
On October 23, the UNHRC found the country violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012. The committee received the complaints in 2016 and issued the decisions in the two cases concurrently. The government had 180 days to report to the committee action taken to respond to the violation and to prevent similar violations in the future. On October 23, the government issued a statement declaring “the total legitimacy of a law [prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces] whose goal is to uphold the conditions for living together harmoniously while fully exercising one’s civil and political rights,” and adding, “Everyone is free to appear in public wearing clothing that expresses a religious conviction, so long as it allows the face to be seen.” The statement cited a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court that the law complied with the constitution and a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the law did not infringe upon freedom of conscience or religion and was not discriminatory. In its statement, the government said it would convey its views in a follow-up report to the UNHRC.
On December 11, the senate adopted a resolution reaffirming the importance of the 2010 law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public spaces and calling on the government to maintain the legal framework “relative to the wearing of the full-face Islamic veil in the public space.”
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ni Aoilain expressed concern that counterterrorism legislation enacted in 2017 restricted freedom of religion, movement, and expression in the country. After a weeklong visit in May, Ni Aoilain said, “the scope of these measures constitutes a de facto state of qualified emergency in ordinary French law.” She said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the “broad application” of counterterrorism law and called the closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.
Pursuant to the 2014 agreement between France and the United States on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs, the United States established the Holocaust Deportation Claims Program. Under the agreement, which entered into force on November 1, 2015, France provided a lump sum of $60 million to the United States for distribution to eligible claimants. At year’s end, payments to claimants from this fund totaled $30,028,500.
Speaking on March 19 at the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the broad outlines of a three-year national action plan, covering the 2018-2020 period, to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content. Accompanied by seven other ministers and the head of the Interagency Delegation to Counter Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hatred (DILCRAH), Philippe stated the action plan would have four key targets: countering online hate content; improving victim protection services; anti-racism education; and developing new areas of mobilization against hate.
The plan would encompass specific measures, including: advocating for an EU-level law to require social media platforms to more quickly remove hate content on their servers; imposing heavy fines on social media companies that failed to remove hate content within 24 hours; increasing the capacity and staffing of the government’s Pharos online platform to register and remove online hate content; creating a national anti-racism prize named after Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man killed in 2006, to recognize the efforts of youth fighting racism and anti-Semitism; and launching a campaign to increase awareness of racism in sport. The prime minister said a three-person committee would develop the details of the action plan and submit it to the government for review and implementation.
In a July 5 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), then-Interior Minister Collomb announced the extension of law enforcement’s online “precomplaint” system to racist and anti-Semitic acts in order to facilitate action and “prosecute anti-Semitic offenders even more effectively.” The system previously was restricted to property crimes. Grievants may submit their identity and contact information, the location of an incident, and other relevant facts on a government website and, after filling out the precomplaint, go to a police station to sign and validate the complaint to initiate an investigation.
On May 15, the Observatory for Secularism, a body comprised of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its fifth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals. According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” were not widespread. The report stated there was a need for training and education to overcome “deep ignorance” of the law.
President Macron delivered his New Year’s greetings to the country’s religious communities at the Elysee Presidential Palace on January 4. He welcomed two representatives each from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups. Prime Minister Philippe and then-Interior Minister Collomb also attended. Macron’s speech focused mainly on secularism, which he underlined as a fundamental pillar of the country, before highlighting the essential place for religion in society and the importance of teaching theology. The president hailed the role played by Christian charitable organizations in assisting refugees while recalling the “ethical tension” between the right of asylum and “the reality of our society, its capacity to welcome.” Macron also said he would meet religious community leaders on a regular basis behind closed doors to consult on various topics. He cited the need to “structure” Islam in the country and to train imams to fight radicalization. “I will help you,” he said.
On June 12, then-Interior Minister Collomb attended an iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the official government structure responsible for relations with the country’s Muslim community. Collomb, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, strongly defended secularism and stated the government “will never accept … the stigmatization of a religion” nor “to reduce Islam to Islamism.” He said the country must focus on the preventing radicalization, training for imams, sources of financing of mosques, and structuring the administration of Islam in the country. “It is up to the Muslims of France to address these issues in the long-term,” he said. Attendees at the event included Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and ambassadors.
On June 25, then-Minister Collomb announced a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and the funding of Islam in the country. Prefects in each department would hold listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams. He stated the dialogue would strive to include all the diversity of the Muslim community, including younger and female voices, as well as civil society members, according to an administrative circular he sent to prefects. The government said it expected to release the results of the dialogue in 2019.
Speaking before the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France (CEF) on April 9, President Macron said he supported “repairing” ties between the state and the Catholic Church. Macron was the first sitting president to speak at a CEF event. He stated the Catholic Church should engage in the political debate on key issues important to the Church, such as treatment of migrants, possible legislative changes concerning bioethics, and medically assisted reproduction for single women and lesbian couples, and generally encouraged Catholics to engage more in politics. His appearance generated criticism from left-wing politicians, including Jean-Luc Melenchon, Alexis Corbiere, and Olivier Faure, who said it flouted the strict separation of church and state mandated by the law on secularism.
President Macron met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on June 26 to discuss immigration and other challenges facing Europe. The Vatican described the meeting as “cordial” and said it highlighted the “good existing bilateral relations” between the two nations. Speaking later to the press, Macron described the meeting as “intense” and said he told Pope Francis that the “progressive way to handle the migrant crisis was through a true policy of development for Africa.”
On January 9, Prime Minister Philippe, then-Interior Minister Collomb, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, and government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux attended a memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where two years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other people hostage. Former President Francois Hollande and former Prime Ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve also attended the event.
On July 22, Prime Minister Philippe held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 1942 in which 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps. “There is one area in which we must do better, that of the restitution of cultural property,” stolen during the Nazi occupation, Philippe said. A Ministry of Culture report submitted in April to Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen criticized the current policy of restitution as inefficient and lacking ambition, coordination, leadership, and visibility. As a result, the Commission for the Compensation of the Victims of Spoliation was to examine all cases of restitution and transmit its recommendations to the prime minister, according to an official statement released by the Ministry of Culture. In addition, the Ministry of Culture said it would take a more active role in the search and restitution of stolen properties. The report identified 2,008 cultural works with no identified owner.
Recalling his plan to fight racism and anti-Semitism launched in March, Prime Minister Philippe reiterated his “absolute desire to change French law and European law to remove hate content on the internet, to unmask and punish its authors.”
President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions including the March 7 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 French Judaism Day observance.
In a November 9 Facebook post, Prime Minister Philippe announced the number of anti-Semitic acts committed in the first nine months of the year rose by 69 percent compared to the same period in 2017. Philippe did not quote the exact numbers of anti-Semitic acts or their nature, such as physical attacks, threats, or vandalism. Underlining that his announcement coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom by the Nazis against Jews, PM Philippe wrote, “Every aggression perpetrated against one of our citizens because they are Jewish echoes like the breaking of a new crystal…. We are very far from being finished with anti-Semitism.” Referencing Elie Wiesel’s “danger of indifference,” Philippe pledged the government would not be indifferent and recalled recent acts taken to combat anti-Semitism. Acts he cited included toughening of rules against hate speech online; mobilizing a national rapid-response team from the Ministry of Education and DILCRAH to support teachers reporting cases of anti-Semitism; and the trial use of a network of investigators and magistrates specifically trained in the fight against hate acts, which could later be extended nationwide.
On December 20, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanqer announced the launch of an online platform that teachers could use to report cases of anti-Semitism and racism to the education ministry.
The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities. The imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries. During Ramadan, when there was an increased number of worshippers, between 250 and 300 imams came to France temporarily.
On June 11, the Diocese of Vannes moved a 25-foot-tall statue of Saint Pope John Paul II from public land in Ploermel in Brittany to a Catholic school in the same town. In 2017, the Council of State had ruled the statue could remain on public land but ordered the removal of the cross on the statue within six months because it violated the law separating church and state. Rather than removing the cross, the diocese elected to move the entire statue to Church-owned land. Some Christians and politicians criticized the decision, calling it another example of efforts to erase the country’s Christian heritage.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the latest government estimates available, the MOI reported registered crimes targeting Muslims (threats or violence) totaled 100, down from 121 in 2017; there were an additional 45 acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship and six acts of desecration against Muslim cemeteries. The reported anti-Semitic crimes (threats or violence) increased to 541, compared with 311 in the previous year. Despite an overall increase resulting from a significant rise in threats, violent acts against Jews fell from 97 to 81. Anti-Semitic threats rose from 214 in 2017 to 358, and acts of vandalism totaled 102. The government also reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,038 in 2017. The government did not provide a detailed breakdown of anti-Muslim or anti-Christian acts registered during the year.
On March 23, Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, aged 85, was found dead in her Paris apartment. An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed at least 11 times before being burned in a fire, which was ruled to be arson. Authorities arrested two individuals in connection with the killing and placed them in pretrial detention. The Paris prosecutor’s office was investigating the killing as a hate crime. After the incident, thousands of people participated in a “white march,” a silent gathering to commemorate the victim, in Paris. On May 27, President Macron stated Knoll was “murdered because she was Jewish.”
In February unknown individuals placed acid in the stroller of a rabbi’s baby daughter in Bron. The child suffered burns on her back and legs. According to an ongoing police investigation, anti-Semitic motives were involved.
In March police arrested four teens suspected of beating a Jewish boy with a stick and taking his kippah outside a synagogue north of Paris. The suspects reportedly called the boy and his siblings “dirty Jews.”
On August 24, a man attacked two male worshippers with a bicycle chain as they were leaving a mosque in the town of Lens, near Calais. The Mayor of Lens, Sylvain Robert, condemned the attack in a statement. According to the mayor, during his court hearing, the accused cited “ideological and racist” justifications for his act. On September 26, the Lens Court sentenced the accused to an 11-month prison sentence for aggravated assault, referencing the racist nature of the attack.
In July a psychiatric evaluation of Kobili Traore, charged with killing his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, in 2017, determined Traore was not responsible for his actions and therefore unable to stand trial. Authorities were planning to conduct a third psychiatric evaluation of Traore, who remained incarcerated at year’s end. On February 27, reversing a previous decision, the judge presiding over the case added the charge of anti-Semitism as a motive for the crime. The magistrate made this decision after hearing testimony from Traore. In a statement, CRIF hailed the judge’s decision and expressed “satisfaction” and “relief.”
Authorities scheduled a new trial for March 2019 in Paris Criminal Court for Abdelkader Merah on the charge of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah, of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012. In November 2017, prosecutors appealed the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge; the court had convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy.
By year’s end authorities had not set a date for the trial of five individuals arrested in November 2017 and charged with carrying out an attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan earlier that year.
On July 6, a court in Val-de-Marne sentenced three young men who carried out a rape and robbery of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Creteil in 2014. Abdou Salam Koita and Ladje Haidara, who committed the rape, were present in court. Houssame Hatri, who made anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, remained at large and was convicted in absentia. The three, who were sentenced to eight, 13, and 16 years in prison, respectively, bound and gagged their victims before carrying out the rape and stealing jewelry and bank cards. “Jews do not put money in the bank,” one of them reportedly said. During the attack Hatri also reportedly said that the attack was “for my brothers in Palestine” before suggesting the perpetrators should “gas” their victims. Two accomplices received sentences of five and six years in jail.
On June 29, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into anti-Semitic letters received by at least six Jewish associations, including CRIF. The letters, signed by “The Black Hand,” were posted June 18 and referred to the killing of Mireille Knoll, according to press reports. The letters read in part, “Dear Jews, you bitterly mourn the death of an old Jew murdered for her money. We think you pay little for the number of crimes you commit every day. Enjoy it, because the day of punishment will come.”
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 3,869 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of France responded to the online survey. Twenty-two percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 27 percent reported being harassed over the same period. One-fifth of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 93 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in March, included the results of a poll conducted in November 2017 by the Ipsos Institute, a research and consulting company, involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,003 residents over the age of 18. According to the poll, 38.2 percent of the respondents (2 percent fewer than in 2016) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 19.7 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country. The same poll found 29.5 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 43.9 percent (2.1 percent fewer than in the previous year) of them considered it a threat to national identity. The report also cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as of prayer and women wearing a veil. According to the report, there was a decrease in anti-Semitic and racist acts compared with 2016, “despite a general context favorable to the rejection of the other, notably marked by terrorism, the arrival of migrants, unemployment, the importance of security issues reported in the media, and the rise in populism in Europe.”
In May Maryam Pougetoux, aged 19, the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, set off a debate by wearing a hijab on national television. Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of Le Printemps Republicain (Repulican Spring), a group created to defend secularism, stated in a Twitter post, “We aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of Pougetoux wearing a hijab, arguing it contradicted her support for abortion rights and other “feminist principles.” Then-Interior Minister Collomb called her appearance “shocking,” while Marlene Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said she saw in Pougetoux’s act a “form of promotion of political Islam.” Hijabs are permitted on college campuses.
According to media reports, on June 28, a judge fined a tobacco shop owner in the town of Albi 1,000 euros ($1,100) for refusing goods and services to a Muslim woman who was wearing a jilbab. The woman had come to the merchant’s store to pick up a parcel she had delivered there. The woman’s face was visible when she presented her identity card to the shop owner, and she offered to remove her veil in a setting where no men were present, according to reports. The judge also ordered the shop owner to pay to each of the four women who accompanied the plaintiff to the store 800 euros ($920) for moral damages and 500 euros ($570) for legal fees, as well as 800 euros ($920) in damages each to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Movement Against Racism and Friendship Between Peoples, and one euro ($1) to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).
On Easter Monday (April 2), unidentified individuals vandalized the church of Fenay, near Dijon. According to the parish priest, the attackers broke the door of the sacristy with an ax, then threw down and trampled the consecrated hosts. “This is a deliberate act of desecration,” said the priest, who filed a complaint, according to press reports. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On January 26, unknown individuals painted a large swastika at the entrance to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.
On June 17, Strasbourg celebrated the 11th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.
In July, for the second consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire. The approximately 200 participants addressed a series of questions from the organizers on prayer, religious freedom, and fasting.
In December 80 civil society representatives from 25 countries attended the ninth annual Muslim-Jewish Conference in Paris, exchanging best practices and discussing ways to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment. The organizers said interfaith dialogue was more important than ever and committed to supporting Jewish and Muslim communities in the country and around the world.
The Council of Christian Churches, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue. One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council. The council met twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. Ambassador and other staff from the U.S. embassy, consulates general, and APPs discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with relevant government officials, including at the religious affairs offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs. Topics discussed included religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, the BDS movement, Holocaust-related compensation, and bilateral cooperation on these issues.
In June embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met MFA Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights Francois Croquette regarding the 2014 Agreement on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs between France and the United States.
The Ambassador met in Paris with Grand Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, Rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris Dalil Boubakeur, Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Luigi Ventura, Rector of Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris Patrick Chauvet, CRIF president Francis Kalifat, and Joel Mergui of the Central Consistory (the leading Jewish institution administrating Jewish religious affairs), to discuss their views on religious freedom and tolerance. In these meetings, the Ambassador stressed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting freedom of religion, the benefits of interfaith dialogue in promoting peace and countering radicalization, and the importance of collectively countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.
Staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs met regularly with religious community leaders, activists, and private citizens throughout the country to discuss issues of discrimination and to advocate tolerance for diversity. Embassy officials discussed religious freedom, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and interfaith dialogue and tolerance with senior Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives and NGOs such as Coexister and AJC Europe. They also hosted meetings with CRIF, the Consistory, the CFCM, Catholic priests, and Protestant representatives working on interfaith dialogue.
The Ambassador and embassy officials engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in France. U.S. embassy officials closely monitored and reported on anti-Semitic incidents in the country and the official government position on the BDS movement.
In September the embassy hosted a conference in partnership with the German Marshall Fund on inclusive leaders, including those promoting interfaith collaboration and dialogue, from NGOs Coexister, Sparknews, The Next Level, and the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, which focused on developing leaders and creating stronger networks across sectors, including interfaith relations.
The embassy awarded small grants to various NGOs across the country to support projects that aimed to advance religious tolerance and integration. One grant for $17,500 to Coexister was to fund a documentary film based on the group’s 2019-2020 Interfaith World Tour, a yearlong voyage around the globe centered on the theme of material and immaterial religious heritage and designed to observe interfaith initiatives and gather best practices to share with youth organizations across the country.
In April the embassy identified and funded the travel of three imams to the two-day conference for European imams in Rabat organized by the U.S. NGO Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (CECF) in partnership with the U.S. embassy in Rabat and the Imam Training Center in Rabat. The conference focused on interfaith relationship building, radicalization prevention, and countering violent extremism in each imam’s home community.
In April the embassy funded a program in the United States for four NGO leaders. Representatives from Parle-moi d’Islam (Speak to Me about Islam), focused on the prevention of youth radicalization, Coexister, which promotes diversity, social cohesion, and peaceful coexistence across faiths, and the Hozes Institute, dedicated to training imams in French language and culture, participated. The program included meetings with the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix and with a panel of female religious leaders in New York City that examined how U.S. religious groups function in the context of a democratic society and illustrated U.S. approaches to interfaith dialogue.
On September 28, the Consulate General in Strasbourg hosted an interfaith lunch to discuss issues affecting religious communities, including the separation of church and state, state funding of religion, and the official status granted to four religions (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Judaism) in Alsace-Moselle by the Alsatian Concordat of 1801.
On September 19, staff from APP Bordeaux joined faith leaders, elected Bordeaux officials, members of the academic community, and various social organizations at a gathering to promote interfaith dialogue and support nondiscrimination initiatives. As part of the event, participants attended a screening of the short-film “Ramdam,” produced by Bordeaux-based film director Zangro, which depicted the trials and tribulations of a fictional imam living in Mont-de-Marsan.
A new constitution took effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the Georgian Orthodox Church (GOC) and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion. It also prohibits persecution based on religion. Previously, in March the ruling party withdrew proposed amendments to the then draft constitution that generated controversy after critics said the amendments appeared to allow the limiting of freedom of religion on national security grounds. Laws and policies continue to grant the GOC privileges not accorded to any other religious group, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch and a consultative role in education. In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both the tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional and mandated legislative changes by December 31, although parliament missed this deadline. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report a lack of effective investigations into crimes motivated by religious hatred, but they said the quality of investigations was improving. The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) reported it received 19 cases of violence based on religious intolerance during the year, compared to five cases the previous year. Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year. They suspended the application for registration of one organization due to legal issues with its application. Some NGOs and minority religious groups continued to report both national and local government resistance to minority religious groups’ construction of buildings for religious purposes. After negotiations with the local government about mosque construction in Batumi broke down, Muslim representatives continued to state government delays and opaque decision-making prevented them from building a new mosque. Some religious organizations and NGOs criticized the State Agency on Religious Issues (SARI, also known as the State Agency for Religious Affairs) for functioning opaquely, practicing favoritism toward the GOC in restitution of buildings confiscated by the state in the Soviet era, and inadequately addressing acts of religious intolerance and discrimination in favor of the GOC in public schools. The Armenian Apostolic Church petitioned SARI for ownership of 37 churches it operated.
Restrictions continued on religious activities in the regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which remained outside the control of the central government. According to the GOC Patriarchate, GOC clergy were unable to conduct religious services in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. De facto authorities in these occupied territories continued to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, classifying the Church as an extremist organization.
During the year, there were eight reported cases of religiously motivated physical assaults on 12 Jehovah’s Witnesses. There were reports of vandalism against religious minorities, such as graffiti on Armenian churches in Adjara and an attack on a Kingdom Hall building in Gori. Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report widespread societal beliefs that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and the country’s cultural values. The NGO Media Development Foundation (MDF) documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant remarks in national media, up from 92 the previous year.
U.S. embassy officials continued to meet regularly with senior government officials, including SARI leadership, the prime minister’s adviser for human rights and gender equality, the president’s adviser for minority issues, and officials at various ministries to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups, support government-led efforts to reform the investigative arm of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (responsible for assessing whether crimes were motivated by religious hatred), and promote religious freedom as provided in the new constitution. The Charge d’Affaires met with the GOC Patriarch several times to stress the importance of the GOC’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance. The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials traveled throughout the country to meet with minority religious groups, and the embassy sponsored the participation of various representatives from different faiths in programs in the United States on religious freedom and interfaith issues.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) at 2.9 percent. According to the census, Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference constitute the remaining 3 percent of the population.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azerbaijanis are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast, both of which are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the AAC and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
According to a census reportedly conducted in 2016 by the de facto government of Abkhazia, there are 243,564 residents of Abkhazia. A survey reportedly conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent Muslim, 8 percent atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census reportedly conducted by the de facto government of South Ossetia, there are 53,000 residents of South Ossetia. Estimates indicate the majority of the population practices Christianity, followed by Islam and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A new constitution went into effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the GOC and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion. Like the previous constitution, it prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also continues to prohibit public and political associations that create religious animosity. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The previous and new constitutions recognize the GOC’s special role in the country’s history, but stipulate the GOC shall be independent from the state and relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (also called a concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch, exemption of GOC clergy from military service, and a consultative role in government, especially in education. The concordat states some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s consultative role in education.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a Legal Entity of Public Law (LEPL) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition when conducting activities, partial tax exemptions, and the right to own property and open bank accounts. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To acquire LEPL status, the law requires religious organizations to register with the government. To register, religious groups must have historic ties to the country and recognition from Council of Europe member states as a religious organization. In addition, an organization registering for LEPL status must submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and governing body. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered under LEPL status. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The tax code does not consider religious activities to be economic activities, and grants registered religious groups partial tax exemptions for donations.
Until a July Constitutional Court ruling, the GOC was exempt from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including the payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. Moreover, the Law on State Property states that no religious organization registered as an LEPL, except the GOC, could acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale. The law also states a denomination registered as a nonprofit organization could purchase state property and only grants the GOC the right to acquire state-owned agricultural land free of charge.
In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional in a case brought by NGOs on behalf of nine religious groups. The court’s ruling mandated legislative changes that would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31. As of the end of the year, parliament had taken no action to implement legislation on the court’s ruling.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization, although the code provides no definition for “establishment.” Violations are punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, offenders may face up to five years in prison. Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by fine, correctional work for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years.
By law, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the PDO serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The PDO’s Tolerance Center coordinates the PDO’s Council of Religions and Ethnic Minorities, carries out educational activities, and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia.
SARI distributes government compensation to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and AAC religious organizations registered as LEPLs for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.” According to SARI, its mandate is to promote and ensure a peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. According to its website, SARI’s stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for the government, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI also issues recommendations to relevant state institutions on approval of construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations.
Although the law states public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions and authorizes the state to pay for GOC religious schools. As of December, however, the GOC had not taught any religious studies classes in public institutions. The law states students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals in schools “of their own accord” to receive religious education, but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. In practice, however, NGOs and non-GOC organizations report that GOC clergy often visit classes during academic hours, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators. The law includes no special regulations for private religious schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party withdrew a draft constitutional amendment that critics said would have allowed the government to interfere in religious affairs based on national security grounds. The Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission), as well as NGOs and local religious organizations, criticized the draft amendment. Parliament revised the language and introduced a new amendment that did not include the provision on national security as a justification for interference in religious affairs. The Venice Commission positively assessed the revised language and parliament passed the new amendment.
In April a member of parliament from the Alliance of Patriots political party introduced a draft of a “blasphemy law” that would criminalize “insults to religious feelings.” Although the draft generated significant discussion about religious sentiment, free speech, and the “defense” of Georgia’s traditions and history, parliament ultimately did not pass the legislation.
The introduction of the draft bill followed an incident in March, when protesters attacked two Rustavi 2 journalists after one “insulted [their] religious feelings” with an on-air joke that involved Jesus Christ. Authorities arrested six individuals on charges of group hooliganism and an investigation of threats against the journalist was ongoing at year’s end.
In April the government fined a condom production company for including on its products a design of medieval Queen Tamar, whom the GOC considers a saint. The judge said the design was “unethical” and charged the firm with an administrative offense under the “Law on Distribution of Advertisement.”
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to influence the NGO All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including the appointment of AMAG religious leaders.
The PDO reported it received 19 accounts of violence on the ground of religious intolerance during the year, 14 more than in 2017. The PDO also noted that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved. The 2018 cases all pertained to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Church members accused the relevant authorities of lacking the will to investigate these cases.
During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) investigated 23 cases involving alleged religiously motivated hate crimes. The CPO, however, investigated none of these cases during the year, as compared to seven such cases in 2017. Of the MoIA investigations, one concerned unlawful interference with the activities of a religious association; one, damage or destruction of property; one, damage or destruction of property together with persecution; five, unlawful interference with the performance of a divine service; 14, persecution; and one, abuse of official authority.
The NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) assessed that the MoIA was correctly applying proper articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred had improved since 2017. TDI reported, however, that several cases from previous years remained pending.
Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year: Christian Church Spring of Life, Armenian-language Christian Church of Gospel Faith, Evangelical-Christian Centralized Religion Organization First Nazareth Church, International Orthodox Laz-Khalibian Kharibian Catacomb Church, Salvation Army in Georgia, the Light of the Evangel, and Multinational Church of Marneuli. Authorities suspended the registration of the Georgian Christian-Evangelical Church New Life due to legal issues with its application.
Most prisons reportedly continued to have GOC chapels but no areas for nondenominational worship. According to SARI, Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, services remained available upon request in the military and in prisons.
According to the PDO’s Tolerance Center, non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with the Batumi mosque. The center continued to attribute the resistance to what it termed a general societal bias in favor of the GOC. According to TDI, although the law provides for equal treatment for applicants seeking construction permits, representatives of religious minority groups were often subject to discrimination. TDI previously stated municipalities issued construction permits, although religious minorities often faced obstacles due to the municipalities’ discriminatory approaches. TDI also noted the “problematic role” of SARI in the process, which “without a legitimate purpose and legal basis,” interfered with the authority of local self-governance.
In January the AAC appealed the National Agency of Public Registry’s decision to register as GOC property a church the AAC has claimed ownership of since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As of the end of the year, the appeal remained under review by the courts. The AAC continued to request restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. The AAC reported it operated 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The AAC petitioned SARI for ownership and/or right of usage of 20 of the churches in 2015 and for the remaining churches during the year. SARI’s response remained pending at year’s end.
Muslim community members said there was a lack of transparency around government decisions on mosques and their construction. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. Muslim leaders and local and central government authorities remained unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution to address overcrowding in the state-owned mosque in Batumi. NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to exert influence over the NGO Administration of Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including through the selective transfer of land to AMAG and the appointment of AMAG religious leaders. The potential transfer of land to AMAG rather than local religious organizations continued to be a source of tension, including in Batumi. A number of Sunni Muslim groups also were critical of AMAG for its attempt to represent all Muslim communities in the country within one organization regardless of denomination.
In February Batumi City Court held its first hearing of the New Mosque Construction Fund’s 2017 appeal of Batumi City Hall’s decision in 2017 to deny the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. In April the new mayor of Batumi announced he wanted to negotiate with the fund to find a resolution. The mayor outlined several conditions to allow the construction, including that the fund retract its appeal from the courts and give the land acquired for the mosque to AMAG, which would later apply for the necessary permits. The fund rejected the requests and refused to continue negotiations. Parallel to this, the fund appealed Batumi City Hall’s decision to impose a fine of 3,000 lari ($1,100) for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land. As of December court hearings had not resumed on either case.
Construction continued on a new mosque promised by SARI and AMAG in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The construction resulted from a 2017 SARI commission recommendation that the government transfer ownership of a building claimed by local Muslims and the GOC to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation and provide the local Muslims an alternative plot for a new mosque. The disputed historical building has been fenced off and protected as a cultural heritage monument. The PDO stated the SARI commission failed to establish the origin and ownership of the building. In April the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) addressed the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of the Mokhe Muslims and stated the government’s discriminatory restitution policy towards minority religious groups constituted a violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and was emblematic of the government’s more general restitution policy.
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites, increasing funding compared to the previous year. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, now housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2,483,300 lari ($930,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, including 145,000 lari ($54,300) for design drafts and 2,338,300 lari ($876,000) for rehabilitation, conservation, and infrastructure development.
The EMC appealed to the Supreme Court a Kutaisi Court of Appeals ruling that the MoIA did not discriminate against Muslims by failing to prevent vandalism in 2014 against a planned Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti. The EMC also submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on “the prolonged and discriminatory obstruction of boarding schools for Kobuleti Muslim students,” although the Supreme Court must rule on the case before the ECHR can accept it. As of December protests by the Orthodox community had prevented local Muslims from installing sewage infrastructure for the boarding school, which had not yet opened.
TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology in religion courses, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytization. The Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department continued to be responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior. According to a TDI report, while the law governing general education provides for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination, religious education in public schools persisted.
The government distributed 25 million lari ($9.36 million) to the GOC in compensation for “material and moral damages” inflicted upon it during the Soviet period. In addition, in accordance with a 2014 parliamentary resolution allowing the government to compensate Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as LEPLs, SARI disbursed compensation funds totaling 4.5 million lari ($1.69 million) to those four religious groups in coordination with the Ministry of Finance. SARI reported compensation remained the same as the previous year and was as follows: 2.75 million lari ($1.03 million) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 550,000 lari ($206,000) to the RCC; 800,000 lari ($300,000) to the AAC; and 400,000 lari ($150,000) to the Jewish community. In making the disbursements, SARI stated the compensation was of “partial and of symbolic character,” and stated the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of denominations during the selection process. NGOs continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups and to question the criteria the government used to select the four denominations for compensation.
In accordance with the government human rights action plan for 2018-2020, SARI trained approximately 1,000 students, journalists, and representatives from religious organizations to raise awareness of human rights, freedom of religion, and other fundamental freedoms.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the control of the central government. Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain. According to the de facto “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone enjoys freedom of religion. Forming associations or parties aimed at sowing religious discord is forbidden.
De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to impose a ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, Jehovah’s Witnesses nonetheless did not encounter significant problems when renting space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia.
Representatives of the GOC remained unable to conduct services in the Russian-occupied territories, and the Georgian government has said the de facto authorities damaged historical religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage.
The de facto authorities in Abkhazia’s Gali District reportedly continued not to permit GOC clergy to travel to Abkhazia to conduct religious services, and ethnic Georgians were unable to attend services in their own language. According to a SARI report, the district’s ethnic Georgian population had to travel to Georgian-controlled territory to celebrate religious holidays.
SARI reported it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia, and the status of most properties in the territory was unknown.
According to media and online accounts, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches, which are claimed by the GOC, into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, others wished to subordinate them to the Russian Orthodox Church, while yet others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
A Council of Europe report from November found that, after LGBT individuals, Georgians thought Jehovah’s Witnesses were most likely to face discrimination. The PDO reported that a large number of the alleged hate crimes reported to it over the years were cases of violence or property damage committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite continued requests from Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, authorities generally classified such cases as cases of violence rather than persecution on religious grounds.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported approximately eight assaults during the year, down from 10 in 2017. The attacks targeted 12 individuals, and all included physical assaults, verbal insults, and property damage, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. In one case in May, unidentified attackers shot at a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Gori, damaging the front door, and spray-painted “Believe in our God” (in Georgian) on the outer wall. As of December the MoIA was investigating the incident. The investigation into repeated vandalism of the Vazisubani Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi in previous years was also ongoing.
In January the Tbilisi City Court found one person guilty in criminal proceedings in connection with the 2016 attack on two female Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sharing Bible verses in Alexandre’s Garden in Tbilisi. The Tbilisi Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and, as of December, the trial was pending before the Supreme Court.
Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values. In November the Council of Europe released the results of a study it commissioned, reporting 36 percent of Georgians believed diversity adversely affected the country and was detrimental to Georgian culture and local traditions. Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance to their establishing places of worship and religious schools. In October, for example, the Batumi City Court ruled authorities in the village of Kobuleti must provide sewage and water connections to a Muslim boarding school. The mayor’s office had previously refused, stating it could not connect the school because of objections from neighbors that led to it remaining closed. As of December the school remained closed and disconnected. Representatives from the AAC in Batumi mentioned repeated instances of graffiti on their properties.
As of September MDF documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared to 92 such incidents from January to October 2017. The instances included 90 statements which were termed Islamophobic, 35 of which were directed against Muslim migrants. MDF listed 29 statements against Jehovah’s Witnesses; two each against the AAC, Baptists, and Protestants; one anti-Semitic statement; one against the GOC; and eight against other religious groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other U.S. embassy officials regularly met with officials from the government, including SARI, the prime minister’s adviser on human rights and gender equality, and the president’s adviser on national minorities, to promote religious freedom as provided in the new constitution, to encourage dialogue between the government and minority religious groups, and to support government-led efforts to reform the investigative arm of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (responsible for assessing whether crimes were motivated by religious hatred). They also continued to meet with the PDO and with officials in its Tolerance Center on these issues.
In January a delegation of five representatives from civil society, government, and the Muslim community participated in an embassy-sponsored multicity trip including Washington, D.C., and New York, to study religious tolerance, interfaith cooperation, and countering violent extremism. In September seven representatives from civil society and religious communities, including the Muslim community and the GOC, met with U.S. experts on inclusivity and civil rights as part of a U.S. government-sponsored program on religious tolerance and pluralism.
Embassy staff continued to meet with NGOs concerned with religious freedom issues, including the Center for Development and Democracy, EMC, TDI, and the NGO 21st Century Union, as well as with religious community leaders, to promote interfaith relations, the integration of religious minorities into society, and the continued promotion of civil rights for all.
The Ambassador, Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy officials met with leaders from traditional and nontraditional denominations. They also visited the Pankisi Gorge, Akhalkalaki, Kvemo Kartli, and Adjara regions on several occasions to meet with local religious leaders from the Sunni Muslim, Armenian Apostolic, and Shia Muslim communities. In the meetings, embassy officials advocated for interfaith understanding, dialogue, respect, and the peaceful coexistence of all religions.
The Ambassador and Charge d’Affaires met with GOC Patriarch Ilia II on multiple occasions. In their meetings, they stressed the importance of the Church’s role in promoting religious diversity and tolerance.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. The federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees, particularly teachers and courtroom officials. While senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, some members of the federal parliament and state assemblies from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party again made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. The federal and seven state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, following a recommendation in a parliament-commissioned 2017 experts’ report to create a federal anti-Semitism commissioner in response to growing anti-Semitism. The federal anti-Semitism commissioner serves as a contact for Jewish groups and coordinates initiatives to combat anti-Semitism in the federal ministries. In July the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 75 million euros ($86 million) in 2019. In March Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture, and that the country was characterized by Christianity. In May the Bavarian government decreed that every public building in the state must display a cross in a clearly visible location near its entrance.
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts. Jews expressed security concerns after several widely publicized anti-Semitic attacks, coupled with reports of anti-Semitic bullying in schools. Final federal crime statistics cite 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, including 69 involving violence, an increase of 20 percent compared with 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, in 2017. The federal crime statistics attributed 93 percent of the 2017 crimes to the far right. A study covering 2007-2017 by the Technical University of Berlin found online anti-Semitism was at its highest level ever recorded. There were demonstrations expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment and protests against what participants described as radical Islam. The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) continued to make public statements opposing the COS.
The U.S. embassy and five consulates general monitored the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance and expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim acts. Embassy representatives met regularly with the newly appointed federal government anti-Semitism commissioner at the Ministry of Interior. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.5 million (July 2018 estimate). Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 29 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and 27 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches. Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, combined account for less than 1 percent of the population. Orthodox Christians represent 2.4 percent of the population.
According to government estimates, approximately 6.3 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder identifies simply as “Muslim.” According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 25 percent of Muslims are recent immigrants; between 2011 and 2015, an estimated 1.2 million refugees arrived from predominately Muslim countries. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 200,000. The Central Welfare Office for Jews in Germany reported that Jewish communities had approximately 100,000 members at the end of 2017. According to Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), a secular, religious studies NGO, groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (222,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (15,000); and COS (5,000-10,000). All of REMID’s estimates are based only on members who have registered with a religious group. According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 36 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in the government’s statistics.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution (also known as the basic law) prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed and to practice one’s religion. The constitution also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools and that parents have the right to decide whether their children shall receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and states groups may organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and provide religious services in the military, at hospitals, and in prisons.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence or arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members or inciting hatred against them. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and the penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects,” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled the government must remain neutral towards a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Religious groups applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence through their statutes, history, and activities that they are a religious group.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes on members (averaging 9 percent of income tax) that each state collects on its behalf, separately from income taxes, but through the state’s tax collection process. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations, for example, requiring employees in hospitals, kindergartens, or NGOs run by a religious group to be members of that group. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status providing public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. Due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to before the Weimar republic, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Bremen do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. A law in Berlin bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, law enforcement staff, and primary and secondary public school teachers. The Berlin law permits teachers at some categories of institutions, such as vocational schools, to wear headscarves. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
In April the Bavarian Parliament amended its legislation to prohibit judges, prosecutors, and judicial trainees from wearing religious symbols in court.
Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving. Infractions are punishable by a 60 euro ($69) fine.
Some federal and state laws affect religious practices. Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. However, there are exceptions. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state that grants them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to set the curriculum for religious education in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary state to state) express an interest. The states of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam, with the teachers provided by the religious community or by the government, depending on the state. In Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state provides this instruction; in the other federal states, Muslim communities or associations do. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction for all students is offered by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.
In Bavaria, teachers provide Islamic instruction to approximately 15,000 students in 219 primary schools and 118 middle and secondary schools under a pilot program expiring in 2019. In the fall, NRW began providing Islamic religious instruction in 20 occupational (vocational) schools.
Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all the states.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January the federal government created the new position of commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism. The new commissioner, Felix Klein, started work in May. The appointment followed federal parliament enactment of a resolution entitled “Resolutely Combating Anti-Semitism” on January 18. The resolution called for creation of an anti-Semitism commissioner and expressed appreciation for the government’s 2017 decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) working definition of anti-Semitism. It also called for deportation of foreigners that incite anti-Semitic hatred, “determined” countering of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, continued punishment for persons who denied or trivialized the Holocaust, and further financing – including with Muslim organizations and mosques – for projects to combat anti-Semitism, as well as continued financial support for Jewish communities and memorials of the Holocaust. A 2017 report on anti-Semitism in the country by independent experts had also called for the appointment of a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism, as well as improved documentation and punishment of anti-Semitic crimes and better advisory services for those affected by anti-Semitism.
In October Klein announced that he planned to implement a nationwide system of recording anti-Semitic incidents below the threshold of criminal offenses. During a visit to Israel, he announced cooperation with the Israeli government in encouraging third party states to apply the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and to develop codes of conduct for governments’ interactions with social media companies to combat online anti-Semitism. On December 20, Klein announced the 2019 launch of a nationwide online platform for reporting anti-Semitic incidents. The platform will be run by the Research and Information Center for Anti-Semitism (RIAS), a nonprofit organization that receives some federal and state funding. The Ministry of Interior also announced it would establish a separate anti-Semitism department and add experts on Jewish life to the religious department. Klein repeatedly encouraged the federal states to establish their own anti-Semitism commissioners.
Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, Bavaria, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt and NRW established anti-Semitism commissioners. The responsibilities and functions of the position varied by state, but generally included developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. In November the federal and state level anti-Semitism commissioners met for the first time to discuss best practices and identify areas of cooperation.
In November Baden-Wuerttemberg opened an anti-discrimination office. The state government said it would serve as a point of contact for those experiencing any form of discrimination, including religious discrimination.
In March NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet advocated granting PLC status to Muslim organizations. In January the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat requested PLC status in NRW, and the application was pending at year’s end.
In November Rhineland-Palatinate announced it was planning to sign a state agreement with the Muslim Alevite community. According to the state chancellery, the agreement would outline conditions for Alevi holidays and religious instruction in schools. At year’s end, four Rhineland-Palatinate elementary schools offered Alevi religious instruction. The government was scheduled to sign the agreement in March 2019.
In August the state of Rhineland-Palatinate announced it would stop negotiations to establish a “religion treaty” with the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and three other Islamic organizations, Schura Rheinland-Palatinate, Ahmadiyya, and the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers. Such an agreement would have been a precondition for introducing state-wide Islamic religious education in public schools, but the state followed two expert opinion reports that had questioned DITIB’s independence from the Turkish government and the organizations’ “constitutional adequacy” as official partners for the state. State authorities also classified DITIB and Schura as “suspicious.”
In December media reported the Hesse State criminal police office started an investigation of a possible neo-Nazi network in Frankfurt’s police force after a group of police officers allegedly sent a threatening letter to a German lawyer of Turkish origin. In August investigators said they had found police officials used a work computer to look up the lawyer’s personal information without an official reason, and also found a group of five police officers had been sharing neo-Nazi images and content. Authorities suspended the five officers from duty, and the case remained under investigation at year’s end.
According to reports from the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC) – the domestic intelligence service – and state OPCs and COS members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Thuringia continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. In September following the opening of new representational COS offices in Stuttgart, a Baden-Wuerttemberg state OPC spokesperson said state and national COS membership had decreased by one third since 1997, and suggested that the OPC’s monitoring of the COS deterred membership. COS leadership disputed the state OPC’s statement that membership had declined. At least four major political parties (the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Federal Democratic Party (FDP)) continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor a number of Muslim groups, including Salafist movements, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkish Hezbollah (TH), Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), the Muslim Brotherhood, and Milli Gorus. The website of NRW’s OPC stated the Muslim Brotherhood “rejects democracy.”
Groups under OPC observation continued to say their status as meriting OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
In January the Hamburg Regional Court acquitted 12 alleged members of the banned Salafist group Millatu Ibrahim. The Hamburg state attorney’s office charged that the men had, among other offenses, stormed a mosque in Luebeck, Schleswig-Holstein in 2013 and threatened to kill those who did not adhere to Millatu Ibrahim’s convictions. The state attorney’s office stated it was convinced of the defendants’ guilt but that it had failed to prove the allegations.
In July Hamburg began to record hate crimes in a more detailed manner. Hamburg Justice Senator (the city-state’s minister of justice) Till Stefen told the newspaper Welt in June the statistics would improve sentencing and make sociopolitical developments more visible. Stefen added, “We need new sources to make anti-Semitic crimes visible.” Hamburg State Attorney General Jorg Frohlich stated that collecting the new statistics would require significant additional work but that “every progress is worthwhile” when combating hate crime.
In September Bavaria established a hotline for reporting anti-Semitic incidents, according to the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner. Bavarian authorities said the hotline would begin operations in spring 2019.
In May federal statistical data on the number of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hate crimes became available for the first time. Police had added the categories to their criminal statistics in 2017. Anti-Semitism was already a category of hate crime in federal crime statistics.
In February Baden-Wuerttemberg announced the state would start organizing training for Muslim chaplains at correctional facilities, rather than rely on outside organizations to conduct the training. In the same month media reported the state OPC had barred three of 16 imams who were graduates of a third-party training course from serving as prison chaplains because of what the OPC said were the imam’s contacts with radical Islamist organizations.
In May Bavarian Minister-President Markus Soeder announced a decree requiring public offices to display a cross in a visible place at the entrance area of the building where they were located. According to Soeder, the decree was intended to highlight Bavaria’s cultural and historical roots.
In March the Federal Constitutional Court dismissed the suit of a woman who wanted to drive wearing a niqab. The court stated the woman had not sufficiently demonstrated how the law prohibiting driving with a face covering restricted her religious freedom.
In March the Koblenz police district completed a disciplinary review of a male Muslim police officer who in 2017 refused to shake the hand of a female colleague, citing religious reasons. Police officials disciplined the officer, and ordered him to pledge his allegiance to the constitution in writing and pay a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,100). They also instructed the officer, on penalty of dismissal, not to refuse to shake the hands of women in the future when acting in an official capacity.
In May the Berlin Labor Court ruled against a teacher in Berlin who had sued the school system in 2017 for transferring her from a primary school to a school for older children because state law barred women who wore a headscarf from teaching younger children. The court decided the state administration had the right to transfer its teachers to any other post of the same salary level.
In November the State Labor Court of Berlin and Brandenburg awarded approximately 5,000 euros ($5,700) to a job applicant in compensation for discrimination on the grounds of religion. The job applicant, trained in information technology, said the school where she applied to work as a teacher had rejected her because she wore a headscarf. In May the local labor court had ruled that, because teachers served as a model for young students, the school was justified in limiting her religious freedom and asking her to teach without a headscarf. The state court, however, saw no indication that a teacher wearing a headscarf would have threatened “school peace,” and quoted the Federal Constitutional Court’s 2015 decision that such a threat was a necessary condition for prohibiting teachers from wearing headscarves.
In April the NRW integration ministry announced it would examine legal requirements for a headscarf ban for girls younger than 14, the age of so-called “religious majority.” The state integration minister stated in an interview that wearing a headscarf was a personal decision, but children lacked the self determination to decide and should not be pressured. Critics of the proposed ban, including some teachers, asked how the ban would be enforced. The federal integration commissioner and the chairwoman of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency spoke against the ban while federal FDP Party Chair Christian Lindner and CDU Party Vice Chair and federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Kloeckner supported it. By year’s end, the NRW state government had not decided on the proposed ban and said it expected to continue debating the issue through the end of 2019.
In April a Muslim woman wearing a niqab left a reception by Heiner Bernhard (SPD Party), the mayor of Weinheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg, after she refused a request by a town employee to show her face. The mayor stated he wished “to greet all citizens of his town face to face,” and that he considered it a “citizen’s duty” to show one’s face in a democratic state. Shortly before the incident, the municipality had refused to process a pending passport application for the woman’s child because, according to Mayor Bernhard, the mother declined to show her face for identification purposes, as required by law, while applying for the passport on behalf of her child. Bernhard told the newspaper Welt, “For identity verification, we had to see the woman’s face. She could have gone to a separate room in our town hall.”
In September the city of Pforzheim announced it had reversed a regulation requiring Muslim women wishing to wear a headscarf in their driver’s license photograph to present evidence of their faith through a certificate from their mosque or religious community. Earlier in the year, a Muslim woman’s tweet about the requirement had generated strong criticism of it on social media. The new policy required certificates of faith only in cases where there was reasonable doubt about the religious motivation of those seeking to wear a headscarf in the photograph.
In February the AfD put forward a motion requesting the government to introduce legislation in parliament to prohibit full-face veils in public. Citing the individual rights of Muslim women, the AfD motion stated that wearing a full-face veil was “an expression of the oppression of women” and of conscious distancing from “Western liberal society.” At year’s end parliament was still debating the motion in committee.
In March the Bavarian Administrative Court rejected the complaint of a judicial trainee in Augsburg who in 2014 had sued to contest a Bavarian Ministry of Justice rule denying judicial trainees the right to wear a headscarf in court. A lower court had previously sided with the plaintiff in 2016.
In July a majority of the citizens of Kaufbeuren, Bavaria voted in a referendum against leasing (for a symbolic fee) municipal real estate to the local DITIB organization on which to build a mosque.
In March the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster, NRW ruled that an event venue owner could not rent his venue for a Muslim circumcision celebration scheduled for Good Friday. The ruling reaffirmed a December 2015 ruling by the Administrative Court in Cologne. The circumcision itself had taken place several weeks before the scheduled celebration and the court ruled that the jubilant nature of the event contradicted the quiet nature of the Christian Good Friday observance, which several federal states, including NRW, legally enforced.
In February the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court in NRW banned outdoor amplification of the call to prayer via speakers by a local mosque. Following legal action by nearby residents in 2015, the Muslim community had to stop amplifying the prayer call outside of the mosque’s premises pending a court decision. The court justified its decision in this specific case with the lack of citizen involvement and dialogue in the city’s first decision to grant the permit for the call to prayer but did not prohibit the call to prayer altogether. In March the city announced it would appeal the decision prohibiting the amplification. The city’s lawyer compared the call to prayer with the ringing of church bells and said the court had not respected the religious freedom of the Muslim community.
In October the Federal Labor Court ruled on new guidelines for the rights of religious communities as employers, ruling on a case in which the EKD-owned charity organization Diakonie denied employment to a social worker because she was not a member of a religious community. Although the job description required applicants to belong to a Christian church, the court ruled that Diakonie could not deny her employment solely on that basis. The court’s decision stated religious communities could no longer require applicants to belong to a religious community as a condition of employment unless religious communities could demonstrate that membership was required to perform the job.
In March the European Court of Human Rights unanimously held that the country’s courts’ decisions in 2013 to take Twelve Tribes Church children living in Bavaria into state care because of reports that Church members punished their children by caning had not violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In March Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned rising anti-Semitism at schools after Muslim immigrant children bullied a Jewish girl at a Berlin elementary school. The bullying reportedly included death threats.
In May the NRW Ministry of Schools and Education distributed resources on countering anti-Semitic bullying in schools to all schools and education authorities in the state. The action followed reports indicating that bullying of Jewish students rose in 2017. Politicians from the CDU/CSU called for action, including that schools pay more attention to communicating religious tolerance.
In December Hamburg’s parliament passed a resolution to strengthen preventive work against anti-Semitism. The parliament allocated an additional 300,000 euros ($344,000) for school programs to combat anti-Semitism, including educational visits to former concentration camps, adult education, and anti-discrimination counseling. The parliament said it would cooperate with Hamburg’s Jewish community and organizations to support their efforts to combat anti-Semitism, and that its efforts would target right-wing extremist groups.
In May the education ministry of Brandenburg, and the education ministries of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate in June, signed declarations of intent with Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel to collaborate on Holocaust education in the states’ schools. In November Hamburg’s education ministry introduced educational materials on Jewish life from Yad Vashem as part of a broader effort to combat anti-Semitism in schools. Yad Vashem said it had concluded such agreements with 15 of 16 states in the country.
In June the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government announced plans to reorganize Islamic religious education in public schools. Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann said that, because of the absence of a single Islamic partner organization, he proposed establishing a Sunni Muslim educational foundation that would serve as a mediator between the state and various Islamic associations. The state government did not reach a decision on a new model for Islamic religious education and announced it would continue the existing system for an additional school year.
The Alevi Muslim community continued to offer separate religious lessons in schools in eight states for approximately 1,400 students.
In June Berlin Humboldt University, a public university, created an institute for Islamic theology and said it would begin training imams and religion teachers in 2019. The state of Berlin pledged to provide 13.8 million euros ($15.83 million) in funding for the institute through 2022. Humboldt University created the institute in cooperation with three Muslim associations – the Central Council of Muslims, Islamic Federation, and Islamic Association of Shia Communities – and the associations were to have a voice in selecting the institute’s professors. Critics, including student organizations and the Berlin CDU, said they disapproved of the extent of the associations’ control over the institute’s board, or of what they described as the associations’ conservative orientation.
During campaigning for the October Bavarian state elections, the Bavarian AfD distributed posters calling for “Islam-free schools,” which the party explained as a call to end “Islamic education and headscarves in schools.”
The COS continued to report governmental discrimination. “Sect filters,” which were signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. According to the COS, in September a Munich school refused to hire a teacher due to his membership in the COS. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members. According to the COS, Hamburg city officials asked one COS member to sign a “sect filter” when he attempted to purchase land from the city for his company.
In April the Berlin Administrative Court dismissed a suit that the mosque association Neukoellner Begegnungsstaette (NBS) had brought against the Berlin OPC in 2017. NBS had sought to have the Berlin OPC remove the association’s name from its annual report and to stop stating NBS had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The court ruled that the Berlin OPC’s statements that NBS had had contacts with the Islamic Community in Germany and that the latter group organized followers of the Muslim Brotherhood were valid.
In May the NRW state chancery spokesperson told media the state government stopped cooperation with DITIB due to the Turkish government’s influence over the group.
In July the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 75 million euros ($86 million) of government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 405 million euros ($464.45 million) in 2018 to 480 million euros ($550.46 million) in 2019. According to the commission, the increased funds would finance additional home care, food support, medicine, and transportation services for Holocaust survivors.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government increased its yearly support from 10 to 13 million euros ($11.47 to $14.91 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage, restore the Jewish community, and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international research group on the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts, for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
In September the NRW government announced a ten-year plan totaling 44 million euros ($50.46 million), beginning in 2018 and ending in 2028, for the modernization and new construction of Jewish facilities and institutions. The state said funding would begin at three million euros ($3.44 million) and be increased by 200,000 euros ($229,000) annually until reaching the maximum funding level of five million euros ($5.73 million) in 2028. Separately, NRW again provided three million euros ($3.44 million) to support and upgrade security in Jewish buildings.
On November 8, the city of Dessau-Rosslau in Saxony-Anhalt presented the Jewish community with a piece of land to build a new synagogue in the center of town. The community received 195,000 euros ($224,000) from the city and 300,000 euros ($344,000) from the state’s lottery commission for the construction of the building, as well as 700,000 euros ($803,000) from the federal government. The Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Hasselof, welcomed the new synagogue, stating it would increase the visibility of Jewish life in the city.
According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD amounted to approximately 538 million euros ($616.97 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on the federal states’ budgets.
In June the NRW state government’s Center for Political Education organized six one-day information programs in six cities entitled Diverse Islam versus Violence-Prone Salafism: Opportunities for Intervention and Prevention. The stated goals were to help teachers and educators distinguish between Islam as a religion and what the organizers described as violent Islamist extremists, and to engage with youths vulnerable to religiously based extremism. Presenters were Muslim and non-Muslim academics, members of NGOs, and state government employees. Muslim religious leaders did not participate in the programs.
In July the NRW Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees, and Integration awarded 160,000 euros ($183,000) to the Central Council of Muslims in support of its Hands-on Diversity: Students against anti-Semitism project.
In January the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the 2016 acquittal by the Wuppertal Regional Court of seven members of a self-declared “Sharia Police” on charges of violating the prohibition on wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. Dressed in yellow vests marked “Sharia Police,” the men patrolled Wuppertal in September 2014 to counter “non-Muslim behavior.” The Constitutional Court remanded the case back to the lower court and stated the latter had failed to consider whether the uniforms caused intimidation or were otherwise threatening to the public. At year’s end the lower court had not scheduled a new trial date.
On July 9, the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and anti-Semitism, in conjunction with several other Jewish organizations in the country, published a “declaration of principles on the fight against anti-Semitism.” While applauding several “well-intentioned” federal- and state-level public statements and initiatives over the previous months, the declaration called on the government to back up policies with concrete action. It cited the need to take victims seriously, distinguish anti-Semitism as a specific form of discrimination, and apply the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The signatories called upon the newly appointed federal and state commissioners on anti-Semitism to develop more effective preventative measures to combat it and to learn from the experiences of victims to develop more effective preventive measures. They also called on federal and state government agencies and publicly funded institutions to explicitly distance themselves from all form of anti-Semitism, including campaigns such as BDS.
Frankfurt Deputy Mayor and City Treasurer Uwe Becker targeted the BDS movement against Israel on numerous occasions and called for a ban of BDS in Germany. In April Becker said “Frankfurt will, in the future, only work with banks which do not maintain business relations with the anti-Semitic BDS movement.” In June he added that artists who supported the BDS movement were not welcome in Frankfurt and festivals or organizations in Frankfurt supporting BDS or providing a platform to its supporters risked losing city funding.
In September the NRW State Parliament condemned the BDS movement and its calls to boycott Israeli products and companies, as well as Israeli scientists and artists in NRW. The parliament also requested that all NRW government organizations deny BDS requests to use city, municipality, and county spaces.
In December Jewish community leaders in Duesseldorf said they believe NRW could still do more to combat anti-Semitism, and they found state-level responses to the BDS movement to be insufficient and weak.
On January 1, the government implemented procedures for registering complaints and violations of the law barring hate speech enacted in late 2017. The procedures stipulated operators of social networks with more than two million users in the country, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, must delete or block “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours after notification or, in more complex cases, within seven days. Operators must name a representative in the country able to react to complaints within 48 hours. Operators failing to comply systematically with the requirements were subject to fines of up to 50 million euros ($57.34 million). By year’s end the government had not penalized any companies under the law. Anti-Semitism Commissioner of Baden-Wuerttemberg Michael Blume reported the new law had had little effect on the spread of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech, as groups simply chose to use other, less public social media forms such as WhatsApp groups and video game chat rooms not covered by the law.
In March federal Interior Minister Seehofer stated the phrase “Islam is part of Germany,” which former President Christian Wulff and other politicians had popularized, was wrong. “No. Islam is not part of Germany,” he said. Seehofer added that Muslims in the country “are, of course, part of Germany,” but that he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture. The minister’s statements led to a public debate on the role of Islam and Muslims in the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that, while the country was shaped by its Judeo-Christian heritage, “Now there are four million Muslims living in Germany” who “can live their religion here, too.” Several Muslim associations criticized the minister’s statements. Gokay Sofuoglu, chair of the advocacy group Turkish Community in Germany, said, “At a time when there are more and more attacks on mosques and Muslims, it is not a good start if the minister of the interior begins with such a statement.” He also stated that “it is not his [Seehofer’s] job to decide who belongs to Germany and who does not.” Addressing Seehofer’s remarks, Islamic Council Chair Burhan Kesici said, “He does not have the decency to withhold his opinion.…It would be better to recognize reality and see Muslims as part of society. Only then could prejudices be reduced.” Ayman Mazyek, Chair of the Central Council of Muslims, commented, “Against the backdrop of the mosque fires and the increased Islamophobic attacks, I would have expected the new interior minister to stand behind German Muslims.”
In September Hans Peter Stauch, an AfD state parliament member in Baden-Wuerttemberg, posted a video on Facebook entitled “The Power of the Rothschilds.” The video included statements that the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking family, were responsible for World War II and the Holocaust. Baden-Wuerttemberg’s state commissioner for anti-Semitism and the heads of the state-level Green, SPD, and FDP parties criticized Stauch, saying that he was spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Stauch responded that he had only posted the video without commentary and said he was exercising his freedom of speech.
In January AfD Bundestag (federal parliament) member Beatrix von Storch tweeted that Cologne police were appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping, Muslim hordes” when the police tweeted a New Year’s Day greeting in Arabic. Twitter briefly suspended von Storch’s account. Thomas Held, spokesman for the Cologne police, confirmed to media that the Cologne police initiated a criminal report against von Storch for suspicion of inciting hatred, stating that this was “a completely normal procedure” which they were “legally obliged” to start upon the suspicion of a criminal offense. Additionally, approximately 100 private individuals reported von Storch’s tweet to police. Twitter also deleted a tweet by AfD Parliamentary Caucus Chief Alice Weidel, defending her colleague by using the phrase “imported, marauding, grabbing, beating, knife stabbing migrant mobs.”
In May Weidel argued in a parliamentary debate that the uncontrolled immigration of Muslims endangered the wealth of the country, stating, “Burquas, headscarf girls, subsidized knife men, and other good-for-nothings will not secure our wealth, the economic growth, and most of all our welfare state.” Representatives of all other parties present in parliament reacted with interjections and booing. Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble called her to order for “discriminating against all women who wear a headscarf.”
In July a group of AfD party members from Weidel’s Bodensee electoral district in Baden-Wuerttemberg visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial in Brandenburg State as part of a trip to Berlin sponsored by the federal press office. According to the memorial site’s staff, some participants continuously interrupted the guided tour with inappropriate comments, including speech that trivialized Nazi crimes and questioned the existence of gas chambers. The federal press office stated one participant made anti-Semitic statements. Neuruppin public prosecutor Wilfried Lehman was investigating the case, and stated in November that his office hoped to complete the investigation by year’s end, and he already had sufficient evidence for one case of Holocaust denial.
On April 26, the Bundestag condemned the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks in the country, and emphasized its support for Israel’s right to exist. “It is intolerable when Jewish life in Germany is not possible without fear,” said SPD party leader Andrea Nahles. Volker Kauder (who at the time was CDU/CSU parliamentary caucus leader), said “Everyone has a place in this society,” but that there was no place for anti-Semitism.
In May the Rostock District Court upheld a lower court’s 2016 finding that AfD state Member of Parliament (MP) Holger Arppe was guilty of hate speech against Muslims for comments he wrote on the right-wing website Politically Incorrect in 2010, while using a pseudonym. The court increased Arppe’s fine from 6,300 to 9,000 euros (from $7,200 to $10,300).
On February 8, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court found the creator of the banned Altermedia neo-Nazi website guilty of leadership in a criminal association and inciting racial hatred and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison. Three women, charged with supporting the website and incitement, were convicted and received suspended sentences ranging from eight months to two years. The court declared the platform a criminal organization. It had published content that denied the Holocaust and targeted Jews, immigrants, and foreigners; the federal interior minister closed it in 2016.
According to the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD), political parties continued to distance themselves from Islamic associations because they were concerned foreign nations and organizations could influence Muslims with money and by sending radical imams to mosques in the country.
As part of the coalition agreement between the ruling CDU/CSU and SPD parties, the government agreed to continue the German Islam Conference dialogue between representatives of the government and Muslims in the country, which began in 2006. The conference’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population in the country, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and, in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country, further develop partnerships between the government and Islamic organizations. In November the government held its fourth German Islam Conference, a two-day conference with 240 participants. Conference attendees included representatives of Muslim associations, communities, scholars, and activists. Interior Minister Seehofer called on Muslim communities to cut their ties with sources of foreign funding and influence, develop their own training systems for the country’s imams, and increase their cooperation with the country’s government. Federal Integration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz, reiterating concerns about the foreign financing of the country’s mosques, said, “Those who want to be part of Germany as a Muslim organization cannot remain part of Ankara.”
In January Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator of Palestinian heritage, proposed the government require that “everybody living in this country” visit Nazi concentration camp memorials at least once. She added that newly arrived immigrants should visit the memorials as part of programs to integrate them into society, in order to sensitize them to Nazi crimes against Jews and combat anti-Semitism. The country’s Central Council of Jews and the World Jewish Congress endorsed the proposal. Council President Josef Schuster told Deutschlandfunk Radio that migrants who had fled or been expelled from their home countries could develop empathy by visiting such memorials. The proposal generated debate and was not adopted. Critics said such visits should be voluntary and preceded by prior education about the Holocaust. Gunter Morsch, Director of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation and head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, said, “It seems to me an illusion to believe that such a visit can help to counter a strongly entrenched prejudice.”
In March NRW Minister-President Laschet hosted an iftar at the state chancery, the first NRW minister-president to do so.
The government created the position of federal commissioner for worldwide religious freedom within the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and in April it appointed MP Markus Gruebel as the first commissioner. Gruebel stated the government wanted to send a clear signal on the importance it places on religious freedom and the strengthening of common values.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes committed during the year – including 69 incidents involving violence – a 20 percent increase over the 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, reported in 2017. The interior ministry attributed 93 percent of the incidents in 2017 to the far right but stated its methodology was not exact.
The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents decreased from 31 in 2016 to 28 in 2017. It noted membership in neo-Nazi groups remained steady at approximately 6,000 persons.
NGO RIAS, to which victims can report anti-Semitic incidents independently of filing charges with police, reported 527 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of the year, including 18 involving violence or attempted violence, compared with 514 incidents over the same period a year earlier. RIAS used different categories than official police statistics and counted anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense, such as “hurtful behavior.”
According to the anti-Semitism commissioner in Bavaria, incidents of anti-Semitism were increasing in the state. He said perpetrators were from both the extreme left and right, as well as the Muslim community.
In 2017, the first year in which authorities maintained a tally of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian incidents, the Ministry of Interior registered 1,075 incidents against Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers, including 56 attacks involving bodily harm. Other recorded infractions included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street. The ministry also recorded approximately 90 demonstrations against the “Islamization of Germany.”
The Ministry of Interior counted 129 incidents against Christians in 2017, including 34 cases involving violence. It classified a majority of these incidents as motivated by religious ideology. In at least 14 cases, the victims were refugees. Media reported that refugees who had converted from Islam to Christianity experienced aggression from Muslim refugees, especially if they were housed in the same refugee shelter.
In February an unknown perpetrator fired shots with an air gun from a high-rise building towards a mosque in Halle and injured a Syrian man. Federal Immigration Commissioner Aydan Oezoguz (SPD) visited the site to talk to members of the Muslim community. In June one or more unidentified individuals fired shots from an air gun near the same mosque that hit a man of Syrian origin. Police investigated, but by year’s end had not identified a suspect in either incident.
On June 3, according to RIAS, three men accosted four teenagers listening to an Israeli song on a cell phone at a subway station in Berlin. The men asked the cell phone owner if he was Jewish. When he said yes, they told him they were from Gaza City, that Jews had been killing children for 70 years, and that if he showed up again they would slit his throat, calling him a [expletive] Jew. The men then tried to push the cell phone owner onto the subway tracks and injured one of the other youths with broken glass. The attackers fled when police appeared. There were no arrests.
In September the president of the Jewish amateur sports club Makkabi Germany, Alon Meyer, said club members increasingly faced anti-Semitic abuse from other competitors during sporting events, ranging from insults to physical violence and knife attacks. According to Meyer, insults included “filthy Jew” and “Jews into the gas.” He added, “It’s not stopping at insulting, it will be fisticuffs, it will be knife attacks.” Meyer attributed the attacks mostly to an increase in migrants and refugees with a Muslim-Arab background.
In February the regional court in Traunstein, Bavaria sentenced an Afghan man to life in prison. The court found the man guilty of stabbing a woman to death in 2017, in part because she had converted from Islam to Christianity. According to the court, the attacker killed the victim, who was also from Afghanistan, in front of her young sons.
On August 31, the Dresden District Court convicted a man charged with bombing a mosque in 2016 of attempted murder, arson, and causing a bomb explosion and sentenced him to nine years and eight months in prison.
In June police reported three men with extreme far-right views attacked a Jewish man from Dortmund, attempting to punch him in the head and insulting him. The victim said he encountered the attackers for a second time that same day, and they again insulted and threatened him and made the Nazi salute. The Dortmund police intelligence service published a call for witness accounts and launched an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end. Three days earlier, the victim said one of the three men had pushed him and directed anti-Semitic insults at him. At that time, police had verified the identities of alleged perpetrator and victim and were investigating the former for possible charges, including incitement to violence.
In July in Bonn, a 20-year old citizen of Palestinian descent assaulted a visiting Israeli professor from Johns Hopkins University. The attacker, upon seeing the professor, shouted “No Jews in Germany!” and then knocked the yarmulke off his head. When police arrived, the attacker fled the scene. The police mistakenly believed the victim to be the attacker and used force to detain him. Police later apprehended the alleged perpetrator and charged him with incitement of hate and causing bodily harm. They later released him. The Cologne police opened an internal investigation of the Bonn police actions in the incident, and the police officers involved were assigned to desk jobs pending the investigation’s results.
In April a group of three men reportedly insulted two men wearing yarmulkes across a street in Berlin. In court, the victims stated their attackers had shouted insults at them in Arabic. A video then showed one of the perpetrators, a Syrian refugee, crossing the street towards one victim, hitting him with a belt, and screaming the Arabic word for Jew. The victim was an Arab-Israeli who had received the yarmulke as a gift. In June the local court in Berlin-Tiergarten sentenced the attacker to four weeks in jail. Since the man had been in pretrial detention for two months, authorities set him free immediately, as they considered the sentence served. The man sought monetary compensation for the excess time he had served in prison, but authorities denied his claim. While his lawyer initially announced in July he would appeal the decision not to compensate him, the lawyer withdrew the appeal in October.
On August 26, the AfD and the group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) organized a peaceful rally in Chemnitz after the killing of a citizen, reportedly by two refugees from Syria and Iraq. Later that day, approximately 800 persons marched in another demonstration in downtown Chemnitz and reportedly shouted anti-immigrant slogans, attempted to attack persons who appeared to be migrants, and clashed with police. On August 27, a group of 12 individuals who yelled “Get out of Germany, you Jewish pig” attacked the Jewish owner of the Schalom restaurant in Chemnitz, throwing rocks and bottles at the restaurant and injuring the owner, before running away. At year’s end Chemnitz police were still investigating the case. Saxony Minister-President Michael Kretschmer strongly condemned the attack, which occurred after social unrest in the city. The same day, according to press reports, approximately 6,000 right-wing demonstrators and 1,500 counterdemonstrators marched in Chemnitz. Newscasts showed demonstrators shouting anti-immigrant slogans and making the Nazi salute. Two police and 18 demonstrators were injured. Because ethnicity and religion are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize the demonstrations as being solely based on religious identity.
In May a 67-year-old man allegedly hit a woman wearing a headscarf in the face at a bus stop in Berlin. The man had asked the woman about the headscarf, and she had told him she was a Muslim and liked to wear it. Police identified a suspect and opened an investigation.
In August the Berlin-Tiergarten local court convicted a 68-year-old woman of committing deliberate bodily harm and insult for hitting a Muslim woman in the face and trying to rip off her headscarf in an incident in January. The victim and her daughter managed to detain the perpetrator until police arrived. The court fined the perpetrator 2,400 euros ($2,800).
In separate incidents during one week in March, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Berlin, at a Turkish club in Meschede, and at a Turkish greengrocer in Itzehoe. The newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that, between mid-January and mid-March, individuals carried out 26 attacks on mosques, of which 18 belonged to DITIB. According to the same newspaper, after an attack with Molotov cocktails on a building belonging to the Muslim group Milli Gorus in Laufen-am-Neckar in March, what appeared to be anti-Turkish Kurds said in an online video the attacks were in retaliation for Turkish army raids against the northern Syrian city of Afrin. In a joint statement, DITIB, the Central Council of Muslims, and the Islamic Council expressed the Muslim community’s perception that politicians and the public were not taking their concerns about their safety and that of their mosques seriously. At year’s end authorities continued to investigate these incidents and had made no arrests.
A Berlin-based Jewish-Israeli restaurant owner who appeared in a 2017 video that received widespread online attention showing him as the target of verbal anti-Semitic aggression received death threats and hate mail, and individuals threw firecrackers at his restaurant. According to a media report in September, hate mail he received filled 31 pages. Police investigated but could not identify any of those sending death threats. In July the man who had initiated the original diatribe against the restaurant owner in 2017 received a seven months’ suspended prison sentence.
The Duesseldorf Jewish Community said attendance at two Jewish schools it sponsored in the city had spiked up due to increased anti-Semitism in schools around Duesseldorf. According to the group, the schools, which the NRW government funded, had been established to enable Jewish students to strengthen their Jewish identity. Most students, however, were enrolling because they sought a safe haven from increased bullying due to their Jewish faith. According to NRW Ministry of Education officials, much anti-Semitism in schools came from students’ parents and media, and anti-Semitism among Muslim children was particularly difficult to change.
The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church investigated “sects and cults” and publicized what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views warned the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing these groups.
A study on discrimination against migrants in the labor market by the Scientific Center Berlin for Social Research released in June reported that Muslims experienced discrimination when looking for a job. According to the study, which included more than 6,000 fictitious job applications, Muslim job applicants were 7 percent less likely to receive a positive answer than Christian applicants with the same qualifications.
In April the Center to Combat Antidiscrimination and Counselling on Racism and Anti-Semitism (SABRA) held an all-day conference on Anti-Semitism and Refugees. The Duesseldorf Jewish Community established SABRA in 2017 as a new service to combat anti-Semitism. SABRA is part of a network of state government-supported organizations throughout NRW that provide services to immigrants to help them integrate into society. Conference participants stated that, although anti-Semitism had always been present in the country, the influx of a large number of mostly Muslim refugees exacerbated anti-Semitism. The program focused on supporting individuals who were victims of anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination by providing counseling and legal services and helping to resolve cases of discrimination; sponsoring prevention programs in schools; and monitoring incidents of anti-Semitism throughout the state. SABRA also provided support for victims of anti-Semitic incidents that did not meet the threshold for filing criminal charges.
In November Abraham Lehrer, Vice President of the Central Council of Jews, told media that he expected anti-Semitism among Arab or Muslim immigrants to increase and called for combating anti-Semitism through education. Lehrer said, “Many of these people were influenced by regimes in which anti-Semitism is part of the rationale of the state and the Jewish state is denied the right to existence.” As a remedy, Lehrer proposed integration courses tailored to immigrants’ country of origin, with intensive teaching of such values as democracy and the treatment of women in society.
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 1,233 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Germany responded to the online survey. Twenty-nine percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 41 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Thirty-seven percent said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief. Eighty-nine percent said anti-Semitism had increased during the previous five years.
According to a survey of more than 2,000 German-speaking residents released in September by the Social Science Institute of the Protestant Church, 54 percent did not agree with the statement that “Islam fits into German society,” and 31 percent agreed. While 69 percent agreed that Muslims were part of everyday life in the country, only 27 percent said they were well or very well informed about Islam. A third of respondents approved of Islamic religious instruction in schools.
PEGIDA continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden. Journalists said PEGIDA supporters pushed and threatened them when they were reporting on the demonstrations. On September 3, police detained a PEGIDA demonstrator who had allegedly attacked a journalist, according to Deutschlandfunk online. On September 24, several PEGIDA demonstrators attacked two journalists, hitting one reporter in the face and kicking the other, while other PEGIDA supporters stood nearby and cheered, according to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Some members of the crowd then reportedly helped the perpetrators escape. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.
The number of participants at PEGIDA marches remained constant at approximately 1,500-2,000 protesters per rally, according to several media reports. An exception was the October 21 rally in Dresden, when 4,500 supporters marked the group’s fourth anniversary. On the same day in Dresden, approximately 10,000 persons marched in support of tolerance and against PEGIDA. Among the participants in the counterdemonstration were Saxony Minister-President Kretschmer, Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert, and several state ministers. The October 21 demonstrations were largely peaceful, but police reported five incidents of assault. Early in the year AfD parliamentarians gave multiple speeches at PEGIDA rallies. In January the magazine Der Spiegel cited AfD Bundestag member Siegbert Droese as stating that in Saxony there was close cooperation between his party and PEGIDA.
In what organizers said was a sign of solidarity with Jews in Germany, hundreds of persons wearing yarmulkes demonstrated against anti-Semitism in several cities around the country, including in Berlin, Cologne, Erfurt, Magdeburg, and Potsdam, in April and May. During the Berlin demonstration, where there were approximately 2,500 participants, authorities reported incidents in which counterprotesters spit on demonstrators, called them terrorists, and violently removed an Israeli banner.
Between May and August Realitaet Islam (Reality Islam), a group that said it aimed to strengthen the Islamic identity of Muslims in the country, campaigned in Frankfurt and other cities in Hesse against a headscarf ban. The group said it targeted young Muslims and had collected more than 140,000 signatures from throughout the country. The Hesse state OPC stated to media on August 29 that, while the campaign itself was not illegal, the group rejected the country’s liberal democratic order and was striving for a theocracy, and a “high Islamic radicalization potential” for the group “could not be excluded.”
On January 17, approximately 300 persons demonstrated against the construction of a mosque by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt. The AfD leadership in Thuringia supported the demonstration, and state AfD Chairperson Bjoern Hoecke said the mosque’s construction was “part of a long-standing land grab project.” Mosque opponents subsequently organized a series of smaller demonstrations against the construction. For example, in June David Koeckert, who press reported was a former member of the National Democratic Party, widely described as a neo-Nazi group, organized an event at an Erfurt market where protestors staged a fake execution, shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and pretending to cut a woman’s throat using imitation blood. Left Party state MP Steffen Dittes called the act disgusting. According to police, authorities filed charges against the organizers for insult and damage to property.
In September demonstrators against the construction of the mosque wore masks depicting what they considered to be stereotypical Middle Eastern faces and “Arab” garb. Numbering fewer than 20 participants, the demonstrators also marched in front of Green Party state MP Astrid Rothe-Beinlich’s home. Rothe-Beinlich criticized local authorities for authorizing a demonstration directly in front of her house, which she described as a personal threat. Authorities permitted the masks’ use, stating there was no violation of the ban on face coverings during demonstrations, because protestors could be identified with their identification documents. Critics stated there was no exception to the ban on face coverings during demonstrations.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt moved forward with the construction and celebrated the laying of the foundation stone on November 13. The ceremony was accompanied by loud protests from approximately 60 opponents of the mosque, as well as a counterdemonstration by persons calling for religious freedom and tolerance.
Construction of a mosque in Sulzbach, Saarland was ongoing at year’s end. The citizen’s group Sulzbach wehrt sich (Sulzback Fights Back) continued to protest the construction of the mosque. In April the group organized a protest as well as a concert with the band Kategorie C/Hungrige Wolfe that the OPC said it was monitoring for its connection to right wing extremists. The city tried to prevent the concert in a municipal building, stating the group had misled it in registering the event without the band’s name. The Saarland Higher Administrative Court ruled in April the city had to allow the concert to take place since it could not show sufficient cause for cancelling it. Approximately 200 representatives of political parties, trade unions, and churches protested against the concert.
In June Ruhrtriennale, a cultural festival receiving state financial support in NRW, invited the Scottish band Young Fathers to play a concert. The private company Kultur Ruhr GmbH organizing the festival said it cancelled the appearance when it learned the band supported the BDS movement. The organizers stated they later reversed their decision and reinvited the band so they could publicly explain their views, but the band declined. State Minister of Culture and Science Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen criticized the organizer’s reinvitation of the band in a press statement, and the minister-president cancelled his attendance. Jewish organizations criticized the scheduling of a panel discussion at the festival about the BDS debate because it took place on the Sabbath and featured Jewish artists who supported BDS. A Jewish activist, Malca Goldstein-Wolf, organized a demonstration headlined “No support for BDS with taxpayers’ money.” The demonstration took place in Bochum on August 18, and there were approximately 250 participants.
In August the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for a boycott of the Berlin Pop-Kultur Festival, and several artists from the United Kingdom and the United States cancelled their appearances. The Israeli embassy had supported the festival with 1,200 euros ($1,400) and appeared on the festival’s website as a “partner.” During the festival, the BDS movement put up posters in Berlin that mimicked the festival’s logo, stating “pop culture – sponsored by apartheid.” BDS activists also disrupted the festival’s opening event.
According to a study the Technical University of Berlin issued in July, anti-Semitic online hate speech reached record levels on social media, blogs, websites’ comment sections, and thematically unrelated websites and online forums. The researchers stated that, since online communication was becoming more important, acceptance of anti-Semitism could increase. The study, which distinguished between anti-Semitism and political criticism of Israel, evaluated 30,000 German language online statements made between 2014 and 2018 on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of mainstream media outlets. The study also evaluated 20,000 emails sent to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. According to the report authors, between 2007 and 2017, anti-Semitic content in the texts had tripled “in some instances.” The study identified an increased use of comparisons of Israel to Nazis; fantasies of violence targeting Jews, e.g., references to asphyxiating Jews in pig excrement and to hunting and killings Jews; and dehumanizing or demonizing characterizations of Jews, such as “pest,” “cancer,” or “filth.” Almost half of the texts used centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as portraying Jews as strangers, usurers, exploiters, vindictive intriguers, blood cult practitioners, robbers, and murderers. According to the authors, anti-Semitism related to Israel was encountered in a third of all texts.
In April the German Music Federation awarded rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah, whose songs include anti-Semitic lyrics, the country’s Echo music award based on high record sales. Civil society groups, artists, politicians, and Jewish groups criticized the award. Several musicians who were past recipients of the Echo, returned their awards in protest, and singer Peter Maffay and Foreign Minister Maas both said awarding the prize on Holocaust Remembrance Day was “shameful.” After the award ceremony, 11 persons reported the rappers to police for “incitement of hatred.” In June the Duesseldorf public prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute them. The Duesseldorf prosecutor stated that, while their songs contained anti-Semitic and misogynist lyrics, the lyrics were characteristic of their genre and a form of protected artistic freedom. Following the controversy, the federation revoked the Echo prize given to Farid Bang and Kollegah, and the organizers announced they would discontinue the award.
In April a satirical play based on Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf was performed in Constance, Baden-Wuerttemberg. The play’s organizers promised free entry to spectators who wore the swastika, and those who paid for a ticket had to wear a Star of David “as a sign of solidarity with the victims of Nazi barbarism.” Several legal complaints were filed against the theater. Although the law prohibits the public display of Nazi symbols and several legal complaints were reportedly filed against the theater, local prosecutors allowed the theater to present the play and allow free entry for those wearing swastikas, citing free speech laws that permit artistic performances. The region’s German-Israeli Society called for a boycott of the play.
On April 20, approximately 1,300 neo-Nazis gathered in the town of Ostritz in Saxony to commemorate Hitler’s birthday. Thorsten Heise, chairman of the National Democratic Party of Germany, organized the event. On the same date, also in Ostritz, opponents held a peace festival, a counterrally of approximately the same size. Police were present in force, and both events were largely peaceful. According to press reports, one person was slightly injured during scuffles between the opposing groups, and police detained one man for making the Nazi salute. The same organizers organized a neo-Nazi Shield and Sword (SS) rock festival in Ostritz on November 1-4. In another peace festival, approximately 3,000 opponents protested again. Police stopped another right-wing rock concert in Ostritz on December 1, after neighbors reported hearing the participants yell the Nazi slogan, “Sieg Heil.” Authorities were investigating the incident at year’s end.
On September 21, an estimated 100 neo-Nazis rallied in Dortmund, NRW, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, such as, “He who loves Germany is anti-Semitic,” and carrying symbols such as the “Reich” flag.
At a Unification Day demonstration on October 3 in Berlin with approximately 2,000 participants, media reported a few participants performed the Nazi salute, and several dozen displayed neo-Nazi tattoos, inscriptions on their clothes, or posters. Several counterdemonstrations with a similar total number of participants took place in Berlin at the same time. All the demonstrations were peaceful.
In May authorities arrested 89-year-old Ursula Haverbeck after she failed to appear to serve her prison sentence for Holocaust denial. In 2017, the Regional Court Verden sentenced Haverbeck to two years’ imprisonment after convicting her on eight counts of incitement of hate. In February the Celle Higher Regional Court rejected her appeal. In August the Federal Constitutional Court refused to accept her complaint that Holocaust denial was covered by the protected constitutional right of freedom of expression and not a punishable offense. At year’s end, Haverbeck was serving her sentence and publishing messages from prison on her website, Freedom for Ursula.
In May unknown perpetrators spray-painted a swastika on a house in the town of Kirchhain in Hesse and covered commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) with black paint.
According to state authorities and local media, religious establishments in Ulm in Baden-Wuerttemberg experienced increased vandalism over the course of the year. In September unknown individuals painted swastikas and other pro-Nazi symbols or writing on the door and pews of the Protestant cathedral in Ulm. State authorities said they had found similar anti-Semitic graffiti in Ulm and the surrounding area in the preceding months, including at a local synagogue and a Turkish mosque.
In September unknown persons targeted the Al-Nour Mosque in Hamburg, just before its opening, with anti-Muslim graffiti. The mosque was converted from a former Protestant church. According to a mosque official, the mosque had held open days for city residents in an effort to engage with non-Muslims and be as transparent as possible with the project.
In February the Duesseldorf Memorial and Education Center, a museum, research center, and archive of the Holocaust, started a research project aimed at identifying the number of victims in NRW of the November 1938 Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, as well as how the victims had died. The center published a report of its findings on the 80th anniversary of the pogrom, on November 9. The report detailed the cases of the approximately 127 persons from NRW who lost their lives as a result of the pogroms.
According to local officials, legal proceedings against a bus driver in Emden, Lower Saxony for refusing a pregnant woman wearing a full-face veil onto his bus on three occasions, were continuing at year’s
In May Hamburg’s Jewish Community ordained five rabbis, its first ordination since World War II. Hamburg Mayor and Minister-President Peter Tschentscher (SPD) attended the ceremony.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy and the five consulates general continued to engage closely with the government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance. Embassy officials regularly met with the Ministry of Interior’s federal government commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism. Consulate general officials in Frankfurt and Munich met with the Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria commissioners for anti-Semitism to express concern about anti-Semitism and discuss ways of ensuring anti-Semitic incidents were correctly recorded.
Embassy and consulate general representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to freedom of worship. Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism through the country’s changing political landscape (for example, the cooperation of the AfD with extreme right groups, especially in Chemnitz), the rise of the BDS movement, and concern that refugees and other migrants might be bringing concepts of anti-Semitism into the country. Embassy and consulate general representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; COS; ZMD; Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; Alevi Muslims; Council of Religions Frankfurt; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.
In January the Charge d’Affaires met with the head representative of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Jewish Claims Conference) in Frankfurt am Main to discuss the status of claims negotiations.
In March the embassy sponsored the visit of 11 young Muslim leaders from Berlin and Heilbronn to participate in a program in the United States on community outreach and engagement. Program topics included community efforts to combat violent extremism, particularly of Muslim youth, strengthening civil society and citizen participation, combating hate speech, and developing leadership skills to connect with and engage Muslim youth.
The embassy funded the participation of a U.S. photographer in a photography project titled A World of Faith – 4 Perspectives on Religion, in which four photographers presented pictures highlighting aspects of the beliefs of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. A display of the project at a Berlin art gallery in January and February encouraged interreligious dialogue among visitors and media. During a visit to the exhibition, the Charge d’Affaires stressed to organizers the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and commended the gallery and participating photographers for their efforts to promote understanding among people of different faiths.
To commemorate Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Charge d’Affaires visited the photography exhibition Religion behind Bars that discussed religiosity in prison. The embassy supported the exhibition with a travel fund for one of the photographers. During the visit, the Charge stressed the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of religion.
On April 18, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a Celebrate Diversity Month reception for approximately 100 religious, government, and civil society leaders from a variety of backgrounds to encourage them to find common ground and engage in productive dialogue over shared values. In his remarks, the Charge spoke of religious diversity and freedom.
In June the Ambassador discussed Jewish life in the country and the community’s concerns about anti-Semitism and intolerance with Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Street in Berlin and Rabbi Joshua Spinner, Executive Vice President of the Ronald Lauder Foundation in the country.
In July the Ambassador met with the Kreuzberger Initiative against anti-Semitism (KIGA), a Berlin-based NGO that trains students from Kreuzberg (a neighborhood with a high number of Muslim immigrants) to work with students and talk to school classes to promote tolerance and combat anti-Semitism.
In September the Ambassador hosted a screening of Yezidi activist Duezen Tekkal’s documentary Hawar – My Journey to Genocide, which focused on the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yezidi people in Iraq in 2014. The Ambassador delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and commended the work that Tekkal and fellow Yezidi activist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad have done to highlight abuses by ISIS. The Ambassador said the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government’s efforts to resettle approximately 2,500 Yezidi women and children were “courageous,” and cited it as an example of Germany’s commitment to defend religious freedom.
In October the Ambassador hosted a 20th anniversary celebration in honor of international Jewish NGO AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute. In his speech, the Ambassador highlighted the significance of religious freedom and efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He stressed the importance of German government restitution of Jewish property seized in World War II, compensation for Holocaust survivors, and promotion of Holocaust education.
In October the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited Berlin and Magdeburg and met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss how to best combat anti-Semitism. In Magdeburg, the special envoy attended a board meeting of the German Lost Art Foundation, which focused on provenance research for art and cultural assets the Nazis confiscated from Jews.
On November 9, the 80th anniversary of the Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, the Ambassador met with the head of Deutsche Bahn’s (German Railway’s) historical section at the Track 17 memorial, one of three deportation points for Berlin Jews during World War II, and toured the memorial. Embassy officials also cleaned defaced commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) throughout Berlin.
In November the Ambassador participated in a roundtable with KIGA peer trainers and program participants to discuss the importance of tolerance and religious freedom. The Ambassador also listened to the participants’ views on KIGA’s training, as well as their experiences with combatting anti-Semitism in their communities.
On November 13, the U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and State Secretary at the German Ministry of Finance Rolf Bosinger hosted a discussion at the AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute on the U.S. Treasury’s role in assisting Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, as well on Germany’s contributions to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
In November the Charge d’Affaires delivered remarks on religious freedom and the importance of restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs at the German Lost Art Foundation’s Conference. On the margins of the conference, the German government signed a joint declaration with the U.S. government that reaffirmed both governments’ commitment to find just and fair solutions for the return of stolen artwork to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
On December 2, the Ambassador gave remarks on religious tolerance and nondiscrimination at an embassy reception to mark Hanukkah, in advance of an annual menorah lighting ceremony in central Berlin.
The embassy and consulates general provided small cash grants to support programs promoting religious tolerance, such as the Jewish Cultural Days in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Jewish Week in Leipzig, Saxony, and Yiddish Summer in Weimar, Thuringia. These events featured music, dancing, film screenings, exhibitions, and speakers that raised awareness about the Jewish community and Jewish culture.
The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship with some restrictions. It recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The law prohibits offenses violating “religious peace,” including blasphemy and “religious insult,” punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. Police arrested two Jehovah’s Witnesses for religious insult, releasing them the following day. At least 30 different religious communities are officially registered with the government. In August parliament passed legislation requiring all Greek Orthodox priests, imams in Thrace, and rabbis to register in the same electronic database used for other registered religious communities. The same law requires mandatory retirement for muftis at the same age as other judicial officials, authorizes the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to fund the muftiates, and tasks the Ministry of Finance with their financial oversight. On March 20, the Council of State deemed changes introduced to religious instruction in primary and middle schools in 2016 were unconstitutional and contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In October parliament passed legislation requiring notarized consent from all parties wishing to adjudicate a family matter using sharia instead of the civil courts. A criminal trial continued for 69 members and supporters of the Golden Dawn (GD) political party accused of a string of violent attacks and arson, including on Muslim migrants. The government issued 11 new house of prayer permits: eight to Jehovah’s Witnesses, two to Muslim groups, and one to Pentecostals. The Greek Orthodox Church, Muslim minority of Thrace, Jewish communities, and Roman Catholic Church continued to receive some government benefits not available to other religious communities. Some members of the Muslim minority of Thrace continued to oppose the government’s appointment of muftis, advocating that the community elect them. The government continued to fund Holocaust education programs; on January 19, the parliamentary president announced the government would fund a museum inside the Auschwitz concentration camp commemorating Greek Jews who perished there.
Media reported continued incidents of anti-Semitic discrimination, hate speech, vandalism, and anti-Muslim assaults. Incidents of vandalism affecting religious properties, including Holocaust memorials and Greek Orthodox churches, continued. On March 6, a group of self-described anarchists placed an explosive device outside the Diocese of Neapoli and Stavroupolis, near Thessaloniki; the explosion damaged the building entrance. On December 27, a small explosive device left by self-proclaimed anarchist group “Iconoclastic Sect” detonated outside Greek Orthodox Agios Dionysios Church in central Athens. A police officer and the churchwarden sustained minor injuries. On May 4, unidentified individuals destroyed nine marble stones in the Jewish section of a historic Athens cemetery. The president of the Athens Jewish Community said the destruction was “the most severe [anti-Semitic] incident in Athens in the past 15 years.” Secretary General for Religious Affairs George Kalantzis condemned the vandalism in a statement that said, in part, “What kind of people are those who hate the dead? . . . The vandalism of the Jewish cemetery should be for us a cause, a reason to intensify even more our efforts so as the poison of anti-Semitism stays away from our society.” The Mayor of Athens, George Kaminis immediately issued a statement condemning the attack, noting, “Such events have no place in Athens, in a city free and open that is not intimidated.” The secretary general for human rights said these types of incidents “attack human dignity and harm society as a whole.” On May 13, national government and municipal officials joined the Jewish community in a silent protest against violence, intolerance, and racism. Police investigated the case but made no arrests by year’s end.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. government officials, and other embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the secretary general for religious affairs, and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, including Deputy Minister Markos Bolaris and Special Secretary for Religious and Cultural Diplomacy Efstathios Lianos Liantis. They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship, government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants, laws against undermining religious belief through coercion or fraud, and government initiatives promoting worldwide interfaith and interreligious dialogue. U.S. government officials expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric, and attacks on Orthodox churches. On December 28, the Charge d’Affaires sent a letter to Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos condemning the December 27 attack on Agios Dionysios Orthodox Church. Embassy officials also engaged Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos and metropolitans, as well as members of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, to promote religious tolerance and encourage interfaith dialogue. On November 29, a senior embassy official hosted representatives from a range of religious communities and government agencies to discuss legal protections related to religious freedom and challenges faced by various communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.8 million (July 2018 estimate), of whom approximately 81 to 90 percent is Greek Orthodox, 4 to 15 percent atheist, and 2 percent Muslim.
According to a Pew Research Center study released in November 2017, Muslims were approximately 5.7 percent of the population in 2016, including approximately 100,000 individuals in Thrace descending from the Muslim minority officially recognized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. According to the same source, an additional 520,000 Muslims, mostly immigrants and asylum seekers from Southeastern Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, reside throughout the country, clustered together based on their countries of origin, or in reception facilities.
According to data provided by other religious communities, their members combined constitute 3-5 percent of the population. These include Old Calendarist Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, members of polytheistic Hellenic religions, Scientologists, Baha’is, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sikhs, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits “proselytizing,” defined by law as “any direct or indirect attempt to intrude on the religious beliefs of a person of a different religious persuasion with the aim of undermining those beliefs through inducement, fraudulent means, or taking advantage of the other person’s inexperience, trust, need, low intellect, or naivete.” The constitution prohibits worship that “disturbs public order or offends moral principles.” It allows prosecutors to seize publications that “offend Christianity” or other “known religions.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including “malicious blasphemy” and “religious insult,” both punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. Blasphemy cases may be brought before civil and criminal courts. The constitution enumerates the goals of public education, including “development of religious conscience among citizens.” Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the government.
The constitution states ministers of all known religions are subject to the same state supervision and the same obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It also states individuals are not exempt from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.
The Greek Orthodox Church, Jewish community, and Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious legal entities. The Catholic Church, Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches automatically acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also allows groups seeking recognition to become “religious legal entities” under civil law. The recognition process requires filing a request with the civil court, providing documents proving the group has “open rituals and no secret doctrines,” supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once the civil court recognizes the group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions.
A law passed on August 3 requires all religious officials of the Greek Orthodox Church, the muftiates of Thrace, and Jewish communities to register within a year in the electronic database maintained by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs. Established in 2014, the registry includes clergy and other staff of known religions and religious legal entities, but there was previously no requirement for Greek Orthodox priests, imams in Thrace, and rabbis to register.
With legal status, a religious group may transfer property and administer houses of prayer and worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations that they acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and in operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.
The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.
The law also provides a second method for groups to obtain government recognition; any religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. Local urban planning departments in charge of monitoring and enforcing public health and safety regulations certify that facilities designated to operate as places of worship fulfill the necessary standards. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a description of its basic principles and rituals and a biography of the religious minister or leader to the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs for final approval. The application for a house of prayer permit requires at least five signatory members of the group. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, European Union nationals, or legal residents of the country and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical place of worship.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne accords the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (auqafs). On October 11, parliament passed a law mandating that a local mufti request notarized consent from all parties if the parties wish for the mufti to adjudicate a family matter based on sharia. Absent this notarized consent from all parties in each dispute, family matters fall under the jurisdiction of civil courts. A law passed on August 1 requires muftis to retire at the same age – 67 – as other judicial authorities. This law also provides for the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to assume all operating expenses for the muftiates under the supervision of the Ministry of Finance Directorate General for Fiscal Monitoring. On December 19, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled Greece violated the ECHR by applying sharia to an inheritance case in 2014 in which a widow lost three-fourths of her inheritance after family members requested a sharia ruling on the matter without her consent. Under the updated law, the widow could request a review of this case by judicial authorities. A 1991 law authorizes the government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, to appoint three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office, with the possibility of extension. The law also allows a regional official to appoint temporary acting muftis until this committee convenes. During the year, all three muftiates in Thrace had temporary, acting muftis appointed under the latter procedure.
On July 19, parliament passed legislation reiterating an individual’s right to choose his or her burial and cremation location and mandating the creation of a new type of death certificate to detail this information. Disciplinary boards may fine employees of registries, medical doctors, forensic doctors, midwives, or employees in cremation facilities who do not comply with the law. The law protects an individual’s right to predetermine his or her form of funeral service and burial location in the presence of a notary. Individuals may designate the location and the method of funeral service under conditions that relate to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as to designate a person responsible for carrying out funeral preferences. Private citizens and municipal authorities may apply for permits to operate crematory facilities to benefit those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial. A presidential decree issued on June 29 standardizes permits for religious buildings, cemeteries, and crematory facilities.
The law allows halal and kosher slaughtering of animals in slaughterhouses but not in private residences or public areas.
All religious groups are subject to taxation on property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes remains exempt from taxation, as well as municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”
Home schooling is not permitted for children. The law requires all children to attend nine years of compulsory education in state or private schools and one year of compulsory preschool education in accordance with the official school curriculum. Religious instruction in primary and secondary schools is included in the curriculum. School textbooks focus mainly on Greek Orthodox teachings; however, they also include some basic information on some other “known religions.” Students may be exempted from religious instruction upon request if their parents state the students are not Greek Orthodox believers. The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros, and it includes provisions to make it easier for schools to hire and retain these religious instructors. The law also allows Muslim students in primary and secondary schools throughout the country to be absent for two days each for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
According to the law, parents may send their children to private religious schools, and private Orthodox, Catholic, and Jewish schools operate in the country. As per the Lausanne Treaty, the government operates 148 secular Greek-Turkish bilingual schools and two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.
The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority in Thrace to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Similarly, 2 percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy are required to be from the Muslim minority in Thrace.
The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory military service for men. Conscientious objectors must serve 15 months of alternative service in state hospitals or municipal and public services.
The law prohibits discrimination and criminalizes hate speech on the grounds of religion. Individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred based on religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($5,700 to $22,900). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred, or has a threatening or abusive nature towards groups of individuals. The National Council against Racism and Xenophobia, an advisory body under the Ministry of Justice, Transparency, and Human Rights, is responsible for preventing, combating, monitoring, and recording racism and intolerance and for protecting individuals and groups targeted on several grounds, including religion. The National Commission for Human Rights, which comprises governmental and nongovernmental organization (NGO) members, serves as an independent advisory body to the government on all human rights issues.
The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs. Witnesses in trials must also take oaths before testifying in court and choose between a religious and a secular oath in both civil and criminal cases.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Police in Agrinio, located in the central part of the country, reported the arrest and detention of two Jehovah’s Witnesses after an Orthodox priest accused them of religious insult for distributing their materials in front of his church. Police released the accused individuals the following day without charge. On February 9, Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira filed a lawsuit for malicious blasphemy and religious insult against a theater group performing Jesus Christ Superstar. Two lawyers and another Orthodox priest filed separate lawsuits against the same theater group on similar grounds. There were no reports of government action against the theater group. Unlike in the previous year, there were no reports of arrests for blasphemy.
The criminal trial of 69 GD party members and supporters, including 18 of its current and former members of parliament, continued through the end of the year. The charges related to a string of attacks, including against Muslim migrants and Greeks; they included murder, conspiracy, weapons possession, and membership in a criminal organization. As of the end of the year, media reported 253 trial sessions had taken place and nearly 250 prosecution witnesses had testified in court since the trial began in 2015. The examination of approximately 230 defense witnesses was still pending at year’s end.
On March 8, police arrested 11 suspects during operations to dismantle the self-identified extreme-right militant group Combat 18. The prosecutor pressed for criminal and other charges for a series of offenses, including forming a criminal organization. Authorities ordered pretrial detention for four of the individuals. Combat 18 was accused of organizing 30 attacks, including arson and homemade bombs deployed in venues frequented by Muslim migrants and refugees.
No religious group applied to courts seeking recognition as a religious legal entity during the year.
Religious groups without religious entity status and no house of prayer permits, including Scientologists and ISKCON, continued to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of those religious groups, whose only option was a civil marriage.
The government approved permits for 11 houses of prayer, including eight for Jehovah’s Witnesses, one for Pentecostals, and two for Muslim groups. The government revoked one permit at the request of a small religious community that no longer wished to operate its house of prayer. There were no pending applications at year’s end. On October 19, the Ministry for Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued guidance allowing houses of prayer continually operating since before 1955 to obtain permits regardless of any failure to comply with modern town planning regulations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report some doctors in public hospitals did not understand or respect their refusal to receive blood transfusions.
On March 20, the Council of State ruled changes introduced to religious instruction in primary and middle schools in 2016 were unconstitutional and contrary to the ECHR. On April 25, the Council of State issued a ruling that changes introduced in 2016 to religious instruction in high schools were also unconstitutional and contrary to the ECHR. The changes directed teachers to supplement religious textbook material, which primarily covers Greek Orthodox doctrine, with material introducing the basic tenets of other religions. The Council of State ruled the new curriculum violated Articles 13 and 16 of the constitution because the classes were mandatory only for Greek Orthodox students; students of other religions could apply for an exemption. The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued revised guidelines in 2017 for religious instruction in public schools, including supplemental materials on the tenets of various religions and the importance of interfaith dialogue. Several complaints regarding the 2017 guidelines were still pending with the Council of State, including one that the course did not adequately cover the needs of Greek Orthodox students, another that the course did not include enough information on non-Orthodox religions, and a third from atheist parents requesting the abolition of the class entirely. The council issued no decisions on these appeals by year’s end.
The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including funding for religious leaders’ salaries, religious and vocational training of clergy, and religious instruction in schools. Greek Orthodox officials stated the government provided this direct support in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments and in exchange for religious property previously expropriated by the state.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing for direct election of muftis by the Muslim minority. The government continued to state government appointment was appropriate because the muftis had judicial powers, albeit now only in cases where both parties proactively request the mufti’s adjudication, and the constitution requires the government to appoint all judges. On August 16, following passage of the law requiring muftis and acting muftis to retire at the same age as other judicial officials – 67 – the government announced the dismissal of the two official muftis in Xanthi and Rodopi regions – age 77 and 81 respectively. The government appointed two acting muftis to replace them. On September 12, the two former muftis issued a statement announcing they would file an appeal to the Council of State and to the European Commission, stating their dismissals violated the religious freedom of the Muslim minority in Thrace.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to criticize government appointment of members entrusted to oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the auqafs, stating the Muslim minority in Thrace should elect these members. Muslim leaders also continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years because of shortage of space contravened Islamic religious law. At least three sites continued to be used unofficially for the burial of Muslim migrants and asylum seekers on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros.
Media reported delays in the construction of a government-funded mosque in Athens, originally slated for completion in 2017. On December 19, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs posted a job vacancy for an imam to serve in this mosque. Applications were due by January 18, 2019. On August 24, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Transport announced the obligation of 2.6 million euros ($2.98 million) to complete exterior construction and landscaping around the mosque. On October 3, the government published the bylaws of the Athens mosque’s managing committee, determining how to operate the mosque to share space among diverse Muslim communities in the wider region of Attica and how to resolve disagreements on these issues. On September 9, according to YouTube videos and media reports, approximately 200 GD supporters held a protest in front of the mosque objecting to its construction, shouting “whoever does not want Greece and [its] religion should … go to Asia.” In the absence of an official mosque in Athens, central and local government authorities continued to provide public space free of charge to groups of Muslims whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions.
On June 26, 29 parliamentarians from ruling SYRIZA party requested the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to stop listing students’ religion on school transcripts, stating doing so violated freedom of conscience and data protection laws because employers requested transcripts from job applicants. The ministry had not responded to this request by year’s end.
NGO Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) and the Humanist Union of Greece continued to state some judicial and other authorities did not comply with the country’s legislation and ECtHR judgments on religious oaths by continuing to record witnesses’ and defendants’ religions and not offering a choice between a civil affirmation and a religious oath.
On September 20, the Union of Atheists requested the Council of State remove all icons and religious symbols from the courtroom while hearing its appeal related to religion classes in public schools. On September 21, the Council of State denied the request by a 30-6 majority.
The government continued to fund Catholic religious training and teachers’ salaries in state schools on the islands of Syros and Tinos, trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events and Auschwitz, and Holocaust education training for teachers. The government organized Holocaust-themed contests for high school students. It also supported and organized initiatives promoting religious tolerance, including a one-day seminar on Islam for prison staff guarding Muslim inmates in detention facilities in the northern part of the country. On August 9, the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs issued a decree officially incorporating Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina into the program of students attending Islamic religious schools in Thrace. The students paid for the trip expenses, while the ministry set guidelines on field trip safety and organization. On January 18, Parliament Speaker Nikos Voutsis announced parliament would fund the creation of a museum space inside the Auschwitz concentration camp commemorating Greek Jews who perished there. Government officials also continued to participate in Holocaust remembrance events around the country.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to state the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternative service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and for those serving in the military (nine months) was discriminatory. On May 14, the Council of State issued a decision in favor of an unbaptized Jehovah’s Witness seeking such alternative service, finding he had supplied sufficient evidence to prove he was a Jehovah’s Witness even though he was not baptized.
On June 8, the head of the main opposition New Democracy Party expelled the Mayor of Argos-Mycenae, Dimitris Kamposos, over a comment targeting the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Yannis Boutaris. Criticizing Boutaris over his stance on national and LGBT-related issues, Kamposos stated in a television interview, “He gets away with it because he is liked by the Jews,” adding, “We, on the other hand, cannot say what we want because we have never worn the kippah.”
On several occasions, government officials publicly denounced acts of vandalism of Holocaust memorials and Jewish sites around the country.
On December 19, the General Secretariat for Human Rights at the Ministry of Justice hosted in Athens the first bilateral dialogue with Israel on fighting anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism. According to a statement from the Israeli embassy in Athens, participants discussed ways to tackle hate speech on social media, methods for conducting criminal investigations, opportunities for training prosecutors and judges, and best practices for government responses.
On February 14, Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis and the local municipal board announced they would erect a monument on the grounds of a local church in honor of 150 local Jewish residents whom Nazis arrested in March 1943 and transported to concentration camps.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On December 19, the General Secretariat for Religious Affairs released a report showing a 159 percent increase in attacks on religious sites in 2017, compared with the previous year. In 2017 there were 556 reported cases of violence or vandalism against religious sites; 535 of the sites were Orthodox Christian, 11 Jewish, eight Muslim, and two Catholic. Statistics by the Racist Violence Recording Network (RVRN) for 2017, the most recent year available, showed 34 cases in which immigrants or refugees were targeted for their religion, among other grounds, compared with 31 cases the previous year. The RVRN also recorded two separate incidents in which a citizen was targeted because of his or her religious beliefs. During the same period, police received 28 reports of racist violence based on religion, compared with 24 reports the previous year.
Incidents of vandalism and desecration targeting Holocaust monuments and memorials continued throughout the year. On May 4, unidentified individuals destroyed nine marble stones in the Jewish section of a historic Athens cemetery. President of the Athens Jewish Community Minos Moissis called the destruction “the most severe [anti-Semitic] incident in Athens in the past 15 years.” The secretaries general for religious affairs and for human rights and transparency, the Mayor of Athens, and other elected officials condemned the vandalism and participated in a ceremony of solidarity with the Jewish community in the cemetery. According to Moissis, police responded immediately to gather evidence and file charges, but by year’s end, no arrests were made.
On July 11, unknown individuals threw blue paint on a monument marking the site of the former Jewish cemetery at the Aristotle University campus in Thessaloniki. University and government officials, including opposition party members, denounced the act. On June 27, unidentified individuals threw red paint on the Holocaust memorial in Thessaloniki, and on June 29, a public prosecutor ordered a preliminary investigation of the case to determine offenses under the anti-racist law. Individuals spray-painted “Golden Dawn” on the same monument in January during a protest rally, and on December 15, unknown individuals drew a swastika on it with black paint. On January 5, unidentified individuals threw red paint on a Holocaust memorial in Komotini, Thrace. On January 23, the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS) reported unknown perpetrators vandalized the outside wall of the synagogue in Volos, in the central part of the country, with graffiti. KIS urged authorities to arrest the perpetrators and prevent acts of vandalism. On October 12, unidentified individuals destroyed eight tombstones in the Trikala Jewish cemetery in the northern part of the country. On December 26, unknown individuals vandalized the Holocaust memorial in the city of Kastoria. No arrests in any of the cases were reported by year’s end.
Throughout the year, media and police recorded incidents of vandalism targeting Greek Orthodox premises and chapels. On March 6, a group of self-defined anarchists placed an explosive device outside the headquarters of the Diocese of Neapoli and Stavroupolis, near Thessaloniki. The explosion damaged the building entrance. On December 27, the self-identified anarchist group Iconoclastic Sect placed an explosive device outside Agios Dionysios Church in central Athens. The churchwarden and a police officer sustained minor injuries. Government and religious leaders, including the minister for education and the secretary general for religious affairs, the ecumenical patriarch, and KIS, denounced the act, some calling it “an attack against religious freedom.” On February 26, media reported unknown individuals had vandalized a small church on the island of Paros. On January 22, media reported anarchists had painted slogans on the outside of a church in Patras. The slogans criticized priests for participating in rallies against the Prespes Agreement, an agreement between Greece and North Macedonia resolving a long-standing dispute over the latter’s name. No arrests were reported for any of these incidents.
On January 19, unidentified individuals toppled a bronze statue in the municipality of Palaio Faliro, Athens. The statue’s name was “Phylax” and depicted a bright-red fallen angel. According to the Mayor of Palaio Faliro, Dionysis Hatzidakis, since its erection in December 2017, the statue had caused controversy among local residents, some of whom called it “satanic.”
The direct and indirect linking of Jews with conspiracy theories targeting the country’s sovereignty continued; individuals mostly expressed these views on social media. On January 21, the Mayor of Thessaloniki, Boutaris did not participate in a large rally protesting the country’s negotiations with Macedonia regarding the latter’s official name. After the rally, posters appeared around the city claiming Boutaris was “a closet Jew” for supporting the negotiations.
On April 27, a Thessaloniki misdemeanor court in Xanthi sentenced Mufti Ahmet Mete, an unofficial mufti not recognized by the government, and not one of the three official muftis, to eight months in prison – payable as a fine instead of jail time – for making anti-Semitic comments in 2014 and stating, “Hitler was right to turn the Jews into soap.” On May 6, according to a statement released by KIS, Mete gave a speech at the Kentavros Mosque in Komotini, stating, “I accused the Jews of being murderers of infants because they slaughtered infants…. Religion upholds that, as a Muslim, if someone among you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; if he cannot, then with his tongue; and if he cannot, then hate him with his heart.”
KIS continued to express concerns about anti-Semitic comments and cartoons in mainstream media mocking political controversies through the use of Jewish sacred symbols and comparisons to the Holocaust or through drawing parallels among “Jews,” “Zionists,” and “Nazis,” equating the first with the latter. On May 4, KIS denounced cartoonist Michalis Kountouris for his April 10-11 and May 5 cartoons in the Newspaper of the Editors for equating Nazi practices with Israeli policy. The first sketch showed an inmate at a concentration camp wearing a symbol representing the Gaza Strip reminiscent of the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust. The second showed an Israeli soldier leaving the prints of his bloodied hands on the Western Wall, next to many other bloody handprints of other individuals who had prayed before him. The third cartoon depicted an Israeli soldier with a gun giving a Nazi-style salute. On July 4, another cartoonist in the same newspaper doctored a picture of the gate at Auschwitz with the words “12 hours of work is liberating,” comparing contemporary employment conditions in Europe to the Holocaust. KIS issued a statement criticizing the cartoonist of Holocaust trivialization.
On January 22, GHM filed a judicial complaint against local governments, Orthodox priests, and some media for propagating the custom of the “burning of Judas” during Orthodox Easter celebrations. GHM listed 69 different cities, parishes, and media outlets that organized and advertised this custom, which KIS continued to criticize and the Greek Orthodox Church officially denounced. There was no public decision regarding this case by year’s end.
On March 4, media reported Greek Orthodox priests in Athens led 2,000 individuals in a march, protesting the release of new textbooks for religious studies. Some protesters carried banners stating “No to ecumenical religion” and denouncing the book authors as traitors. Protesters delivered their petition to parliament before peacefully disbanding.
According to a Pew Research study conducted from 2015 to 2017 and published in October, 76 percent of respondents agreed that to be “truly Greek” one must be Christian. Approximately 37 percent of respondents in a study published by a local think tank, Dianeosis, said the word “Jewish” meant something negative to them and approximately 45 percent of respondents stated they would be “bothered” by the construction of mosques in the country.
On October 8, media reported unidentified individuals produced flyers criticizing a municipal official who supported the construction of a crematory facility in the city and encouraging citizens to spit on and denounce the official at her home.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, visiting officials, embassy, and consulate representatives discussed religious freedom with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the secretary general for religious affairs, and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, such as Deputy Minister Bolaris and Special Secretary for Religious and Cultural Diplomacy Lianos Liantis. They discussed the ability of minority religious communities to establish houses of worship, government initiatives affecting both the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants, laws against undermining religious belief through coercion or fraud, and government initiatives promoting worldwide interfaith and interreligious dialogue. U.S. officials expressed concerns about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric throughout the year. On December 28, the Charge d’Affaires sent a letter to Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos condemning the attack on Agios Dionysios Orthodox Church for threatening individuals’ ability to worship in peace and safety. The Ambassador also worked with the minister of defense to facilitate Ministry of Defense contributions to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum archives.
Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including the archbishop and other representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as members of the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Baha’i, and Jehovah’s Witnesses communities, to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and diversity, and to express concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric. On November 29, a senior embassy official hosted representatives from a range of religious communities and government agencies to discuss legal protections on religious freedom and challenges faced by various communities. Through these meetings, the embassy monitored the ability of minority religious groups to practice freely their religion and the extent of societal discrimination against both indigenous religious minorities and newly arrived migrants from religious minorities.
On April 16-17, the Ambassador visited the monastic peninsula of Mount Athos and met with the governor of the peninsula, representatives of the governing Holy Community, an abbot and monks from two of the monasteries, and the visiting Bishop of Nafpaktos. Among other topics, the Ambassador discussed U.S. government support for freedom of religion worldwide. The Ambassador met with representatives from the Eastern Orthodox Church, including Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos, and Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis. The Ambassador discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders the importance of religious tolerance and dialogue.
The Ambassador met with representatives from the Athens and Thessaloniki Jewish communities and the president and curator of the Jewish Museum in Athens to discuss preserving Jewish history in the country, combating anti-Semitism, along with other concerns of the community. The Ambassador gave opening remarks at a training seminar for teachers organized by the Olga Lengyl Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights, in which he highlighted the importance of teaching the history of the Holocaust to create “a culture of religious tolerance to combat hate.”
The Consul General in Thessaloniki met with Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki, Metropolitan Pavlos of Kozani, Mufti Hamza Osman of Didimoticho, and David Saltiel, president of the Jewish community in the country, as well as academics and theologians, to discuss the status of religious freedom in the northern part of the country and concerns of religious communities.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. In December parliament amended the law that had stripped hundreds of religious entities of their legal status. The amendment enters into force in April 2019; it establishes a four-tier system of churches and makes them eligible for donations from income tax and state funding. In May the Supreme Court ruled a 2017 government raid on the Church of Scientology (COS) headquarters was lawful; the government continued its criminal investigation of the COS. Jewish groups expressed concern that the House of Fates museum, which the government said it would open in 2019, would obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. There were reports of senior government officials and politicians using anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic speech. Jewish groups expressed concern about praise by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban and other government officials for World War II (WWII)-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies and public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. PM Orban reiterated “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including assaults. Muslim leaders said anti-Muslim incidents were at approximately the same level as in 2017. The Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) a nongovernmental organization (NGO), recorded 32 anti-Semitic crimes, including three assaults, compared with 37 in 2017. A business magazine’s picture of an article about a prominent Jewish leader was condemned as anti-Semitic. A Jewish news outlet poll said two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem; 48 percent reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year. An Ipsos Mori poll reported 51 percent of residents believed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian.”
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met with the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) to discuss religious freedom, Holocaust commemoration, and heirless property restitution, and to urge the government to amend the religion law. U.S. officials expressed concern about government officials’ anti-Muslim rhetoric and the COS investigation. Embassy officials met a range of religious groups to discuss issues affecting them.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the COS, Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, and Muslims. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. According to estimates from the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish population numbers between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. The overwhelming majority of Jews live in Budapest, while other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
In an administrative reorganization following parliamentary elections in April, the government transferred most responsibilities for religious affairs from the MHC to the PMO.
In the system valid through the end of the year, religious organizations could acquire incorporated church status through an application submitted to the office responsible for religious affairs in the PMO and, if found eligible, by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament. The religious group was then by law entered onto a list of incorporated churches. The PMO ha 60 days following the initial application to assess whether the group fulfills all the administrative criteria, which included a variety of documentation and qualification requirements. To qualify for incorporated church status, a religious group must have existed as a religious organization in the country for 20 years, in which case it must have had a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population (approximately 10,000 persons) or been registered as a religious organization and have existed for at least 100 years internationally, in which case its foreign affiliation must have been certified by at least two other churches of “similar doctrine” recognized in foreign countries. Its activities must not have conflicted with the constitution or other laws or violate the rights and freedoms of other communities. A group must also have proven its primary purpose was to conduct religious activity; have a formal statement of faith and rites, bylaws and internal rules, and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies; and officially declared its activities were not in violation of the laws or the freedom of others. The PMO was obligated to consult with a qualified lawyer, historian of religions, scholar of religions, or sociologist with an academic degree prior to issuing its decision. Applicants could appeal the PMO’s decision to the Budapest Public Administration and Labor Court and, ultimately, to the Curia, the country’s highest judicial authority.
Following a favorable PMO decision on the applicant’s eligibility, the PMO submitted the application to parliament’s Judiciary Committee, which had 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit an assessment to parliament on the group’s compliance with additional criteria. These criteria included an assessment that the group poses no threat to national security (provided by parliament’s National Security Committee), that it did not violate the right to physical and mental health or the protection of life and human dignity, and that the group was suitable for long-term cooperation with the state in promoting community goals based on its founding documents, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.
Approval of a request for incorporated church status required a two-thirds majority vote by parliament, to take place within 60 days of a motion by parliament’s Judiciary Committee. If a religious group received such parliamentary approval, the state was required to grant specific licenses to the group to support its participation in tasks to achieve community goals. If parliament rejected the application, a detailed explanation was required, and the applicant could challenge parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court within 15 days. The law did not prescribe any consequences if parliament did not act within the 60-day period, nor was there opportunity for appealing parliamentary inaction.
A 2011 law on religion automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had had incorporated church status. Those organizations must reapply if they wish to regain incorporated church status. Their applications are also subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament.
The 2011 law listed 27 incorporated churches, including the Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, three Jewish groups, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups, bringing the total number on the registered list of incorporated churches to 32.
Incorporated churches have certain privileges not available to religious organizations, such as greater access to state funding and exemption from state oversight of their financial operations connected to religious activities. Incorporated churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities”) that provide public services, such as healthcare, education, or other social services, are automatically eligible for full state subsidies (a subsidy based on the number of persons receiving services coupled with a supplementary subsidy) for all their public service activities. Religious organizations may take over or establish public service institutions and receive a per capita state subsidy to cover the wages of the staff employed by these institutions. They may also apply for additional funding from an additional budgetary allocation.
The law authorized the Budapest Metropolitan Court to register a group as a religious organization if it had at least 10 founding individual members whose primary objective was to conduct religious activities that do not violate the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities. The organization’s membership could consist only of individuals; no “legal persons” such as corporations or other associations could be members. The court was required to approve applications meeting all of these criteria. Applicants had to submit the name and address of the organization, names and addresses of founding members, identifying information on the group’s legal representative and the term of his or her appointment, the founding documents of the group, and a statement that the primary objective of the organization was to conduct religious activities. If the court rejected an organization’s application, the decision was subject to appeal to the Budapest Metropolitan Court of Appeals.
By law taxpayers may allocate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to an NGO, including one affiliated with a religious organization or incorporated church, and could allocate an additional 1 percent to an incorporated church (but not to any other religious organization or NGO). The government matched the 1 percent funds that only incorporated churches were eligible to receive.
Both incorporated churches and NGOs affiliated with religious organizations were free to use taxpayer donations as they wished. Only officials of incorporated churches were exempt from personal income tax under certain conditions. Both religious organizations and incorporated churches were prohibited from purchasing agricultural land. Incorporated churches, but not religious organizations, could acquire new agricultural land as a gift or an inheritance. Agricultural land (as opposed to other land holdings) owned by a religious group deregistered in 2011 could be retained by the religious organization that is the deregistered group’s legal successor.
If incorporated churches or religious organizations cease to exist (e.g., by dissolving themselves) and have no legal successor, their assets become state property that must be used to finance public services. This may also occur if, upon the initiative of the government, the Constitutional Court issues an opinion that the activity of the incorporated church violates the constitution, and parliament confirms the decision by a two-thirds majority vote. The Constitutional Court also issues opinions upon the request of the Budapest Metropolitan Court on whether a religious organization is in violation of the constitution.
Every registered (but not unregistered) religious community may use the word “church” in its official name regardless of whether it is officially recognized by parliament as an “incorporated church.” Officials from both incorporated churches and registered religious organizations not recognized by parliament (but not unregistered religious groups) are not obligated to disclose information shared with them in the course of their faith-related service, such as during rites of confession. Unregistered religious groups, since they lack legal status, may not purchase property in their name. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) reports that unregistered religious organizations enjoy protection for faith-related services.
On December 12, parliament enacted an amendment to the 2011 religion law, scheduled to enter into force on April 15, 2019, that will extend the existing two-tier system of “incorporated churches” and “religious organizations” into a four-tier system of registered religious entities, consisting of “incorporated churches,” “registered churches,” “listed churches,” and “religious associations.” The categories will be applicable to any religious group, not just Christian organizations. All four categories under the new law will have “legal personality,” giving them legal rights such as the right to own property. The amendment will eliminate the restriction that taxpayers may donate 1 percent of their tax liability only to incorporated churches and allows donations to all religious entities with legal personality. The amendment will also allow the government to negotiate individual agreements with all four categories of religious entities to fund their social service activities. The duration of these agreements will depend on the type of church status, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to unlimited duration for incorporated churches. With the exception of religious associations, religious groups falling under one of these categories will be required to publish these agreements and publicly account for social service spending.
Under the new system, all currently incorporated churches will retain their status in the new system, and incorporation of new churches will still require a two-thirds approval by parliament. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court will rule on registration applications for the other three tiers. Religious association status will require a church to have at least 10 members. Listed church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 1,000 individuals on average over three years and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally. Registered church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 4,000 individuals on average over five years and have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally. Churches that agree they will not seek government or EU funding for their religious activities will be able to qualify as listed or registered churches without receiving individual donations. A religious entity will not be allowed to apply for any of the three categories if it is a criminal defendant, has been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, is under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or is considered a national security threat.
Religious entities that do not register will still be able to function and conduct worship, and the amendment specifies constitutional protections for freedom of religion apply to them as well as to those with legal personality.
By law, no state office may determine or supervise a registered religious community’s faith-based activities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Their names, symbols, and rites are protected by copyright law, while buildings and cemeteries are protected by criminal law. Unregistered groups, according to HCLU, enjoy copyright and at least some other protections, but the law is unclear about the extent of those other protections.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsman). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic Church, Reformed Church, Lutheran Church, and Jewish congregations receive automatic authorization to provide chaplain services to the military. Other incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. All incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission to offer pastoral services in prisons. Rejection of access requests may be appealed to the National Prison Service, the prosecutor’s office, or the ombudsman. Detainees have the right to participate in communal religious services three times a week and to contact without supervision representatives of incorporated churches or religious organizations having permission to access the facility. Detainees in special security regimes may only receive individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs. In the case of pretrial detainees, during the course of the criminal investigation, a public prosecutor or judge may restrict personal interaction with a religious representative but not participation in communal religious services.
Incorporated churches receive automatic authorization to provide pastoral services in hospitals, while religious organizations must seek permission.
One-hour-per-week faith-and-ethics or ethics-only education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Students and their parents choose between the faith-and-ethics class provided by an incorporated church of their choice or a generic ethics course taught by public school teachers. Religious groups are entitled to provide their own teachers, prepare their own textbooks, and determine curricula for their faith-and-ethics classes. Private schools are not required to introduce faith-and-ethics or ethics classes. Unincorporated religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents.
Incorporated churches and religious organizations have the right to open their own schools. For incorporated churches and religious organizations operating their own schools, the state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee wages, but only incorporated churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. According to the law, religious organizations may apply to the MHC for a supplementary operational subsidy covering approximately 30 percent of their total costs for schools, and the MHC decides on a case-by-case basis whether to grant it.
The law also affords incorporated churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal agreement with the PMO. In these cases, the government continues to fund the schools. Religious communities, school teachers, the affected parents, or the operator of the school may initiate such transfers, but only if the designated religious community is able to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law includes a prohibition of “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion. Abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or suspected religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is similarly punished with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the arrow cross in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by detention for a period ranging from five to 90 days.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As in previous years, parliament failed to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporated church status, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action after a ministerial referral and a December 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution. The explanatory notes to the December 12 amendment to the religion law, which the government is expected to use as a guide in implementing the amendment, state that those religious groups will be given preferential consideration for (the lesser) listed or registered church status.
In a case involving the MET’s home for the elderly, the Constitutional Court ruled October 5 that parliament had violated the constitution by failing to act on MET’s 2014 pending application for incorporated church status. The Constitutional Court ruled parliament should fulfill its legislative duty and vote on the application by the end of the year; parliament did not comply, although the new amendment provided a procedure for the MET and other churches to regain a lesser status. MET representatives said its shelters for homeless, elderly, and refugees, hospital, schools, and other social services should be eligible for the same support the state gave to similar activities conducted by incorporated churches. The government rejected this argument. The Constitutional Court did not rule on the issue of funding of MET’s home or other social services, but only that parliament should vote on the group’s application for incorporated status. The Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling on December 20, 2017, ordering parliament to vote on MET’s application, but parliament failed to act by that ruling’s March 31 deadline.
In May the Supreme Court overturned the February decision of the Buda Central District Court of Budapest that the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) 2017 raid of the COS headquarters and seizure of its materials was unlawful. The Supreme Court ruled the seizure did not violate the principle of proportionality and did not obstruct the free practice of religion. The NBI raid followed the initiation of an investigation of the COS by the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) and a DPA complaint against the COS alleging criminal abuse of personal data. The government recognized the COS as a religious organization. The government’s investigation of the COS was continuing at year’s end, but the government did not provide any information on the status of the case.
The COS’s appeal of the denial of a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and eviction order issued by Budapest’s 13th District remained pending at year’s end. According to the COS, courts blocked the eviction order until the Supreme Court could decide the appeal.
The government continued its public campaign of billboards and posters against a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen businessman. Some of the placards stated the businessman wanted to settle migrants from the Middle East and Africa in the country. In May PM Orban demanded “respect” from Jewish leaders and blamed the same businessman and his NGO for growing European anti-Semitism.
In April online news service Index.hu and daily newspaper Nepszava reported that in the previous eight years the government had transferred 34 buildings to churches in a nontransparent manner. The report stated the buildings were not properties seized under the Communist regime and had not previously belonged to the religious groups to which they were given.
Prominent national and international Jewish groups expressed concern about the September 7 announcement that in 2019 the government would open the House of Fates, a Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest focusing on the efforts of non-Jewish Hungarians to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The government had put the museum on hold in 2014 due to intense opposition from national and international groups. These organizations criticized the project as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the country and WWII Regent Miklos Horthy in the Holocaust. According to a September 21 statement by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, the House of Fates museum’s plans ignored the country’s anti-Jewish laws during that era and gave the false impression that, “except for a tiny, criminal and fanatic minority, the citizens of Hungary were essentially blameless.” On September 27, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder expressed disappointment that the House of Fates museum concept “ignored the role played by Hungarian society and its authorities in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels. For example, a January interview in the German newspaper Bild quoted PM Orban as saying most migrants should not be considered refugees but “Muslim invaders.” In a March 15 speech, PM Orban said, “We must fight against an opponent which is different…they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.” Media outlets such as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Times of Israel, and The Guardian reported these comments as referring to Jews.
In November private television broadcaster Hir TV made public a recording it said it had obtained of opposition Jobbik party MP Istvan Szavay talking to a fellow party member at Jobbik’s electoral congress about “knocking out” a woman he presumed to be Jewish at a downtown club in August. Szavay said the woman recognized him and said, “I feel Nazi stench here.” Szavay said he called her a “filthy Jew,” punched her in the face , and “slightly twisted her schnozzle.” On December 3, Szavay announced he would give up his parliamentary seat.
Jewish groups expressed concerns about praise by government officials, including PM Orban, for the country’s WWII-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies as well as about public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. On September 2, the Fidesz (governing party)-administered village of Kenderes held a Horthy Memorial Day. Fidesz MP Sandor Kovacs stated at the event it was thanks to Regent Horthy and others that the country managed to survive after World War I. The Director of the government-funded Veritas Research Institute, Sandor Szakaly, said anti-Jewish laws signed by Horthy did not deprive Jews of their rights but only limited them, and that, despite these limitations, the lives of Jews in the country were safe until the Nazi occupation in 1944. He added that Horthy did not need rehabilitation because he was never convicted of any crime.
On July 16, state television broadcaster MTVA appointed Beatrix Siklosi to run its cultural channel M5. When Siklosi previously was nominated as chief editor of religious programming for national public television in 2014, media reported she had made racist and anti-Semitic comments on social media. The Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Jewish communities published a letter stating Siklosi was unacceptable to them. Siklosi resigned from the religious programming position due to the protests but remained in charge of nationalities programming. TEV sent a letter asking the MTVA leadership and Media Council to reconsider her appointment.
In March Fidesz Party members of the local municipality and progovernment media criticized the opening of a Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) cultural center and prayer house in 2017. In addition, media reported that, prior to the April parliamentary elections, Fidesz Party call centers told voters opposition Jobbik Party leader Gabor Vona “prays to Allah,” referring to an undated video where he spoke to Turkish students and referred to God as “Allah.”
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) cited the government’s anti-migration and anti-Muslim rhetoric as the biggest challenges Muslims had to face in the country. It also said Muslims faced indirect administrative barriers when trying to obtain building permits for mosques, open or expand Muslim cemeteries, or buy or rent land or homes. HIC and OMH leaders said lack of sufficient cemetery space for Muslims was one of the most pressing problems for the Muslim community.
On July 19, PM Orban visited Israel and met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. After their meeting, Orban stated Jews could feel safe in Hungary and that his government had zero tolerance for anti-Semitic statements.
According to a major survey of Jews in the country, issued in December by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), 74 percent of Jews found anti-Semitism to be a problem in political life. Eighty-three percent said the government was ineffective in combating anti-Semitism, and 55 percent assessed the government’s efforts to respond to the security needs of Jewish communities were inadequate.
The government provided 118.1 billion forints ($421.53 million) to incorporated churches during the year, of which 96.7 percent went to what the government and media called the country’s four “historical” religious groups: the Catholic Church, which received 94.2 billion forints ($336.22 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, 13.7 billion forints ($48.9 million); Lutheran Church, 3 billion forints ($10.71 million); and the Jewish community, consisting of Mazsihisz, 2.6 billion forints ($9.28 million), the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, 304.4 million forints ($1.09 million), and the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community, 227 million forints ($810,000 million). According to the government, more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.
These four religious groups and the other incorporated churches that received the balance of the government’s contribution used the funds for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and employee wages. Government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings. The government allocated additional funding from other budget accounts for churches providing public educational and social services and for registered religious organizations, but data on the extent of this support were unavailable.
According to press reports, on October 3, the government distributed 2.76 billion forints ($9.85 million) from the annual budget for religious community programs. On December 23, the government awarded an additional 21 billion forints ($74.95 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations.
Some incorporated churches continued to express concern that, if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two-thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, 988,000 citizens donated their 1 percent personal income tax to one of the incorporated churches during the year. Similarly to previous years, the church bodies receiving the most donations were the Catholic, with 526,339 persons contributing 2.5 billion forints ($8.92 million); Reformed, 209,109 persons contributing 996.8 million forints ($3.56 million); and Lutheran, 60,036 persons contributing 308 million forints ($1.1 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 46,198 persons contributing 250 million forints ($892,000). Effective January 1, tax declarations did not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but remained valid until the taxpayer changed them.
According to the PMO, of elementary and secondary schools, 15 percent were operated by incorporated churches (compared with 14.3 percent in 2016-17) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2017-18 school year. Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.5 percent were operated by incorporated churches (7.2 percent in the previous year) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations. There were 214,243 students studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared with 207,600 in the previous school year. Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.
According to the PMO, religious entities provided government-funded social services to 116,440 persons and child protection services to 10,506 persons during the year (27.2 percent by the Catholic, 24.2 percent by the Reformed, and 21.3 percent by the Hungarian Pentecostal Church).
The government made statements in defense of a Christian Europe and operated a dedicated state secretariat within the PMO to assist persecuted Christian communities throughout the world, including with financial assistance. In his annual state of the nation speech in February, PM Orban stated the West “opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and…Islamic expansion,” while his government “prevented the Islamic world from flooding us from the South.” On November 13, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen said it was striking that Europe’s Christian civilization was in danger again, not from the Ottoman Empire, but from the threat of Islamization.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest on October 8-9 and, with PM Orban, attended the opening ceremony of the renovated tomb of Gul Baba. Baba was a Muslim dervish and member of the Bektashi order, who died in Budapest in 1541 and whose burial place became a pilgrimage site for Muslims. The government cofinanced the renovation with the government of Turkey.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The government did not publish statistics on religiously motivated crimes or other incidents. According to its annual report, TEV registered 32 anti-Semitic hate crimes, compared with 37 in the previous year. These were 19 cases of hate speech (24 in 2017), 10 of vandalism (13 in 2017), three of assault (one in 2017), and none of threats (none in 2017). Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data and said many members did not bother to report incidents because they did not believe doing so would lead to any effective action by authorities. Muslim leaders stated they believed anti-Muslim incidents remained at approximately the same level as in 2017.
On April 5, according to TEV, a man struck a Canadian rabbi without warning and knocked off his kippah at a store in a Budapest shopping mall. On June 13, TEV reported a Budapest bus driver said he “wished gas to the Jews” when someone asked him for directions to a synagogue. In April a Facebook user shared a photograph of a Budapest bus stop defaced with the text, “death on … Jews.”
The November 29 edition of weekly business magazine Figyelo stated Mazsihisz could not account for funds the government had allocated to the organization for a new museum. The issue’s cover showed Andras Heisler, Mazsihisz President and World Jewish Congress Vice President, surrounded by money. Its lead article stated that, while Heisler criticized other proposed museums (such as the House of Fates) for not disclosing details of their planned exhibits, he had so far failed to publish the concept of his own government-funded project, the House of Coexistence.
In a published statement, Mazsihisz condemned the Figyelo article and cover as an incitement against a religious leader unprecedented since the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, adding that they “revived centuries-old stereotypes against our community.” According to Israeli press reports, the Israeli PM’s diplomatic adviser raised concerns over the issue with the Hungarian Ambassador to Israel and called on the Hungarian government to condemn the magazine’s anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee called the Figyelo piece an “anti-Semitic attack.” Figyelo rejected the criticism and, in response to a statement supporting Heisler by the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, stated, “This form of diplomatic pressure … constitutes a violation of the freedom of the press and of Hungarian sovereignty.” World Jewish Congress President Lauder said the cover “is one of the oldest and vilest caricatures of the Jewish people and it places not just the magazine, but all of Hungary in a very bad light.”
In January the Association of Christian Intellectuals organized a Mass to be held in a downtown Budapest Catholic church to commemorate former Regent Horthy’s 150th birthday on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day – five months before his actual birthday on June 18. Fidesz MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, former PM Peter Boross, and Veritas Institute Director Szakaly were scheduled to attend and speak at the Mass. The Catholic Church canceled the event following intense domestic and international criticism. Mazsihisz President Heisler publicly opposed the Mass and stated in an open letter addressed to Lezsak that his official participation “tramples on the memory of all the Hungarian victims.” In 2017, Heisler raised concerns about Horthy for what he said was his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Jews and tens of thousands of soldiers and the era of anti-Semitism associated with his name. The Miklos Horthy Association then organized a small service in honor of Horthy on February 11 in the Homecoming Reformed Church, where Horthy’s bust is also placed.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary reported that early in the year an older woman used her walking stick to strike a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf. The two women engaged in an altercation, but neither pressed charges. The organization reported several incidents in which individuals verbally insulted members of their community, mostly women and girls wearing headscarves on streets or in schools by shouting “Allahu akbar” at them or telling them to “go back to Africa.” The organization also said that on several occasions unknown persons sprayed litter bins and mobile toilets in the neighborhood of the ongoing renovations of its headquarters with the texts, “Allah,” “Muhammad,” and “migrant.”
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 590 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Hungary responded to the online survey. Twenty-seven percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 23 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Eight percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 71 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
According to a survey published in June by the country’s leading Jewish news outlet, Szombat, two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem, and 48 percent of respondents reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year.
In a poll of residents of the country by UK-based market research company Ipsos MORI published in June, 51 percent agreed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian” and 59 percent said immigrants could not be regarded as Hungarians, even if they were legal residents or had lived most of their lives in the country. A poll of residents by think tank Political Capital found almost half said Muslims were stealthily trying to enforce their culture, and 45 percent believed Muslim leaders had a secret plan to capture Europe and transform it into an Arab continent. According to a Pew Research Center poll of residents published in October, 21 and 57 percent, respectively, said they would accept a Muslim or a Jew as a member of their family.
A 2017 survey the Median Public Opinion and Market Research Institute conducted for TEV, found approximately 37 percent of the population (33 percent in 2016) held anti-Semitic views.
In June online news site 888.hu published an article about what it called the negative influence of the six million Muslims in France. The same article announced a new column, “the White Man,” with a stated aim of drawing attention to the threats Islam posed to Western society and civilization. Ahead of the April parliamentary elections, media widely described as government-friendly (online sites origo.hu, pestisracok.hu, and ripost.hu) ran stories calling opposition party Jobbik prime ministerial candidate Gabor Vona a closet Muslim.
During a soccer match between the country’s Ferencvaros club and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in July, former Ferencvaros player and club coach Istvan Toth was honored by the club, Mazsihisz, and the World Jewish Congress. In 1944, Toth saved hundreds of Jews as a member of the Hungarian anti-fascist resistance. Nazi collaborators executed him in 1945.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with government officials, including in the PMO, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), and the MHC, U.S. embassy representatives continued to advocate religious freedom and discussed Holocaust commemoration, provisions of the religion law that resulted in discrimination against minority religious groups, the House of Fates, and the COS investigation.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country in November and, accompanied by embassy officials, met with Prime Minister Orban, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, other government officials, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom.
The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited the country in June and, accompanied by embassy representatives, met with officials at the PMO and MFAT, representatives of Jewish communities, the Holocaust Memorial Center, and Jewish cultural organizations. The Special Envoy encouraged government officials to agree on a timetable to conclude negotiations on the value of now-heirless property seized from Jews during the Holocaust and to consider another interim payment to Holocaust survivors while these negotiations were ongoing.
Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss anti-Semitism and the challenges of promoting tolerance education and historical truth, the community’s relationship with the government, the House of Fates, restitution issues, and commemoration of the Holocaust.
Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders of religious communities, including the four “historical” groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the COS, and with religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law and anti-Islamic rhetoric.
In February and June senior embassy representatives hosted interfaith breakfasts to discuss religious freedom and the importance of interfaith dialogue with Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Baptist, and MET leaders.
Senior embassy officers attended seders in March, and the Ambassador and a senior embassy officer attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in September held by various Jewish congregations. At all these events, the embassy representatives reiterated U.S. government support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.
In April an embassy officer spoke about the lives of the Reverends Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their messages rejecting intolerance and prejudice at an event organized by the Hungarian Baptist Church. Government officials and leaders of other churches attended the event.
In June an embassy official attended and delivered a welcome speech at the “Empty Desks” conference organized by the Jewish cultural organization Mazsike and the Holocaust Memorial Center. The project commemorated pupils killed during the Holocaust. The speech focused on the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, solidarity, and universal human rights.
In August the Ambassador delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance at a commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation of the country in 1944.
The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief and practice, as long as it is not prejudicial to good morals or public order, and protects the right to form religious associations. It names the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the state church, which the government provided with financial support and benefits not available to other religious groups, including treating ELC ministers as civil servants. Other religious and “life-stance” groups must register to receive state subsidies. Parliament enacted laws barring discrimination, including on the basis of religion, in the workplace and elsewhere.
The national police commissioner cited four reports of religious hate crimes during 2017, three against Islam and one against another, unnamed religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported an attack on a Kingdom Hall and a house belonging to one of its leaders during the year. Police were investigating both incidents at year’s end.
U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the Ministries of Justice (MOJ) and Foreign Affairs (MFA), members of parliament, and the local authority responsible for registering religious groups to discuss the status and rights of religious groups, including to voice concerns about a bill, which parliament later failed to pass, to ban male circumcision. Embassy officials also maintained contact with representatives of religious groups and life-stance organizations to discuss their views on religious tolerance, interfaith dialogue, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee integration.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 344,000 (July 2018 estimate). According to 2018 estimates from the Icelandic statistical institute, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland comprises 67.2 percent of the population; Roman Catholics 3.9 percent; the Free Lutheran Church in Reykjavik 2.8 percent; the Free Lutheran Church in Hafnarfjordur 2.0 percent; the Asatruarfelagid 1.2 percent; non-Christian, life-stance, and other Christian groups 5.1 percent; other or unspecified groups 11.3 percent; and persons not belonging to any religious group 6.9 percent. The Association of Muslims in Iceland estimates there are 1,000 to 1,500 Muslims, primarily of immigrant origin from Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. The Jewish community reports there are approximately 100 Jews.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes the ELC as the national church and stipulates the government shall support and protect it. The constitution states all individuals have the right to form religious associations and practice religion in accordance with their personal beliefs, as long as nothing is “preached or practiced which is prejudicial to good morals or public order.” It stipulates everyone has the right to remain outside religious associations and no one shall be required to pay personal dues to any religious association of which he or she is not a member. The constitution also specifies individuals may not lose their civil or national rights and may not refuse to perform civic duties on religious grounds. The constitution bans only religious teachings or practices harmful to good morals or the public order. The law further specifies the right of individuals to choose or change their religion.
The law grants the ELC official legal status, and the government directly funds it from the state budget. The state treats the ELC bishop, vice bishop, and 135 other ELC ministers as civil servants under the MOJ and pays their salaries and retirement benefits as well as the operating costs of the bishop’s office. The ELC also receives indirect funding from church taxes, as do other registered religious and life-stance groups.
The penal code establishes fines of no specified amount and up to two years’ imprisonment for hate speech, including mocking, defaming, denigrating, or threatening an individual or group by comments, pictures, or symbols based on religion.
Religious groups, other than the ELC, and life-stance organizations may apply for recognition and registration to a district commissioner’s office (at present, designated as the district commissioner of Northeast Iceland), who forwards the application to a four-member panel that the minister of justice appoints by law to review applications. The University of Iceland faculty of law nominates the chairman of the panel, and the university’s Departments of Social and Human Sciences, Theology and Religious Studies, and History and Philosophy, respectively, nominate the other three members. The district commissioner then approves or rejects the application in accordance with the panel’s decision. Applicants may appeal rejections to the MOJ, resubmitting their application to the district commissioner with additional information. The same four-member panel reviews appeals.
To register, a religious group must “practice a creed or religion” and a life-stance organization must operate in accordance with certain ethical values, and “deal with ethics or epistemology in a prescribed manner.” The law does not define “certain ethical values” or the prescribed manner in which groups must deal with ethics or epistemology. Religious groups and life-stance organizations must also “be well established,” “be active and stable,” “not have a purpose that violates the law or is prejudicial to good morals or public order,” and have “a core group of members who participate in its operations, support the values of the organization in compliance with the teachings it was founded on, and pay church taxes in accordance with the law on church taxes.” The law does not define “well established” or “active and stable.”
According to the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland, any unregistered religious group or organization may work in the same way as any company or association, provided it has, as these other organizations do, a social security number. Unregistered religious groups may, for example, open bank accounts and own real estate. They are free to worship and practice their beliefs without restriction, as long as their activities do not cause a public disturbance, incite discrimination, or otherwise conflict with the law. Unregistered groups may also apply to join the Interfaith Forum (although none has done so), an interfaith group of religious and life-stance groups that meets bimonthly to discuss religious matters affecting the Icelandic community, but registered groups are automatically eligible to join. Religious ceremonies carried out by religious groups, such as marriages, are not legally recognized unless the group is registered. Unregistered groups are not eligible to receive state funds.
The law specifies the leader of a registered religious group or a life-stance organization must be at least 25 years of age and fulfill the general requirements for holding a public position. These include being physically and mentally healthy and financially independent, not having been sentenced for a criminal offense as a civil servant, and possessing the general and specialized education legally required for the position. Unlike the requirements for most public positions, the religious or life-stance group leader need not be a citizen, but he or she must have legal domicile in the country. All registered religious groups and life-stance organizations must submit an annual report to a district commissioner’s office (currently the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland) describing the group’s operations during the previous year. Registered religious groups and life-stance organizations are required to perform state-sanctioned functions such as marriages and the official naming of children and preside over other ceremonies such as funerals.
The law provides state subsidies to registered religious groups and life-stance organizations. For each individual 16 years of age or older who belongs to any of the officially registered and recognized religious groups or life-stance organizations, the government allocates an annual payment of 11,040 kronur ($95) out of income taxes, called the “church tax,” to the individual’s respective, registered organization. The government allocates the payment regardless of whether the individual pays any income tax.
Persons who are not members of registered organizations are still required to pay the church tax, but the government retains their contributions rather than allocating them to religious or life-stance organizations.
By law, a child’s affiliation or nonaffiliation with a registered religious or life-stance group is as follows: (1) if the parents are married or in registered cohabitation and both belong to either the same registered organization or no organization, then the child’s affiliation shall be the same as its parents; (2) if the parents are married or in registered cohabitation, but have different affiliations or if one parent is nonaffiliated, then the parents shall make a joint decision on what organization, if any, the child should be affiliated with, and until the parents make this decision, the child shall remain nonaffiliated; (3) if the parents are not married or in registered cohabitation when the child is born, the child shall be affiliated with the same registered organization, if any, as the parent who has custody over the child. Change in affiliation of children younger than age 16 requires the consent of both parents if both have custody; if only one parent has custody, the consent of the noncustodial parent is not required. The law requires parents to consult their children about any changes in the child’s affiliation between ages 12 and 16. After turning 16, children may choose affiliation on their own.
By law, schools must operate in such a manner as to prevent discrimination on the basis of religion. Grades one through 10 (ages six to 15) in public and private schools must provide instruction, by regular teaching staff, in social studies, which includes Christianity, ethics, and theology. The law specifies the curriculum for these classes must adopt a multicultural approach to religious education, encompassing a variety of beliefs. Christian theology is included, as well as some content on other world religions. The law also mandates that “the Christian heritage of Icelandic culture, equality, responsibility, concern, tolerance, and respect for human value” shape general teaching practices.
Parents wishing to exempt pupils from compulsory instruction in Christianity, ethics, and theology must submit a written application to the school principal. The principal may request additional information, if necessary. The principal then registers the application as a “special case” and writes an official response to the parents, accepting or denying the request. School authorities are not required to offer other religious or secular instruction in place of these classes.
Of the 12 largest municipalities in the country, eight have adopted guidelines or rules governing the interaction between public schools and religious/life-stance groups. The Reykjavik City Council prohibits religious and life-stance groups from conducting any activities, including the distribution of proselytizing material, in municipal preschools and compulsory schools (grades one through 10) during school hours or during afterschool programs. Reykjavik school administrators, however, may invite the representatives of religious and life-stance groups to visit the compulsory classes on Christianity, ethics, and theology, and on life skills. These visits must be under the guidance of a teacher and in accordance with the curriculum. Any student visits to the gathering places of religious and life-stance groups during school hours must be under the guidance of a teacher as part of a class on religion and life-stance views. During such classes or visits, students may only observe rituals, not participate in them. The municipality of Hafnarfjordur has similar rules governing the interaction between schools and religious/life-stance organizations. The other six municipalities have either adopted or adapted guidelines on these interactions that the Ministry of Education, Science, and Culture has set. The ministry’s guidelines are broadly similar to those of Reykjavik and Hafnarfjordur.
Private schools must follow the same curriculum as public schools, including the Christianity, ethics, and theology taught in social studies classes. Private schools are free, however, to offer additional classes not in the public school curriculum, including classes in specific religious faiths.
In April parliament enacted legislation including protections against discrimination in the workplace for religious and other beliefs. In June parliament approved legislation prohibiting all forms of discrimination, including that based on religion, in all fields of society, excluding the labor market, which the previous legislation covers. The prohibitions against religious discrimination in both laws came into effect on July 1. The Center for Gender Equality monitors implementation. Complaints are submitted to the Gender Equality Complaints Committee, and violations may be punishable by fines unless heavier penalties are prescribed in other statutes.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In February members of parties from both the ruling coalition as well as the opposition cosponsored a bill in parliament to ban male circumcision on the basis of a child’s right to choose. Local and international Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and religious freedom groups called for parliament to reject or revise the bill in order to take religious freedom considerations into account, for example, by adding exceptions for religious practice under medical supervision. Parliament did not vote on the bill before the end of its parliamentary session in June, effectively dropping it from the parliamentary agenda. Bill proponents did not reintroduce the bill after parliament reconvened in September.
According to the MOJ, in 2017, the latest year for which data were available, the government provided the ELC with approximately 6.2 billion kronur ($53.4 million), consisting of direct subsidies from the state budget as well as indirect funding from church taxes. The church tax also provided a total of 435 million kronur ($3.75 million) to the other 47 recognized religious and life-stance groups.
The ELC continued to operate all cemeteries, and all religious and life-stance groups had equal access to them. At least one cemetery had a special area designated for burials of Muslims and persons of other faiths.
The ELC and the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the public University of Iceland continued to train theology students for positions within the ELC.
State radio continued to broadcast Lutheran worship services every Sunday morning as well as a Lutheran daily morning devotion.
The government continued to require individuals applying for a passport to present proof of religion from a religious organization if they wished to receive a religious exemption allowing them to wear a head covering for their passport photographs.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to the MOJ, there were four reports of religious hate crimes during 2017, the most recent year for which official data was available, three against Muslims and one against members of another, unnamed religion. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported being targeted in several crimes. In May unidentified individuals threw a Molotov cocktail at the residence of a Jehovah’s Witnesses leader in Reykjavik but caused no serious damage. In June a person or persons broke the window of a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall and set a fire that caused some property damage. Police were investigating the incidents but had not identified any suspects by year’s end.
A Gallup Iceland poll, conducted from September 20 to October 2 and released on October 23, found public trust in the ELC declined to 33 percent, compared with 43 percent in 2017. The poll also found 54 percent of citizens supported separating church and state, compared with a peak of 61 percent supporting separation in 2010.
The first resident rabbi, representing the Chabad-Lubovitch community, arrived in the country in August to establish the country’s first Jewish organization and apply for its registration.
The Forum for Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation, whose membership consisted of registered religious groups – including the ELC, Protestant, Catholic, and other Christian groups, Muslims, and Buddhists – continued to meet regularly, including during the spring parliamentary session to hold an interfaith discussion on the proposed bill to prohibit male circumcision. Although the Jewish community was not a member of the forum, individual Jewish representatives also attended the discussion on the draft circumcision bill. Representatives both for the proposed bill (including some religious representatives, medical community members, and secular children’s rights representatives) and against it (including Muslim, Jewish, and Christian representatives) had the opportunity to present their views during the forum’s discussion.
In some cases, ELC ministers and parishes, on a voluntary basis, served immigrant communities and helped recent arrivals of all religious groups integrate into society. Other religious groups were also free to serve immigrant communities on an informal and voluntary basis. The Islamic Foundation of Iceland organized community information and integration programs for Muslim migrants with representatives from local government and legal offices on such issues as voting and women’s rights in the country.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from the MOJ, MFA, and the district commissioner’s office of Northeast Iceland to discuss the roles of religious equality and religious tolerance in the country. Specific topics included the status and rights of religious groups in the country, U.S. concerns about the proposed circumcision ban bill, which parliament later allowed to lapse, the incidence of religiously motivated hate crimes, and the prosecution of those crimes.
Embassy officials established contact with leaders of several religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Soka Gakkai in Iceland, Buddisfafelag Islands, the Baha’i Center in Iceland, and the Jewish community. Embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of the ELC, the Islamic Foundation of Iceland, the life-stance organization Sidmennt, and the Norse pagan association Asatruarfelagid, to discuss such issues as their relations with the government, religious tolerance, the extent of their involvement in interfaith dialogue, their views on the proposed circumcision ban bill, and the role of religious groups in education and refugee resettlement.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent, their relations governed by treaties, including a concordat granting the Church a number of privileges and benefits and financial support. Twelve other groups have accords granting most of the same benefits in exchange for a degree of government monitoring. Religious groups must register to request an accord. Unregistered religious groups operate freely but are not eligible for the same benefits as groups with accords or must apply for them separately. The government did not submit any new accords to parliament for approval despite reports it had negotiated several accords with religious groups in the previous year. The Muslim community, which did not have an accord, continued to experience difficulties in acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques or keep them open; there were approximately 800 unofficial Muslim places of worship. Politicians from several political parties, including leader of the League (Lega) Party Matteo Salvini, who in June became deputy prime minister and minister of interior, made statements critical of Islam and against the construction of new mosques. As chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the country hosted several events promoting religious tolerance.
There were reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism. A Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported 185 anti-Semitic incidents, most involving hate speech on social media, compared with 130 in 2017. A local Arab NGO reported a 35 percent increase in incidents against Muslims in schools, hospitals, and on public transport in 2017 compared to the previous year. In April a pig’s head was left in front of a building in Reggio Emilia Province that Muslims planned to convert into a place of worship. The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters in major cities and elsewhere. Jewish leaders called for greater vigilance against anti-Semitism.
Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths and discussed the integration of new migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu, and of second-generation Muslims. Embassy, consulate, and Department of State representatives met with religious leaders and civil society to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness, social inclusion of immigrants, and the empowerment of faith groups through social media and the mobilization of youth leaders among faith groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 62.2 million (July 2018 estimate). According to a 2017 survey by independent research center IPSOS, approximately 74 percent of all residents identify as Roman Catholic. According to government officials, religious groups together accounting for less than 10 percent of the population include other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is, and Buddhists. Non-Catholic Christian groups include Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and a number of smaller Protestant groups. The remaining 16 percent report no religious affiliation. According to estimates by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an independent research center, of the more than five million resident foreigners, there are almost two million Muslims, 1.7 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, one million Roman Catholics, and 700,000 Protestants. The government and the Jewish community estimate the Jewish population at 30,000.
According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the national agency for statistics, the Muslim population is composed of native-born citizens, immigrants, and resident foreigners, but most of its growth comes from large numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the majority of whom live in the north. Moroccan and Albanian immigrants are the two largest groups. The MOI reports Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law regardless of religion and are free to profess their beliefs in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality. According to the constitution, each religious community has the right to establish its own institutions according to its own statutes as long as these do not conflict with the law. The constitution stipulates the state may not impose special limitations or taxes on the establishment or activities of groups because of their religious nature or aims. The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent of each other, and their relations are governed by treaties, which include a concordat between the government and the Holy See.
The law considers insults against any divinity to be blasphemy, a crime punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($58-$350). The government generally does not enforce the law against blasphemy.
The constitution states all religious groups are equally free and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups are governed by law based on agreements (“accords”) between them. Representatives of a non-Catholic faith requesting an accord must first submit their request to the Office of the Prime Minister. The government and the group’s representatives then negotiate a draft agreement, which the Council of Ministers must approve. The prime minister then signs and submits the agreement to parliament for final approval. Once parliament approves the implementing legislation, the accord governs the relationship between the government and the religious group, including state support. Twelve groups have an accord: the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Italian Apostolic Church, the Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.
The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities, as long as they have completed a registration process with the MOI. Legal registration is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government. A religious group may apply for registration by submitting to a prefect, the local representative of the MOI, a request including the group’s statutes; a report on its goals and activities; information on its administrative offices; a three-year budget; certification of its credit status by a bank; and certification of the Italian citizenship or legal residency of its head. To be approved, a group’s statutes must not conflict with the law. If approved, the group must submit to MOI monitoring, including of their budgets and internal organization. The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities. Religious groups that are not registered may still operate legally as NGOs and obtain tax-exempt status, legal recognition of marriages, access to hospitals and prisons, and other benefits, but having an accord with the government facilitates the process. The Catholic Church is the only legally recognized group exempted from MOI monitoring, in accordance with the concordat between the government and the Holy See.
An accord grants clergy automatic access to state hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; allows for civil registry of religious marriages; facilitates special religious practices regarding funerals; and exempts students from school attendance on religious holidays. Any religious group without an accord may request these benefits from the MOI on a case-by-case basis. An accord also allows a religious group to receive funds collected by the state through a voluntary 0.8 percent set-aside on taxpayer returns. Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds. The government set aside 1.23 billion euros ($1.41 billion) via this mechanism during the year, of which more than 81 percent went to the Catholic Church.
Veneto regional legislation prohibits the use of burqas and niqabs in public institutions such as hospitals.
The concordat provides for the Catholic Church to select teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in weekly “hour of religion” courses taught in public schools. The courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend may study other subjects or, in certain cases, leave school early with parental consent. Church-selected instructors are lay or religious, and the instruction includes material determined by the state and relevant to non-Catholic religious groups. Government funding is available only for these Catholic Church-approved teachers. If a student requests a religion class from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must provide the teacher and cover the cost of instruction; it is not required to seek government approval for the content of the class. Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private, religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.
According to law, hate speech, including instances motivated by religious hatred, are punishable by up to four years in prison. The law applies to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.
All missionaries and other foreign religious workers from countries that are not European Union members or signatories to the Schengen Agreement must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Although in 2017 the government had reportedly negotiated draft agreements governing its relations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romanian Orthodox Church, and Episcopal Church, it continued its negotiations with those groups during the year and again did not submit any agreements to parliament for approval.
According to leaders of the Rome Islamic Cultural Center, the government did not make significant progress on an accord in its dialogue with Muslim religious communities. The MOI legally recognized as a religious entity only the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which ran the Great Mosque of Rome. The government recognized other Muslim Islamic groups only as nonprofit organizations.
Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques. There were five mosques regional governments and Muslim religious authorities both recognized, one each in Ravenna, Rome, Colle Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, Milan, and Forli in Emilia-Romagna. In addition, there were many sites recognized as places of worship by local governments but not considered fully-fledged mosques by Muslim authorities because they lacked minarets or other key architectural features. There were more than 800 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims, known colloquially as “garage” mosques. Authorities tolerated most of these but did not officially recognize them as places of worship.
On March 12, the Latium regional court ordered the closure of a garage mosque in Rome on the grounds that the venue was only authorized to host a workshop. The Muslim community that worshipped in the garage mosque initiated talks with local authorities to identify a viable alternative. At year’s end authorities had not identified such a venue.
On July 15, the local Muslim community in Empoli, Tuscany inaugurated a new place of worship with a capacity of 250 worshippers. While local government authorities had issued a permit for use of the venue as a place of worship, both they and Muslim religious authorities stated it did not meet all requirements of a proper mosque, such as having a minaret.
Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite a lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits. Although municipalities could and did withhold construction permits for other religious groups, Muslim leaders – for example, Rosario Paquini Shaykh, Deputy Chairman of the Islamic Center of Milan and Lombardy – said the shortage of formal places of worship was most acute for Muslims.
On June 6, Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala presented a plan on religious infrastructure proposing the regularization of four existing Muslim places of worship that lacked legal status and the allocation of an additional 18 sites to non-Catholic religious groups. The city was to assign three of these to evangelical churches, and two to Coptic Orthodox churches. In addition, the city was to assign six sites to the Catholic Church to establish churches in newly built neighborhoods. Information as to the implementation of the plan was unavailable at year’s end.
Local politicians from conservative parties, including Jacopo Alberti, a Lombardy Regional Councilor of the League Party, expressed concerns over Muslim community proposals to build new mosques. On September 11, League members of the Lombardy Regional Council and other center-right parties passed a motion urging the regional government to conduct a census of Islamic places of worship, install camcorders in them, and monitor the texts used and sermons delivered therein. The same regional council members joined with members of the Five Star Movement, a political party, to pass a resolution calling on the regional government to adopt a law prohibiting the regularization of existing unauthorized places of worship. Neither resolution was binding on the Lombardy government.
On October 8, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy accepted an appeal by the Muslim community of Varese of a denial of a permit to build a mosque in Sesto Calende. The regional court issued a ruling that did not overturn the denial but requested the Constitutional Court to re-examine the constitutionality of a 2015 amendment to a local law that did not impose any deadline on local authorities to decide where religious communities might open a place of worship. According to the Lombardy court, the lack of a deadline might violate “the right of freedom of religion” guaranteed by the constitution. At year’s end the Supreme Court had not decided whether to hear the case on the constitutionality of the local law.
On March 10, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy annulled the 2017 decision of the City Council of Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan, blocking the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque on the grounds that the center did not comply with all the requirements agreed to by the city council and the Muslim community. In April local authorities appealed the regional court’s ruling to the Council of State (Italy’s highest administrative court), which conducted a preliminary review of the case on August 1 but postponed a final ruling until 2019. At year’s end the construction of the cultural center and mosque remained suspended pending resolution of the case.
In October, according to press reports, League leaders denied the Bergamo Muslim Association permission to purchase a chapel in Bergamo at auction, despite theirs being the highest offer. The group outbid the Romanian Orthodox Church, which had been using the building for religious services. Lombardy President and League official Attilio Fontana said the Lombardy Region would exercise its right of first refusal and acquire the chapel instead. Fontana said there would be no appeal. League leader Salvini said in a statement, “Centuries of history risk disappearing if Islamization, which up until now has been underestimated, gains the upper hand.”
On August 27, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy upheld the September 2017 order of the Mayor of Cantu, Edgardo Arosio, (League Party), barring worship in a warehouse bought by a Muslim association, Assalam, in 2017. According to the ruling, the association had stated that it would only carry out cultural activities in the facility, but the court verified unauthorized religious activities had taken place.
On July 31, Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola issued a decree granting a Muslim association the right to use a piece of land, on which it had already established an Islamic cultural center, for 99 years. Leading League politicians, such as League head Salvini, opposed the decision. On social media, Salvini called the mayor’s decision “crazy.”
A request for authorization to construct a new mosque the Muslim community in Pisa submitted to the local administration in December 2017 remained pending with Pisa authorities at year’s end. The Muslim community submitted the request after the city’s former mayor refused to hold a referendum on the matter.
Pursuant to a December 2017 agreement between the local Muslim community and the City of Florence, Florence University, and the Catholic Church on the construction of a new mosque in Sesto Fiorentino, the Catholic Church sold a piece of land to the Muslim association to establish a mosque next to a new center for religious activities that the diocese would build. At year’s end, however, the local Muslim community had not built the mosque and was operating in a temporary place of worship.
The mosque the Muslim community of Thiene had been building since receiving a building permit in 2015 from the Veneto regional government remained unfinished, reportedly because of insufficient funds.
At year’s end the city of Mestre had not authorized the Muslim community to open a new mosque there as the city pledged to do after the municipal government, citing a lack of permits, closed down a garage mosque in April 2017.
Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship. Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.
In June the government sponsored the visit by a group of 50 Moroccan theologians and imams to more than 50 Muslim congregations in the Piedmont Region to discuss religious education and ways for Muslim immigrants to interact with, and integrate into, local society while preserving Muslim values. The Moroccan Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Turin-based Italian Islamic Confederation trained the visiting clerics, in cooperation with the MOI and Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The visit concluded with a Quran recitation contest in Turin.
Politicians from several political parties, including the League, Brothers of Italy, and CasaPound, again made statements critical of Islam. On February 7, League leader Salvini said, “The problem with Islam is that it is a law, not a religion, and is incompatible with our values, rights, and freedoms.” On February 8, Giorgia Meloni, president of the Brothers of Italy Party, concurred with Salvini, adding on social media, “We can’t deny there is a process of Islamization going on in Europe. Islam is incompatible with our values, civilization, and culture.” Al Jazeera reported that during th