An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Burma

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality, or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs. As during previous years, it was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. Violence, discrimination, and harassment in Rakhine State targeting ethnic Rohingya, nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the military’s commission of ethnic cleansing and other mass atrocities against Rohingya in August 2017 that displaced more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Among the 163 Rohingya who reportedly fled the country between January and October, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State; others reported continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they said they did not trust. During the year, several UN entities commented or released reports on the Rohingya crisis. In September, the former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar said the government was purposefully evading accountability and making it difficult for Rohingya refugees to safely return to Rakhine State as part of the government’s goal of “exterminating their basic identity.” The Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (IIMM) began to interview witnesses and collect evidence for possible criminal proceedings for gross violations of human rights, including against Rohingya. Religious leaders and civil society activists reported some government and military officials continued to deploy anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech in official events. Rohingya, both in Rakhine State and those living in Bangladesh, faced mass disenfranchisement in November general elections because of discriminatory citizenship policies. The government barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on citizenship grounds, while allowing five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority to run. Non-Buddhist minority groups, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, said authorities restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minority groups, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. NGOs said the military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to continued severe hardship for religious minority groups.

According to media reports, ethnic armed organizations in the country continued to pose a threat to religious freedom. Christian pastor Tun Nu, abducted in 2019 by the Arakan Army and previously presumed dead, was found alive and was reunited with his family in March. In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government had no administrative control, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) tightened restrictions on Christian religious practice. In December 2019, 51 Baptist churches had reopened and UWSA authorities stated they were conducting assessments to determine which other churches would be allowed to reopen. In October, however, a Baptist religious leader reported that all churches were again closed and even house worship was limited to no more than four families together in some areas.

Some leaders and members of the Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation (formerly Ma Ba Tha) continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. Although the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, issued orders that no group or individual be allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha and declared it an “illegal organization,” many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim speech in sermons and through social media. According to Burma Monitor, an NGO focused on monitoring and analyzing hate speech, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates registered to run in the 2020 general elections, mostly from nationalist parties such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. While local and international experts said deep-seated prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against members of religious minority groups, some civil society groups worked to improve interreligious tolerance. According to media reports, civil society activists spearheaded efforts to improve interreligious tolerance and respect for religious practices and to deepen interfaith dialogue. The interfaith “White Rose” campaign that formed after an anti-Muslim, Buddhist nationalist mob shut down temporary Ramadan prayer sites in Yangon in 2019 continued its efforts. Other religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ambassador to Burma, and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against members of religious minority groups, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tensions. In June, the Acting USAID Administrator noted freedom of religion was a key component of national security and that the U.S. response to promote accountability for those involved in the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya remained a top priority. U.S. financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on the Burmese military commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against members of ethnic and religious minority groups remained in place. During the year, U.S. embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religion-based abuses, including discrimination, and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 56.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately six percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately four percent of the population. The 2014 census excluded Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to October 2016. According to estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State. There are an estimated 130,000 Rohingya living in internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, according to Human Rights Watch. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Yangon (Rangoon).

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities. The law on registering organizations specifies voluntary registration for local NGOs.

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

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

The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.

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

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process through a township-level Religious Board for Religious Conversion; however, the law is rarely applied, and many townships do not have conversion boards. The applicant must be older than 18 and must undergo a waiting period of up to 180 days; if the applicant still wishes to convert, the board issues a certificate of religious conversion. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code also criminalizes.

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

Government Practices

International organizations and NGOs reported most members of the military involved in mass atrocities against Rohingya Muslims in 2017 had not been held accountable, and the military continued to commit acts of violence against members of ethnoreligious groups. In April, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Yanghee Lee stated that the military “may once again be committing crimes against humanity in Rakhine State.” According to Lee, the military had expanded its campaign against minorities from Rakhine to Chin States, adding, “having faced no accountability, the Tatmadaw continues to operate with impunity.” According to NGO Fortify Rights, two former soldiers confessed in videos recorded in July by the Arakan Army to having taken part in atrocities committed by the army against Rohingya in 2017. In the recording, the soldiers said they were involved in killing more than 180 Rohingya men, women, and children in Taung Buzar Village and surrounding villages in Buthidaung and five villages in Maungdaw during military operations in Rakhine State in late 2017. One also admitted to committing rape in Taung Buzar Village, Rakhine State. At year’s end, the two men were reportedly in the custody of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague.

On June 23, a Buddhist monk and military veteran stabbed to death a Muslim teenager in Magway Region’s Aung Lan Township. The victim’s brother told authorities the assailant, Tun Naing Win, called the brothers “kalar,” considered a derogatory term for persons of South Asian descent, and shouted, “You kalars do not own this country, you kalars do not own this road,” before killing the victim.

The investigation of the June 2, 2019, beating of one group of villagers by another group of villagers in Ann Myawk Village, Rakhine State continued with no reported progress through year’s end. According to the CHRO, which first documented the incident in December 2019, 25 villagers, led by Khin Aung, Myint Maung, Hwe Hla and Nyuat Maung, assaulted members of the Chawn family, who were conducting a Christian home prayer service.

In November 2019, The Gambia filed an application instituting proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and a request for provisional measures, alleging Burma’s actions against Rohingya violated the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. In January, the ICJ unanimously indicated provisional measures, ordering Burma to preserve any evidence of atrocities against Rohingya; ensure that government and security officials refrain from any act that could contribute to genocide; and report to the ICJ on its progress on these measures in May and every six months thereafter while the case was pending. The government submitted two reports and stated its reports would show decisively that no genocide occurred. The government also filed preliminary objections to the jurisdiction of the court and the admissibility of The Gambia’s application; proceedings on the merits were suspended while the ICJ considered the preliminary objections. In September, Canada and the Netherlands announced their intention to intervene in the case.

According to the ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor, during the year it was in the process of organizing a fact-finding mission to gather relevant evidence for its investigation into credible allegations that crimes against humanity were committed against Rohingya in Burma. Although the country is not a party to the ICC, the court claimed it had jurisdiction over such crimes if elements of the crime were at least commissioned in Bangladesh, which is a state party, and where most displaced Rohingya fled.

The Independent Commission of Enquiry established by the government in 2018 to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State released the executive summary of its final report in January. The summary stated the commission found no evidence of genocidal intent, but it did not address alleged crimes against humanity. It stated the abuses amounted to “war crimes.” According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary was part of the government’s attempt to portray the operation as a “legitimate armed conflict” with no element of genocide. The summary also stated there was “no evidence of gang rape committed by Burma’s security forces,” despite extensive documentation by the United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar and human rights groups of widespread rape against Rohingya women and girls. According to Human Rights Watch, the executive summary of the final report fell well short of creating the conditions for justice and accountability or the safe return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. As of the end of the year, the government had not released the full report. According to international and domestic human rights activists, previous government-led investigations of reports of widespread abuses by security services against Rohingya in northern Rakhine State in 2016 had yielded no findings of responsibility by security forces and were criticized by international observers as deeply flawed.

The IIMM, established by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018 to facilitate fair and independent criminal proceedings covering human rights abuses in Burma since 2011, continued to develop protocols and procedures to balance public outreach with confidentiality and the protection of witnesses in criminal cases. Since 2018, the government has denied the IIMM permission to establish an office in the country, and during the year, the IIMM, based in Geneva, received no response to its request to travel to the country. During the year, the IIMM received evidence from the UN Fact-Finding Mission, traveled to Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh to interview Rohingya refugees, and completed a mapping of NGOS and victims’ groups in Burma as part of planning for evidence collection there.

According to leaders of religious minority communities and human rights activists, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, communal disparities were exacerbated by inconsistent government regulations, their enforcement, and varying interpretations of the regulations around the country, with harsher outcomes for minority religious communities. The President’s Office banned public events and mass gatherings nationwide on March 13, including religious events. As of year’s end, a range of restrictions at the national and regional level remained in place, and pagodas, monasteries, mosques, and churches remained closed to the public. At least three different laws were applied to enforce limits on gatherings, including religious gatherings. The same action – for instance, a gathering of five or more persons – had the potential to result in charges and punishment under the Natural Disaster Management Law (three months to three years’ imprisonment or a fine or both), the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law (six months’ imprisonment or a fine), or Article 188 of the Penal Code (one to six months’ imprisonment or a fine). According to media, the government prosecuted Rohingya returnees from Bangladesh – returning through both formal and informal channels – amid anti-Muslim sentiment and hate speech from the public, military, and religious hardliners portraying Rohingya as a vector for the coronavirus.

More than 200 residents of Sinthay Village in Dawei District’s Yebyu Township attended Buddhist funeral rites for a monk in April, despite COVID-19 restrictions. According to the Irrawaddy newspaper, the chairman and secretary of the pagoda trustee committee were fined 93,000 kyat ($70) under the penal code for defying an order issued by government officials. In contrast, 12 Muslim men in Mandalay were sentenced to three months’ imprisonment under the Natural Disaster Management Law for holding a religious gathering at a house in the Aung Pin Lae quarter of Chanmyathazi Township.

According to the Myanmar Times, Christian pastor David Lah and colleague Wai Tun were sentenced to three months in prison on August 6 for organizing a prayer session in April in violation of the government’s National Disaster Management Law prohibiting mass gathering as part of a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In response, Ma Ba Tha members shared some of Lah’s speeches denigrating Buddhism, reportedly in an attempt to incite anti-Christian hatred.

According to Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) central information unit, on May 26, Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thein and the NLD-led Yangon regional government attended a public religious ceremony that went “against the government’s own [COVID-19] instructions.” The government took no disciplinary against the Chief Minister or cabinet members who attended the event.

Several NGOs reported authorities confined approximately 130,000 Rohingya in camps within the country, following an earlier round of violence in 2012. Restrictions on in-country movement of Rohingya remained extensive. Authorities required the largely stateless Rohingya to carry special documents and travel permits for internal movement in areas in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya reside.

In July, newly appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar Thomas Andrews told the Human Rights Council, “Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya are forced to live in deplorable conditions in IDP camps or in villages without basic rights, including freedom of movement.” He also noted that a proposed camp closure project the government launched as part of its National Strategy on Resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons and Closure of IDP Camps in 2019 “not only prohibits the right of IDPs to return home but may force them into land susceptible to flooding and without access to basic services, including healthcare and education. And it may also continue to deny other basic rights, including freedom of movement.” According to local sources, authorities continued to deny IDPs the right to choose their relocation or return destination. Human Rights Watch described these IDP camps as severely limiting livelihoods, movement, education, health care, and adequate food and shelter. It stated the government closure process entailed constructing permanent structures near the current camp locations, further entrenching segregation and denying Rohingya the right to return to their land, reconstruct their homes, regain work, and reintegrate into society.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, an additional 163 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and October, compared with 2,966 during the same period in 2019. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the government made no new efforts to initiate the return of Rohingya refugees during the year. An attempt in August 2019 failed when Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back.

Starting in 2019 and continuing during the year, authorities arrested hundreds of Rohingya in Ayeyarwady, Yangon, Bago, and Magwe Regions for traveling without permission, and charged them with violations of the Immigration Act. On April 8, a court dropped charges against more than 200 of those accused of leaving Rakhine State illegally, but according to activists, hundreds more remained in jails and youth detention centers across the country.

On November 2, Wirathu, a monk and chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, surrendered to Yangon police on an arrest warrant issued in 2019 for criticism of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi. Numerous human rights groups described Wirathu’s anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric as hate speech.

According to international humanitarian NGOs, the government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State, northern Shan, southern Chin, and Kachin States during the year. NGOs stated the government’s travel authorization process for aid groups within the country effectively restricted aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations, in violation of international humanitarian law. During the year, the Red Cross Movement and World Food Program continued to maintain generally predictable access to meet life-saving emergency needs.

Multiple sources stated authorities and the military continued to single out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor, including requiring them to transport soldiers, weapons and ammunition, and food supplies, and arbitrarily arrested them and imposed restrictions impeding their ability construct houses or religious buildings. According to reports, government officials were occasionally complicit with traffickers abducting Rohingya women and children in transit while fleeing violence, selling them into sex trafficking and forced marriage in India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Authorities in northern Rakhine State reportedly continued to prohibit Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons, prior to the imposition of COVID-19 restrictions. Rohingya refugees reported that exceptions to the five-person regulation applied only to marketplaces and schools.

Armed conflict between the government and ethnic armed organizations in Kachin and northern Shan States, begun in 2011, continued. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity. The United Nations reported that 107,000 persons remained displaced during the year by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where many Christians and individuals from other religious groups lived. According to the United Nations, 97,000 persons remained displaced in Kachin State and 20,000 in Shan State.

According to NGOs, both the government and nationalist monks used their influence and resources to build Buddhist infrastructure in majority Christian areas, including in Kachin and Chin States, against the wishes of the local population. Minority religious communities said they perceived these efforts to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”

According to the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO), authorities continued practicing discriminatory and abusive policies against members of religious minority groups. The CHRO said that Christians in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to face destruction of homes and places of worship and suffered physical violence by pro-military Buddhist nationalists, and that authorities prevented them from legally owning land and constructing religious buildings. The CHRO also said there were cases in which police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account for crimes against members of religious minority communities.

In Rakhine State, according to the United Nations and media reports, the situation remained unchanged from 2019, and government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of members of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly Rohingya. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considered foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and letters from two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks but was given almost exclusively for medical emergencies, according to human rights activists. Sources stated obtaining travel permits often involved extortion and bribes. Muslims throughout the country still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine State if they were to visit the state. According to an August report by Burma Human Rights Network, 160 cases against 1,675 individuals were documented over four years of discriminatory prosecution against Rohingya for attempting to move freely in the country.

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

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. Some NGOs that tried to register reportedly found the process extremely onerous. According to Myanmar Now, a leading national news organization publishing in Burmese and English, the Internal Revenue Department required an NGO categorized as an “advocacy group” to pay tax if the department determined the NGO had made a “profit,” based on its tax return. NGOs voiced concern that new tax rules could place an unfair burden on small organizations and limit their operations.

According to the Irrawaddy, on July 7, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture ordered the removal of sitting Buddha statues in Nay Pyi Taw donated by members of the country’s former military regime because, it said, the stone idols were sculpted according to occult practices that contravene Theravada Buddhism, the country’s dominant religion.

According to the CHRO, the government continued not to issue permits for Christian religious groups to register and own land and properties. All such registration applications remained pending at year’s end, with some pending for more than 15 years.

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

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

Along with other houses of religious worship, mosques remained closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak as of the end of the year, although some authorities allowed limited renovation work to take place. In September 2019, some Muslim leaders formed a committee to press the government to reopen shuttered mosques across the country, most of which were closed by the government in the wake of 2012 communal Buddhist-Muslim violence in Rakhine State. The committee maintained a list of more than 40 shuttered mosques across the country. A 2019 list from the General Administration Department reported there were more than 800 mosques in Maungdaw Township, more than 400 in Buthidaung Township, and 10 in Rathedaung Township, all in northern Rakhine State. It was unknown how many of them had been shut down or destroyed. Twelve mosques and religious schools remained closed in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Regions, as well as in Shan State, according to the Burma Human Rights Network. A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thaketa Township in Yangon Region and the closure of two additional schools remained in force. Thirty-two mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Regions remained closed. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Region, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate, in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.

Muslims in Mandalay Region reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014. Authorities ordered mosques shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, as did mosques in Bago and Mandalay Regions. Some Hindu leaders also reported authorities continued to limit access to religious sites.

A Chin-based NGO again reported local authorities in Chin State and Sagaing Region continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches seeking to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Religious groups said individual members continued to circumvent this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

According to the CHRO, the General Administration Department in Mindat, Chin State continued to require organizers of religious events and activities involving domestic and international NGOs to seek permission at least two weeks in advance from the Chin State government. COVID-19 restrictions that remained in place at the end of the year, however, stopped all events.

According to the CHRO, in January and before COVID restrictions were in place, the Chin State government prohibited a religious gathering organized by the Chin Baptist Convention, the largest Christian organization in Chin State. The event was scheduled to take place in Mindat Township, Chin State, with a focus on peace and environmental issues. Despite the convention’s having submitted a permission request in advance and having pledged not to discuss politics during the meeting, Chin State officials denied the request just prior to the scheduled start of the gathering.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented most public events, sources said the government continued restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, including requirements for advance notice of events and participants. NGOs sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious groups and NGOs said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.

Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

The government continued to financially support Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. It continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.

Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography. According to the CHRO, Christian students were required to convert to Buddhism to access so-called “Na Ta La” schools in Chin State, which were better funded than public schools. The CHRO described Na Ta La schools as a “state-sponsored religious and cultural assimilation program.” The national elementary school curriculum included lessons and textbooks containing discriminatory and incendiary material, according to UN and NGO reports. According to sources, one high school textbook still commonly used included a poem that read, “Horse, the color of a coconut shell / slave, [the red-brown color of a] kalar.”

Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several Islamic madrassahs, in Yangon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.

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

A Rakhine State government university program for Rohingya and Rakhine students – launched during the 2018-2019 school year and expected to expand during the 2020-2021 school year – allowed students to attend University of Sittwe-administered courses in a limited distance education program.

In December 2019, the Center for Diversity of National Harmony (CDNH) and the embassies of the Netherlands and Denmark launched a small scholarship program in Rakhine State that allowed 100 students, both Rakhine and Rohingya, to attend East Yangon University in Yangon. Previously, Rohingya students were required to attend the University of Yangon because of stated government concerns regarding security if they attended school in Sittwe. According to CDNH, the program was set to expand in the 2020-2021 school year.

Human rights organizations again reported that schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to Rohingya rights organizations, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms. Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.

According to a 2019 report by the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, established by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2017, the government continued to prevent Rohingya and other Muslims from holding congregational prayers on Friday or during religious festivities in Rakhine State. Rohingya refugees reported they were unable to freely celebrate Eid al-Fitr or other religious holidays for the past seven years.

According to media reports, Yangon authorities requested that Muslims observe Ramadan at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic led to additional government restrictions on all forms of worship, including Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim, but sources reported punishments for violation were disproportionally meted out to religious minorities. In July, the government permitted limited worship with fewer than 30 people at a time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of public events, the White Rose campaign – which grew in response to anti-Muslim activities in 2019 – conducted food distribution and a “Peace Biker” rally in Yangon during Ramadan.

Although Muslims said government authorities had granted limited permission to slaughter cows during Eid al-Adha in prior years, COVID-19 restrictions prevented this activity in 2020. Media and religious sources said that in previous years, local authorities in some villages had restricted the licensing and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority of which were owned by Muslims. Community leaders stated these restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslims to celebrate Islamic holidays.

Sources continued to state that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”

Although there were no public reports of military donations to Ma Ba Tha during the year, according to the weekly newsmagazine Frontier, the military and military-linked Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) had a history of patronizing and funding Ma Ba Tha. In October remarks to Frontier, a monk active in Ma Ba Tha stated, “So what if Ma Ba Tha was funded by the USDP? It’s a charity organization. Everyone was welcome to support Ma Ba Tha’s mission and it is not fair to criticize the giving of donations to a Buddhist organization.”

On February 10, the military-aligned nationalist Buddhist organization Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) conferred its highest honor on the military’s Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing for protecting “race, language, [and] religion,” according to the newspaper Myanmar Times. On June 26, the YMBA issued a statement demanding “insults” to Buddhism, race, and religion must be stopped or be prosecuted, according to Frontier.

On January 26, Minister for Religious Affairs and Culture Aung Ko said during a Myanmar Muslim Youth Gathering in Yangon that he wanted to reopen closed mosques and build a large new mosque in Yangon, but he feared the reaction of what he termed “ultranationalist thugs.”

The 2019 case against monk Myawaddy Sayadaw for defaming the military was ongoing at the end of the year. NGOs stated that Sayadaw was an active participant in various peacebuilding and interfaith efforts.

A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State remained in effect, requiring residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.

According to civil society activists, Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.

Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions continued to require the applicant to list his or her religion. Applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected, according to one human rights organization.

Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were 60 Christian and two Muslim members of parliament: Sithu Maung (Yangon constituency) and Win Mya (Mandalay constituency). Neither of the two was Rohingya. According to political observers, the exclusion of Rohingya in the political process was based more on animosity towards Rohingya as an ethnic group than on Rohingya as followers of Islam. Twenty-Five Muslim candidates competed in the November general elections, compared with none in 2017 and 2018. The Union Election Commission barred seven Rohingya politicians from running in the elections on the grounds that their parents did not hold citizenship. Activists noted the difficulty of attributing this to anti-Muslim (rather than anti-Rohingya ethnic group) sentiment, citing the fact that five Muslim candidates from the Kaman minority were allowed to run.

According to Fortify Rights, because of discriminatory documentation requirements, Rohingya were disenfranchised en masse in the November general elections, both Rohingya still living in Rakhine State and Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.

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

The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs). The government said these cards were necessary to apply for citizenship under the 1982 citizenship law. NGOs reported that Rohingya were pressured or coerced to accept NVCs. There were reports that government officials required Rohingya to have an NVC to fish or access banking services. Many Rohingya expressed distrust of the process; they said they were already citizens and that they feared the government would either not affirm their citizenship or would grant naturalized rather than full citizenship, which carried fewer rights. Some townships in Rakhine State continued to require Rohingya to identify as “Bengali” to apply for NVCs and listed “Bengali” as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card, also known as “pink card.” At least one NGO stated that NVCs were a method used by authorities to diminish the citizenship standing and future rights of Rohingya by indicating they were foreigners. The few Rohingya who received citizenship through this process said they did not receive significant rights or benefits, and consideration of their citizenship applications usually required significant bribes at different levels of government.

State-controlled media continued to frequently depict military and government officials and their family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.

Statements from various government ministries and departments, including the President and State Counselor’s Office, highlighted discriminatory attitudes toward Rohingya, according to the NGO Progressive Voice. According to media reports, the military continued a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through fictitious Facebook accounts and other social media. After media attention in July focused on a handful of cases of COVID-19 imported into Burma by Rohingya returning from Bangladesh, Kyaw Win, director of Burma Human Rights Network, said the narrative that Rohingya brought COVID-19 into Burma was an attempt to “divide the Rakhine and Rohingya community.”

On May 4, the government ordered all civil servants to stop using hate speech on social media and required civil servants to monitor and report online behavior to the central government. According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), civil society groups welcomed the move but were cautious about its intent and effect. Thet Swe Win, Executive Director of the Center for Youth and Social Harmony, told RFA, “We have noticed that the government has issued directives on hate speech in the past few days. This coincides with increasing international pressure, as they will soon submit a report to the ICJ. They may be politically motivated to reduce international pressure, but otherwise these measures are very good in nature.”

In January, former President Thein Sein urged voters to consider the protection of “race, religion and military” as they looked toward the November election. NGOs said this phrase was well-known coded language used to encourage discrimination against Rohingya.

The government hosted conferences and attended events with a number of interfaith groups, including Religions for Peace, to promote reconciliation, peace, and development through national and local initiatives in its interfaith councils, the Interfaith Youth Network, and Women of Faith Network. Events included multireligious, multistakeholder Community Forums for Advancing Peace and Development in Pyay, Bago Region, on February 19, and in Lashio, Shan State, on February 25. Religions for Peace participants included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, and Sikh leaders.

In February, Vice President Myint Swe and other senior government officials participated in an interfaith conference organized by Religions for Peace in Loikaw, Kayah State. During the event, Myint Swe urged respect for the country’s different faiths.

According to NGOs, the government generally regulated foreign religious groups in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Yangon-based religious groups to host international students and experts.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent civilian and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.

According to Muslim leaders and civil society activists, opposition from Buddhist monks in Hpa-an, Karen State, prevented the construction or repair of any mosques and blocked Muslims from purchasing homes outside the traditional Muslim quarter, despite government approval. Monks exercised influence over local officials to prevent permits or construction despite higher-level government approval, according to religious and interfaith leaders.

Despite a continuing order by the SSMNC that no group or individual operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media, including a July campaign in Mandalay that distributed stickers reading, “We don’t want the NLD to make Myanmar a kalar country.”

According to Burma Monitor, more than 100 Ma Ba Tha-affiliated candidates ran in the 2020 general election from various – mostly nationalist – parties, such as the Democratic Party of National Politics, the military-linked National Development Party, and the People’s Pioneer Party. None of the candidates was elected to office. According to RFA, the parties’ campaign posters contained three banyan leaves – a symbol used by Burma’s Buddhist majority – and the slogan “No Rohingya.”

On February 9, hundreds of individuals, characterized as anti-Muslim ultranationalists by civil society and pro-tolerance activists, protested in Yangon as part of the newly formed and Ma Ba Tha-linked Myanmar Nationalist Organization, accusing the NLD-led government of failing to protect the country’s Buddhist majority, according to Reuters. Speakers at the rally protested against remarks made by Religious Affairs Minister Aung Ko, blaming him for criticizing the military-controlled Home Affairs Ministry for the government’s failure to arrest several nationalist figures for sedition and inciting violence. Protestors carried “No Rohingya” banners.

On December 28, “Bullet” Hla Shwe, a former USDP lawmaker and former military officer, who said in 2019 that the Prophet Mohammad would bomb the U.S. embassy if it posted “insulting images” of him, surrendered to Yangon police on a 2019 arrest warrant for sedition.

On April 3, police arrested three street artists in Kachin State for painting a mural that raised awareness about the coronavirus pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch. The artists were charged with violating the law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion after some Buddhists, described by interfaith activists as “hardliners,” said the mural, which portrayed a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, was wearing a robe that resembled those worn by Buddhist monks. On July 17, the artists were freed after charges were dropped.

According to local and international experts, Rohingya Muslims were perceived as not truly belonging to the country, irrespective of citizenship status, and belonging to a religion commonly viewed with fear and disdain. There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for Rohingya. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

On June 15, local media outlet The Voice ran a cartoon depicting a Rohingya man crossing the border carrying COVID-19 with him, accompanied by the derogatory label “illegal interloper,” a term frequently used to describe Rohingya.

Hate speech against Muslims continued to be widespread on social media. In September, Facebook said that in the second quarter of the year it had taken action against 280,000 pieces of content in Burma that violated its community standards regarding hate speech, with 97.8 percent detected by its systems before being reported, up from the 51,000 pieces of content it took action against in the first quarter.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered activities, such as informational exchanges, although most activities were curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups, including Article 19 and Free Expression Myanmar, continued advocating and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.

Monk Ashin Issariya, formerly known as “King Zero,” continued to lead the Anti-Adhamma Committee, a group of approximately 100 like-minded monks who preached against intolerance, confronted militant Buddhism from within the Buddhist clergy, and conducted interfaith outreach initiatives. According to interfaith activists, Issariya collaborated with other monks and lay activists, including Pyin Oo Lwin-based monks U Seintita and Thet Swe Win, who led the 2019 “White Rose” solidarity campaign with Muslims following a spate of communal violence in Yangon.

In Mandalay Region, civil society and interfaith leaders continued to hold meetings and public events for community leaders and youth aimed at promoting peace and religious tolerance, as in previous years, although such meetings were, in part, curtailed due to COVID-19. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior U.S. government officials – including the Secretary of State, the Acting Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, the USAID Administrator, the Ambassador to Burma, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country with senior government and military leaders. They specifically raised the plight of the overwhelmingly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin, northern Shan, and Chin States amid ongoing military conflicts, and the advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities.

U.S. visa restrictions imposed in July 2019 on the armed forces commander-in-chief, his deputy, and two brigadier generals for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities remained in force during the year, as did Global Magnitsky financial sanctions imposed in December 2019 on these same individuals for serious human rights abuses.

In March, the then-USAID Administrator said, “We have carried out groundbreaking initiatives aimed at helping religious and ethnic minorities recover from atrocities, [providing assistance to] the Rohingya in Burma and Bangladesh.”

In May, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom warned that the Burmese military was denying Rohingya Muslims access to medical care and exposing them to the risk of complications in severe cases of COVID-19.

In February, when launching the International Religious Freedom Alliance to promote global religious freedom and respect human dignity, the Secretary of State noted the repression of religious freedom in Burma, stating, “We condemn terrorists and violent extremists who target religious minorities, [including] Muslims in Burma.”

The U.S. government continued to press for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations, including those concerning religious freedom.

The U.S. government advocated with senior Burmese government officials for the military to drop its legal action against a leading pro-tolerance monk for remarks critical of the military.

U.S. government officials continued to call for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian personnel and media in Rakhine and Kachin States. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere. Since August 2017, the U.S. government has provided more than $820 million in humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh and Burma, including $469 million in 2020, with $78 million for programs in Burma, $314 million for programs in Bangladesh, and $29 million in regional crisis response.

Embassy officials at all levels emphasized the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the national security advisor, and the Ministers of International Cooperation; Religious Affairs; Home Affairs; Ethnic Affairs; Immigration, Population, and Labor Affairs; and Social Welfare, Relief, and Resettlement Affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the President’s Office, the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, and representatives of other governments.

Although embassy travel to ethnic and religious minority-predominant areas was curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic, discussions of religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities continued. Embassy staff visited Rakhine, Kachin, Chin, Shan and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that suffered from and were identified as vulnerable to ethnoreligious violence.

The embassy emphasized the need for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, in public engagements, and through its social media accounts. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech, including at panel discussions on U.S. First Amendment rights integral to freedom of religion and communal harmony. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations and NGOs, to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook to engage local audiences on the importance of religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in democratic societies and in the United States.

The Ambassador gave interviews to local media and international media in which he discussed the need for accountability for the 2017 ethnic cleansing and improved conditions for Rohingya and other minority groups. The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously-based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.

Public programs at embassy facilities in Yangon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance and respect, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities, including a virtual Youth Forum on tolerance. The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation. As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based groups and NGOs working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c) (5) of the Act.

Nepal

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes the country as a “secular state” but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” It provides for the right to profess and practice one’s own religion. The constitution prohibits converting persons from one religion to another and prohibits religious behavior disturbing public order or contrary to public health, decency, and morality. The law prohibits both proselytism and “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class. The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. All other religious groups must register as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or nonprofit organizations to own property or operate legally. One man was killed by police in August in a confrontation with the Muslim community over cow slaughter. In September, police and protestors clashed in Lalitpur District when the government tried to prevent the celebration of a local religious holiday due to the COVID-19 restrictions. Officials arrested several pastors for violating the COVID-19 lockdown, including one who was arrested while sending parishioners home from their church. Another pastor was arrested, first for providing what the government said was misinformation about COVID-19, released on bail, and then arrested twice more for seeking to convert Hindus to Christianity. Police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses during the year for proselytizing, including two U.S. citizens, who were released on bail and were awaiting trial as of the end of the year. In several locations, police arrested individuals accused of slaughtering cows or oxen. Tibetan community leaders said government authorities generally permitted them to celebrate most Buddhist holidays in private ceremonies but prohibited the public celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday and continued to drastically curtail their ability to hold public celebrations. During the year, police surveillance of Tibetans remained high. Authorities cited the pandemic in restricting public ceremonies and gatherings while maintaining, and in some cases increasing, prepandemic levels of security personnel and scrutiny of Tibetan cultural and religious celebrations, particularly those involving the Dalai Lama. Christian religious leaders expressed concern about the anti-Christian sentiment of the Hindu nationalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), which seeks to reestablish the country as a Hindu state. Christian groups continued to report difficulties registering or operating as NGOs. The government again did not recognize Christmas or Eid al-Adha as public holidays, but allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as a public holiday. Christian and Muslim groups said they continued to face difficulties in buying or using land for burials.

In August, assailants shot and killed a Hindu priest on temple grounds in southern Nepal in an attack that some sources stated was religiously motivated. Police arrested and charged two suspects and stated they were seeking three others in connection with the case. In September, a clash between Hindus and Muslims in a southern district left more than a dozen people injured. Christian leaders said that a Hindu activist openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. Catholic and Protestant sources stated that threats of violence against Christians on social media had increased. Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. According to NGOs, Hindu priests and other “high-caste” individuals continued to prevent persons of “lower” castes, particularly Dalits, from accessing Hindu temples and performing religious rites. There were incidents of vandalism against a church and a mosque, characterized by sources as minor and which were addressed by authorities.

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, U.S. embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives met with government officials to express concern over restrictions on freedom of religion posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code, including the continued criminalization of converting others and proselytizing. They also met with representatives of civil society groups and religious groups to discuss concerns about access to burial grounds, public celebrations of religious holidays, the prohibition against “forced or induced” conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians. The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyer, and police. Embassy outreach and assistance programs continued to promote religious diversity and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 30.3 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2011 census, the most recent, Hindus constitute 81.3 percent of the population, Buddhists 9 percent, Muslims (the vast majority of whom are Sunni) 4.4 percent, and Christians (a large majority Protestant and a minority Roman Catholic) 1.4 percent. Other groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Kirats (an indigenous religion with Hindu influence), animists, adherents of Bon (a Tibetan religious tradition), Jains, Baha’is, and Sikhs. According to some Muslim leaders, Muslims constitute at least 5.5 percent of the population, mostly concentrated in the south. According to some Christian groups, Christians constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population. Many individuals adhere to a syncretic faith encompassing elements of Hinduism, Buddhism, and traditional folk practices, according to scholars.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the country to be a secular state but defines secularism as “protection of the age-old religion and culture and religious and cultural freedom.” The constitution stipulates every person has the right to profess, practice, and protect his or her religion. While exercising this right, the constitution bans individuals from engaging in any acts “contrary to public health, decency, and morality” or that “disturb the public law and order situation.” It also prohibits converting “another person from one religion to another or any act or conduct that may jeopardize other’s religion,” and states that violations are punishable by law.

The criminal code sets five years’ imprisonment as the punishment for converting, or encouraging the conversion of, another person via coercion or inducement (which officials commonly refer to as “forced conversion”) or for engaging in any act, including the propagating of religion, that undermines the religion, faith, or belief of any caste or ethnic group. It stipulates a fine of up to 50,000 Nepali rupees ($430) and subjects foreign nationals convicted of these crimes to deportation. The criminal code also imposes punishments of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 20,000 rupees ($170) for “harming the religious sentiment” of any caste, ethnic community, or class, either in speech or in writing.

The law does not provide for registration or official recognition of religious organizations as religious institutions, except for Buddhist monasteries. It is not mandatory for Buddhist monasteries to register with the government, although doing so is a prerequisite for receiving government funding for maintenance of facilities, skills training for monks, and study tours. A monastery development committee under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism, and Civil Aviation oversees the registration process. Requirements for registration include providing a recommendation from a local government body, information on the members of the monastery’s management committee, a land ownership certificate, and photographs of the premises.

Except for Buddhist monasteries, all religious groups must register as NGOs or nonprofit organizations to own land or other property, operate legally as institutions, or gain eligibility for public service-related government grants and partnerships. Religious organizations follow the same registration process as other NGOs and nonprofit organizations, including preparing a constitution and furnishing information on the organization’s objectives as well as details on its executive committee members. To renew the registration, which must be completed annually, organizations must submit annual financial audits and activity progress reports.

The law prohibits the killing or harming of cattle. Violators are subject to a maximum sentence of three years in prison for killing cattle and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 50,000 rupees ($430) for harming cattle.

The law requires the government to provide protection for religious groups carrying out funeral rites in the exercise of their constitutional right to practice their religion, but it also states the government is not obligated to provide land grants for this purpose. There is no law specifically addressing the funeral practices of religious groups.

The constitution establishes the government’s authority to “make laws to operate and protect a religious place or religious trust and to manage trust property and regulate land management.”

The law does not require religiously affiliated schools to register, but Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic religious schools must register as religious educational institutions with local district education offices (under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology) and supply information about their funding sources to receive funding at the same levels as nonreligious public/community schools. Religious public/community schools follow the same registration procedure as nonreligious public/community schools. Catholic and Protestant groups must register as NGOs to operate private schools. The law does not allow Christian schools to register as public/community schools, and they are not eligible for government funding. Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups may also register as NGOs to operate private schools, but they too are not eligible to receive government funding.

The law criminalizes acts of caste-based discrimination in places of worship. Penalties for violations are three months’ to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 50,000 to 200,000 rupees ($430 to $1,700).

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

Government Practices

According to members of civil society groups, on August 27, one man was killed by police in Jhapa during a confrontation between police and the Muslim community after two persons were arrested for slaughtering cows.

Police clashed with approximately 1,000 protestors on September 3 when they gathered in Lalitpur District to celebrate the Buddhist festival of Rato Machindranath in contravention of the government’s COVID-19 restrictions against festivals, large gatherings, or any nonessential activities. According to media reports, the crowd began to throw rocks and debris and to fire slingshots when police tried to stop them from pulling a five-story high ceremonial chariot through the streets. Approximately 650 Nepal Police and Armed Police Force officers responded with water cannons and tear gas and arrested nine protestors. The two sides clashed for four hours until community leaders and the Lalitpur Chief District Officer agreed on a compromise. District authorities imposed a day-long curfew enforced by armed police on September 5, the first unrest-related curfew in the Kathmandu Valley since November 2009.

On March 23, according to media reports and religious groups, police in Pokhara arrested Christian preacher Keshav Raj Acharya for spreading misinformation about COVID-19. A February 21 YouTube video showed Acharya praying to “damn” the virus and stating that those who follow Christ would not become infected. The Kaski District Administration Office released Acharya with a 5,000-rupee ($43) fine for the COVID-19 related charges, but police kept him in jail and subsequently charged him with religious conversion and offending religious sensibilities. On April 19, the administration office set bail for these charges at 500,000 rupees ($4,300). On May 13, when Acharya was released on bail, he was immediately rearrested at the courthouse and transferred 400 miles to Dolpa District to face additional charges of religious conversion. On June 30, Acharya was released on 300,000 rupees bail ($2,600). Multiple religious groups stated that local police prejudice continued to factor heavily in the selective enforcement of the vague criminal code provision against “forced conversion.” In a July 18 letter to Nepal’s Attorney General, the International Religious Freedom Roundtable described Acharya’s arrest as “arbitrary” and “discriminatory” and called for charges against him to be dropped.

According to media reports, police arrested two pastors on March 28, charging them with holding worship services in violation of COVID-19 restrictions. In the first case, Pastor Mohan Gurung was arrested in the Surkhet District of Karnali Province while he was talking with family members and assistant pastors who lived on church property with him. Gurung said “police jumped over the church gate, barged inside the premises, and accused [him] of holding a worship service” while he “was having family time, chatting, and studying the Bible.” In the second case, Pastor Prem Bahadur Bishwakarma was arrested in his church building, also in Surkhet District, while telling members of his congregation not to gather because of pandemic restrictions and showing them pictures depicting COVID-19 health precautions. Bahadur told the media that police officers using lathis (clubs) “charged at us” before arresting him. The two pastors were charged with violating the lockdown, disturbing the peace, and putting public health at risk. Both were released on bail on March 29.

According to a Christian news portal, in February, the government deported two Japanese and three Taiwanese individuals for spreading Christianity on tourist visas. The local NGO INSEC (Informal Sector Service Center) stated that four Japanese and two Taiwanese were transferred to the Department of Immigration in Kathmandu in late February, but it could not confirm their deportations.

According to civil society sources, during the year police arrested seven Jehovah’s Witnesses on two separate occasions in Pokhara for proselytizing. Two were U.S. citizens and five were Nepali citizens. The Nepali citizens were arrested on February 1 and released February 27 on 200,000 rupees ($1,700) bail per person. The U.S. citizens were arrested on March 17 and charged with religious conversion while they were visiting the house of friends, who were also Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were detained in police custody pending investigation for 11 days. On March 27, police released them due to COVID-19 protocols on 230,000 rupees ($2,000) bail each. On April 24, police recalled them and detained them until April 26, when the district court released them on an additional 200,000 rupees ($1,700) bail each, pending trial. The original 230,000 rupee bail was refunded to the U.S. citizens after they paid the second bail. As of the end of the year, their case was pending in Kaski District Court.

According to the Society for Humanism Nepal, 35 individuals were arrested for cow slaughter in nine separate incidents through October. These arrests took place in eight different districts throughout the country.

The government continued deepened restrictions on Tibetans’ ability to publicly celebrate the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6, stating the religious celebrations represented “anti-China” activities. Although authorities allowed small private celebrations of the Dalai Lama’s birthday in July, security personnel around these events outnumbered the Tibetan attendees. Similarly, Tibetans could only conduct other ceremonies with cultural and religious significance in private, such as Losar, the Tibetan New Year, and World Peace Day, which commemorates the Dalai Lama receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.

Tibetan leaders urged Tibetans to respect government-imposed restrictions on public gatherings to combat the spread of COVID-19 by celebrating days of religious significance in private. Tibetan leaders organized small “official” commemorations of these occasions, which were subjected to heightened scrutiny from security personnel despite compliance with government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions. Civil society organizations said this scrutiny was the result of the government’s policy to treat all religious programs associated with the Dalai Lama as constituting “anti-China activities.”

Abbots of Buddhist monasteries reported that monasteries and their related social welfare projects generally continued to operate without government interference, but they and other monks said police surveillance and questioning increased significantly during the year. Police continued to gather information from a 2019 circular sent to Tibetan institutes about Tibetan refugees studying in monasteries and nunneries. Tibetan Buddhist business owners also reported what they termed unwarranted police questioning about religious and social affiliations in their businesses and homes.

Human rights lawyers and leaders of religious minorities continued to express concern that the constitution’s and criminal code’s conversion bans could make religious minorities subject to legal prosecution for actions carried out in the normal course of their religious practices, and also vulnerable to prosecution for preaching, public displays of faith, and distribution of religious materials in contravention of constitutional assurances of freedom of speech and expression.

Human rights experts continued to express concern that a provision in the criminal code prohibiting speech or writing harmful to others’ religious sentiments could be misused to settle personal scores or target religious minorities arbitrarily. According to numerous civil society and international community legal experts, some provisions in the law restricting conversion could be invoked against a wide range of expressions of religion or belief, including the charitable activities of religious groups or merely speaking about one’s faith. Media and academic analysts continued to state that discussions on prohibiting conversion had entered into religious spheres in the country and that those seeking political advantage manipulated the issue, prompting religious groups to restrict some activities.

According to legal experts and leaders of religious minority groups, the constitutional language on protecting the “age-old religion” and the prohibition on conversion was intended by the drafters to mandate the protection of Hinduism. Christian religious leaders continued to state that the emphasis of politicians in the RPP on re-establishing the country as a Hindu state continued to negatively affect public perception of Christians and Christianity. The RPP currently holds one seat in Parliament and civil society sources stated that it uses anti-Christian sentiment to garner populist support. (The country was a Hindu monarchy until 2007, when the interim constitution established a secular democracy.)

Leaders of the RPP outside of Parliament continued their calls for the reestablishment of Hindu statehood and advocated strong legal action against those accused of killing cows. Kamal Thapa, chairman of the RPP, tweeted praise for the Prime Minister’s efforts to control conversion, criticized the government for not doing more, and likened conversion to an epidemic. Civil society leaders said pressure from India’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and other Hindu groups in India continued to push politicians in Nepal, particularly from the RPP, to support reversion to a Hindu state.

Civil society leaders said what they characterized as right-wing religious groups associated with the BJP in India continued to provide money to influential politicians of all parties to advocate for Hindu statehood. According to NGOs and Christian leaders, small numbers of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) supporters were endeavoring to create an unfriendly environment for Christians on social media and occasionally at small political rallies and encouraging “upper-caste” Hindus to enforce caste-based discrimination.

Religious leaders said the requirement for NGOs to register annually with local government authorities placed their organizations at political risk, and one source reported their religious group was denied reregistration. Christian leaders expressed fears that changing obligations could potentially limit the establishment of churches, which must be registered as NGOs.

As in recent years, the government did not recognize Christmas as a public holiday. The government, however, allowed Christians and Muslims time off from work to celebrate major holidays such as Christmas and Eid al-Adha, and continued to recognize Buddha’s birthday as public holiday.

Christian leaders said the government-funded Pashupati Area Development Trust continued to prevent Christian burials in a common cemetery behind the Pashupati Hindu Temple in Kathmandu while allowing burials of individuals from other non-Hindu indigenous faiths. According to Christian leaders, the government continued its inconsistent enforcement of a court ruling requiring protection of congregations carrying out burials. Protestant churches continued to report difficulties gaining access to land they bought several years prior for burials in the Kathmandu Valley under the names of individual church members. According to the churches, local communities continued to oppose burial by groups perceived to be outsiders but were more open to burials conducted by Christian members of their own communities. As a result, they reported, some Protestants in the Kathmandu Valley continued to travel to the countryside to conduct burials in unpopulated areas.

Catholic leaders reported that despite their general preference for burials, almost all Catholic parishioners continued to choose cremation due to past difficulties with burials. Many Christian communities outside the Kathmandu Valley said they continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries, conduct burials in public forests, or use land belonging to indigenous communities for burials. They also said they continued to be able to use public land for this purpose.

Muslim groups stated Muslim individuals in the Kathmandu Valley continued to be able to buy land for cemeteries but said they sometimes faced opposition from local communities.

According to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim groups, the government continued to permit them to establish and operate their own community schools. The government provided the same level of funding for both registered religious schools and public schools, but private Christian schools were not legally able to register as community schools. Although religious education is not part of the curriculum in public schools, some public schools displayed a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of learning, on their grounds.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development (previously the Department of Education), which is under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, the number of gumbas (Buddhist centers of learning) registered rose from 111 in 2019 to 114. The department had 104 gurukhuls (Hindu centers of learning) registered during the year, up one from 2019.

According to the Center for Education and Human Resource Development, 911 madrassahs were registered with district education offices, representing an increase of four from the previous year. Some Muslim leaders stated that as many as 2,500 to 3,000 full-time madrassahs continued to be unregistered. They again expressed apprehension that some unregistered madrassahs were promoting the spread of less tolerant interpretations of Islam. According to religious leaders, many madrassahs, as well as full-time Buddhist and Hindu schools, continued to operate as unregistered entities because school operators hoped to avoid government auditing and having to use the Center for Education and Human Resource Development’s established curriculum. They said some school operators also wished to avoid the registration process, which they characterized as cumbersome.

Many foreign Christian organizations had direct ties to local churches and continued to sponsor clergy for religious training abroad.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On August 19, assailants shot and killed a 65-year-old Hindu priest on the premises of Hanuman Temple, located in Rautahat District in the southern part of the country. The police arrested two individuals and registered charges against them on August 23. At year’s end, the case was pending in district court and three additional suspects remained at large. Prior to investigation, the attack was portrayed on social media as religiously motivated, with commenters accusing Muslims, although the individuals later arrested were not Muslim. Comments on social media criticized the Chief Minister of Province 2, who is Muslim, and Mohna Ansari of the National Human Rights Commission for failing to speak publicly about the incident.

Authorities reported no change in the 2016 case in which Banke District police filed charges against 29 individuals accused of participating in Hindu-Muslim clashes that led to the killing of two Muslims. The suspects were later released on bail and the District Administration Office provided each victim’s family 1,000,000 rupees ($8,500) in compensation in 2017. The case remained pending in the Banke district court, but a leader from the Muslim community stated he did not expect justice for the victims’ families.

A violent clash erupted in Sarlahi District in the south when a Hindu procession carrying an idol of the god Bishwakarma passed through a Muslim community on September 18, which some Muslim commenters said they believed was a deliberate provocation – an allegation the Hindu community denied. According to media reports, the procession planned to immerse the idol in a lake located near a mosque. Members of the Muslim community tried to stop the procession, which was accompanied by a tractor and DJ playing music. The dispute escalated and people began throwing stones at one another, leaving over a dozen injured. Police used tear gas to regain control of the situation, and the district administration office imposed an 18-hour curfew to prevent further clashes.

Some leaders of religious minority groups stated that some converts to other religions, including Hindus who had converted to Christianity, remained willing and able to state publicly their new religious affiliation. Some Christian leaders, however, reported that some converts to Christianity tried to conceal their faith from their families and local communities, mainly in areas outside Kathmandu.

Christian leaders said Manoj Sapkota, a Hindu activist affiliated with Shiva Sena, openly threatened Christians on a television interview in January. They also stated that Hindu activist Abhishek Joshi openly threatened the Christian community in several television interviews.

According to Catholic and Protestant sources, social media was increasingly used to spread threats of violence against Christians. Several sources noted a rise in anti-Christian propaganda and divisive religious content on social media due to the COVID-19 lockdown. When a song against Bahun and Chettri (two “high” Hindu castes) was placed on social media, Christians were blamed. Some civil society organizations stated that Pastor Sukdev Giri of the Trinity Fellowship Church in Chitwan District continued to receive insults and threatening messages through social media.

Some Muslim leaders continued not to accept converts to Islam, saying it would violate the law according to their interpretation. Instead, they continued to recommend that individuals who sought to convert travel to India to do so.

Local media again published occasional reports of alleged harmful practices by religious minorities that were disputed by local authorities, witnesses, and media. After a disproportionate number of Muslims were among the first to test positive for COVID-19, Muslim leaders stated that some journalists and media outlets tried to use COVID-19 fears to fuel anti-Muslim sentiment and communal unrest. These included allegations that Tablighi Jamaat missionaries and other members of the Muslim community were deliberately spreading COVID-19. The Ministry of Health tested members of the Muslim community for COVID-19, and the government worked with Muslim leaders to curb the spread of misinformation.

A Christian religious leader said there were no news reports of social disturbances in rural areas caused by the spread of Christianity, as there had been in previous years. Multiple Christian sources said that inflammatory material migrated to social media, since there were very few public activities that could trigger disturbances due to COVID-19 restrictions.

According to NGOs, Hindu priests and “high-caste” residents continued to prevent Dalits, as members of a “lower” caste, from entering temples and sometimes prevented them from performing religious rites and participating in religious festivals. A provincial assembly member and local residents of Pokhara in Gandaki Province denied mourning rituals to Dalits in a public facility. The court case against perpetrators of the 2017 attack on a Dalit man for entering a temple in Saptari District remained pending as of December. A representative from a Dalit rights organization stated that the Dalit community did not expect justice to be served in this case, as impunity continued in many cases of Dalit rights violations.

Christian sources reported one incident of vandalism against a church in Dhading District in August. The incident was minor, according to the sources, and was quickly mediated at the local level. In October, Madani Mosque in Sundhara, Kathmandu, was vandalized with a bulldozer in a land dispute. Police arrested and later released the bulldozer driver and the individual claiming ownership of the land (which sources stated is owned by the government) but investigated the incident. The government determined that the land claim was fraudulent and as of the end of the year was in the process of returning it to the mosque. Madina Mosque in Bhairahawa, Rupandehi District, was also vandalized in October. Individuals on a motorbike threw a stone at a window, causing minor damage. Police promised the local community that they would investigate.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, the Ambassador, embassy officers, and visiting U.S. government representatives expressed concerns to senior government officials and political leaders about restrictions on freedom of religion, including the rights to convert and to proselytize, posed by provisions in the constitution and the criminal code. They repeatedly emphasized to government officials working in law enforcement, immigration, and foreign affairs the importance of bringing legislation and practice into concordance with the country’s constitutional and international obligations. Embassy officers worked with legal advocates and rights groups to ensure the safety of U.S. citizens threatened by the criminal code and continued to highlight how anticonversion laws could be used to arbitrarily restrict the right to the freedoms of religion and expression. Following the arrests of U.S. citizens on proselytizing charges, embassy officers spoke with the detainees, their lawyers, and police to ensure they were being treated fairly and in accordance with the law. Embassy officers and visiting senior U.S. government officials raised concerns with government officials about the government’s restrictions on Tibetan Buddhists conducting peaceful religious activities, including celebrations of Losar (Tibetan New Year), the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and World Peace Day.

The Charge d’Affaires and a senior embassy officer led a group of 10 embassy participants to the February 26 Tibetan Losar celebration hosted by the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office at the Boudha Settlement Community Hall in Kathmandu. The Ambassadors from Australia, the European Union, and Switzerland and officials from the French and German embassies also joined. For the first time since 2008, the event was held outdoors. Plainclothes police were present and attendance was lower than in prior years.

Throughout the year, embassy officers and other U.S. government representatives discussed with civil society members and religious groups their concerns about arrests, access to burial grounds, public celebration of religious holidays, the prohibition against religious conversion, and verbal attacks on Christian communities by Hindu politicians.

The embassy used social media to communicate religious freedom messages, highlight the country’s religious diversity, and promote respect and tolerance. Although COVID-19 restricted the ability to attend many religious events in person, the Ambassador used social media to highlight and revisit past engagements in order to communicate U.S. continued support for religious freedom. Embassy officers frequently addressed religious diversity and tolerance using virtual platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

The embassy continued to provide financial assistance for the preservation and restoration of religious sites, including Buddhist stupas (shrines) and monasteries as well as several Hindu temples, and continued to promote religious tolerance in a program for underprivileged youth, including Muslim and Tibetan refugees, in Kathmandu.

Taiwan

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief. Domestic service workers and caretakers are not covered under the labor standards law and are therefore not legally guaranteed a weekly rest day. Due to this exclusion, many domestic workers continued to be unable to attend religious services. The Ministry of Labor (MOL) stated foreign caregivers and household workers whose employers denied them a weekly rest day to attend religious services could report their cases to the ministry. According to Pusin Tali, Taiwan’s Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, in most cases it was brokers rather than employers who were prohibiting migrant domestic workers from attending religious services. Ambassador Tali suggested this problem might be ameliorated if workers used brokerage services provided by Taiwan authorities. Taiwan authorities continued to expand accommodations for Muslims, including building new prayer rooms in public places such as train stations, libraries, and tourist destinations. In August, Taipei Beitou Health Management Hospital became the second halal-certified medical facility in Taiwan. In March, the Ministry of Education (MOE) issued an order prohibiting the Rainbow Family Life Education Association from teaching courses in public schools. In 2019, several legislators and city councilors had called on the MOE to address concerns raised by some parents that volunteers from the association were using school recess time to teach courses that were religious in nature, in violation of the Educational Fundamental Act that forbids public schools from promoting any specific religious belief. In February, then Vice President-elect William Lai visited Washington, D.C. as a private citizen and attended the National Prayer Breakfast.

In June, the Institute for National Policy Research hosted a conference focused on what panelists said was the Chinese government’s increased efforts to use Taiwan temples as a vehicle to interfere with domestic elections. Panelists called for legislation that would better regulate temple registration and property management and require religious organizations to disclose their financial statements.

American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) representatives engaged with legislators and ministries, as well as Ambassador Tali. AIT representatives encouraged religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and representatives of faith-based social service organizations to continue promoting religious freedom in Taiwan as well as overseas. The AIT Director spoke about the importance of religious freedom at public outreach events, and AIT used social media to engage the public on religious freedom issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 23.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a survey by the Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology released in 2019, 49.3 percent of the population practices exclusively traditional folk religions, 14 percent practices Buddhism, and 12.4 percent practices Taoism, with 13.2 percent identifying as nonbelievers. The rest of the population mainly consists of Protestants (5.5 percent), I-Kuan Tao (2.1 percent), Catholics (1.3 percent), and other religious groups, including Sunni Muslims, Tien Ti Chiao (Heaven Emperor Religion), Tien Te Chiao (Heaven Virtue Religion), Li-ism, Hsuan Yuan Chiao (Yellow Emperor Religion), Tian Li Chiao (Tenrikyo), Pre-cosmic Salvationism, the Church of Scientology, the Baha’i Faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mahikari religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church).

Some studies found that as many as 80 percent of religious practitioners combine multiple faith traditions. Many adherents consider themselves both Buddhist and Taoist, and many individuals also incorporate some aspects of traditional folk religions, such as shamanism, ancestor worship, and animism, into their belief in Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, or other religions. Some practitioners of Buddhism, Taoism, and other religions also practice Falun Gong, a self-described spiritual discipline. According to the leadership of the Falun Gong Society of Taiwan, Falun Gong practitioners number in the hundreds of thousands.

According to recent MOL statistics, the Council of Indigenous Peoples, and religious leaders, the majority of the indigenous population of 575,000 is Protestant or Roman Catholic. There are an estimated 1,000 Jews, approximately half of whom are foreign residents. There are an estimated 699,000 foreign workers, primarily from Southeast Asia. The largest single group of foreign workers is from Indonesia, consisting of approximately 267,000 persons, who are predominantly Muslim. Workers from the Philippines – numbering approximately 153,000 persons – are predominately Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise and equal treatment under the law of all religions, which “shall not be restricted by law” except as necessary for reasons of protecting the freedoms of others, imminent danger, social order, or public welfare.

Male citizens born after January 1, 1994 are subject to four months of compulsory military service. The Enforcement Statute for Substitute Services provides for six months of alternative military service for conscientious objectors who oppose military service on the basis of their religious belief.

Religious organizations may voluntarily obtain an establishment permit from the MOI. The permit requires organizations to have real estate in at least seven administrative regions valued at 25 million New Taiwan dollars (NT$) ($891,000) or more and possess at least NT$5 million ($178,000) in cash. Alternatively, the organization may register if it possesses cash in excess of NT$30 million ($1.07 million). The organization may also apply for an establishment permit from local authorities, who have lower requirements than the island-wide level authorities, to receive local benefits.

A religious group may register with the courts once it obtains an establishment permit. The group must provide an organizational charter, list of assets, and other administrative documents to register. Registered religious groups operate on an income-tax-free basis, receive case-by-case exemptions from building taxes, and must submit annual reports on their financial operations. Nonregistered groups are not eligible for the tax advantages available to registered religious organizations. As of the end of 2019, there were more than 15,000 registered religious groups representing more than 20 religions. Many groups choose not to register individual places of worship and instead operate them as the personal property of the group’s leaders.

The Falun Gong Society is registered as a sports organization and not as a religious organization.

The 1929 Act of Supervising Temples provides that temples are under the management of a trustee monk or nun. The act states, however, “They cannot take charge as trustee monk/nun if they are not citizens of the Republic of China.” The act does not apply to temples that are administered by Taiwan authorities, local public organizations, or private persons. In 2004, the Grand Justices declared several articles of the act unconstitutional for imposing strict restrictions on how religious organizations transfer their properties.

The MOI separates religious and charitable organizations based on an organization’s articles of association. The MOI stated that there is no law or policy that oversees a religious organization’s use of donations made to that organization, whether for religious or charitable activities, or that requires a religious organization to establish a separate charitable entity to conduct charitable activities. The law, however, prohibits charitable foundations from using donations for noncharitable purposes. Some religious organizations establish separate charitable foundations to promote their charitable activities, according to the MOI. An organization whose primary objective is philanthropy is not eligible to register as a religious organization.

Authorities permit religious organizations to operate private schools. Authorities do not permit compulsory religious instruction in any MOE-accredited public or private elementary, middle, or high school. High schools accredited by the ministry may provide elective courses in religious studies, provided such courses do not promote certain religious beliefs over others.

The MOI and city- and county-level governments are responsible for accepting complaints from workers who believe the government or individuals have violated their rights and interests for religious reasons.

Because of its unique status, Taiwan is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but it enacted a domestic law in 2009 to adhere voluntarily to the covenant.

Government Practices

The labor law continued to not guarantee a weekly day off for domestic workers and caregivers, which limited their ability to attend religious services. As in years past, this problem was particularly salient among the island’s approximately 253,000 foreign caregivers and household workers, predominately from Indonesia and the Philippines, including Muslims and Catholics wanting to attend weekly religious services. Authorities said they viewed the domestic service workers’ inability to attend religious services as a part of a broader labor issue. The MOL stated that foreign caregivers and household workers whose employers denied them a weekly rest day to attend religious services could report their case to the ministry. Representatives of the Presbyterian Church said that since the labor standards law was insufficient to guarantee a weekly rest day, the Church encouraged employers to permit domestic workers to attend religious services on Sundays. A representative of the Taipei-based Chinese Muslim Association said the authorities should not demand that employers permit domestic workers to attend religious services, since this was a matter of private contracts. According to Ambassador Tali, in most cases, brokers rather than employers prohibited migrant domestic workers from attending religious services. Ambassador Tali said some problems affecting immigrant workers, including obtaining a weekly rest day to attend religious services, could be ameliorated if the workers used brokerage services provided by the authorities.

The Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s unicameral parliament, in 2018 drafted but failed to pass legislation – entitled the Religious Groups Law – to better regulate temple registration and property management and to require temples to disclose their financial statements. While many legislators remained concerned about these issues, no new bill was introduced in 2020.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, many local authorities canceled public Eid al-Fitr commemorations, although the Taipei city government hosted a virtual concert in May to commemorate the holiday. Authorities continued to expand accommodations for Muslims by building new prayer rooms in public places, such as train stations, libraries, and tourist destinations. In August, Taipei Beitou Health Management Hospital became the second halal-certified medical facility in Taiwan, with accommodations for Muslims, such as halal showers, meals, and prayer rooms. The certification was part of a collaboration between the hospital and the Taipei city government, which sought to boost medical tourism by making hospitals in the city more accommodating to Muslim visitors.

One religious leader stated that authorities should allow charitable foundations run by religious entities to use donations for religious activities. Another religious leader stated that maintaining separate religious and charitable organizations made financial record keeping cumbersome and time consuming.

In March, the MOE issued an order prohibiting the Rainbow Family Life Education Association from teaching courses at public schools. In 2019, several legislators and city councilors had called on the MOE to address concerns raised by some parents that volunteers from the association were using recess to teach elementary and junior high school students life education courses that the parents said were religious in nature, in violation of the Educational Fundamental Act, which forbids public schools from engaging in activities promoting any specific religious belief. The association denied that the courses were religiously oriented.

According to the MOL, there were no reports of complaints of religious discrimination from workers during the year.

Ambassador Tali attended the virtual 2020 Ministerial to Advance Freedom of Religion or Belief in November. In a prerecorded message to attendees, Foreign Minister Joseph Wu called for continued international efforts to safeguard religious freedom from authoritarianism and announced that in 2021, the island would host a regional forum on defending religious freedom.

In February, then Vice President-elect William Lai visited Washington, D.C. as a private citizen and attended the National Prayer Breakfast. Lai spoke about religious freedom in Taiwan at the International Religious Freedom Roundtable, which was attended by approximately 300 people from more than 20 countries, saying religious freedom was one of the most important contributions that Taiwan has made to the international community, and that Taiwan was dedicated to making the world free from religious persecution, in collaboration with the United States and other countries.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In June, the Institute for National Policy Research hosted a conference focused on what panelists said was the Chinese government’s growing influence on Taiwan temples. The panel, composed of religious leaders, an academic, and legislators, alleged that in addition to sponsoring temples to publish booklets in opposition to specific candidates during election seasons, Beijing had “infiltrated” local temples throughout Taiwan with assistance from local “collaborators,” such as the Chinese Unification Promotion Party, with the aim of using temples as a vehicle to interfere with local elections. One panelist stated that “taking into account that there is no religious freedom in China, all Chinese religious organizations could be Beijing’s agents who are working to infiltrate Taiwan’s local temples.” The panelists also stated that it was challenging for authorities to investigate the amount of Chinese donations to temples, since temples were not required to file tax returns. Noting that two articles of the Act of Supervising Temples were declared unconstitutional by the Grand Justices in 2004 for imposing strict restrictions on how religious organizations transferred their properties, panelists called for legislation to better regulate temple registration and property management and to require religious organizations to disclose their financial statements.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

AIT representatives engaged with legislators and ministries, such as the MOI and MOL, as well as with Taiwan’s Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom, on issues such as the rights of domestic workers and caregivers and the relationship between religious organizations and the authorities.

AIT representatives continued to increase outreach to religious groups and scholars throughout the country, including in Taipei, Hsinchu, New Taipei, and Taoyuan. They met with scholars and leaders of various religious faiths, including the Chinese Muslim Association, the Tibet Religious Foundation, and the YMCA to discuss religious freedom in Taiwan. In August, AIT representatives met with a Catholic Church-affiliated organization providing shelter services to migrant workers in Taoyuan. AIT representatives encouraged Taiwan’s nongovernmental organizations, religious leaders, and representatives of faith-based social service organizations to continue promoting religious freedom and religious harmony.

The AIT Director incorporated the promotion of religious freedom into his public speeches at numerous official engagements throughout the year, including the opening of an exhibition entitled “U.S.-Taiwan Relations Since 1979” in March, the Hsieh Nien Fan Dinner hosted by the American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan in August, the Forum on Supply Chain Restructuring in September, and the capstone session of the 2020 U.S.-Taiwan Consultations on Democratic Governance in October.

AIT continued to highlight religious freedom issues through social media, including Facebook and Instagram. For example, AIT reposted a statement by the U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom on International Religious Freedom Day in October that the United States would not tolerate religious oppression. The message reached more than 66,800 viewers and prompted thousands of supportive responses. Local media emphasized AIT’s stance in support of religious freedom.

Thailand

Executive Summary

The constitution “prohibits discrimination based on religious belief” and protects religious liberty, as long as the exercise of religious freedom is not “harmful to the security of the State.” The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process outside the national civil code for Muslim residents of the “Deep South” – described as the four southernmost provinces near the Malaysian border, including three with a Muslim majority – for family law, including inheritance. Ethnic Malay insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where religious and ethnic identity are closely linked in a longstanding separatist conflict. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Deep South Watch, violence during the year resulted in at least 116 deaths – among them 83 Muslims, 29 Buddhists and four individuals with unidentified religious affiliation – compared with 180 deaths, including 123 Muslims, 54 Buddhists, and three with unidentified religious affiliation, in the same period in 2019. Observers attributed the decline to a combination of the resumption of peace talks, improved security operations, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system that lacked adequate checks and balances. On July 16, a group of activists from the Federation of Patani Students and Youths (PERMAS) submitted a petition to the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights asking that the military stop collecting DNA from military conscripts in the Deep South, who were predominantly Muslim, as this practice was not conducted in other regions. Compared to previous years, immigration authorities conducted fewer raids to detain refugees (including those fleeing religious persecution) registered with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), as a part of what the government said were routine measures against illegal immigration. Media and NGOs reported during the year that several dozen Uyghur Muslims from China remained in immigrant detention centers (IDCs) across the country, most of them detained since 2015.

Authorities blamed Muslim insurgents for a February 24 bomb attack in Songkhla Province that injured at least 10 people, including nine Buddhists and one Muslim. Authorities said they believed the attack was in retaliation for the killing of five Muslim villagers in Narathiwat Province on February 23. In contrast to previous years, there were no reports of attacks on monks or temples during the year.

U.S. embassy officials met with officials from the National Buddhism Bureau (NBB) and the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) at the Ministry of Culture, as well as a broad range of religious leaders, academics and members of civil society, to discuss efforts to promote religious pluralism, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. The Ambassador met the country’s highest Buddhist official, gave a speech on religious freedom at the country’s oldest Buddhist academic institution, hosted a religious freedom roundtable, and released an op-ed commemorating the country’s promulgation of the 1878 Edict of Religious Tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 69.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The 2010 population census, the most recent available, indicated 93 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Other groups, including animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists, constitute the remainder of the population.

Most Buddhists incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community.

Islam is the dominant religion in three of the four southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border, commonly referred to as the Deep South. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that 99 percent of Muslims are Sunni.

The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.

The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice as long as the exercise of these freedoms is not “harmful to the security of the State.” The constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but it also provides for special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”

A special order issued by the former military government in 2016 and still in effect guarantees the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country, but mandates that all state agencies monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.” Defaming or insulting Buddhism and Buddhist clergy is specifically prohibited by law. Violators may face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($670), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 20,000 to 140,000 baht ($670-$4,700), or both.

The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. While there is no official state religion, the constitution requires the King to be Buddhist and declares he is the “upholder of religions.”

Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s foreign officials. Registration as a religious group is not mandatory, and religious groups may operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. The RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which are overseen by the NBB, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the Prime Minister.

The RAD may register a new religious denomination outside one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications: the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, it is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religious groups. To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. In practice, however, the government as a matter of policy will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups.

The constitution prohibits Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election, running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate, or taking public positions on political matters. According to the NBB, as of August, there were 239,023 clergy who were thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the Chularatchamontri (Grand Mufti), imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.

The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The King has unilateral authority to appoint or remove members from the Sangha Supreme Council irrespective of the monk’s rank and without consent or consultation with the Supreme Patriarch, whom the King also has legal authority to appoint.

The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students may not opt out. The curriculum must contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups. More instruction time is dedicated to teaching Buddhism than other religions. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at private religious schools and may transfer credits to public schools. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities and one Catholic-run college, which provide religious instruction open to the public. There are approximately 350 Catholic- and Protestant-run primary and secondary schools, whose curricula and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand, respectively, create special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools.

The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are Muslims appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides funding for Islamic educational institutions, the construction of mosques, and participation in the Hajj. There are several hundred primary and secondary Islamic schools throughout the country. There are four options for students to obtain Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education in conjunction with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that may offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; private Islamic day schools offering Islamic education according to their own curriculum to students of all ages; and after-school religious courses for children in grades one through six, often held in mosques.

The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process outside the national civil code for Muslim residents of the Deep South for issues involving family law, including inheritance. Provincial courts apply this law, and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South, including the process for appointing the Chularatchamontri, whom the King appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.

The RAD sets a quota for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,357 Christian, six Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity. Representatives of the five officially recognized religious groups may apply for one-year visas that are renewable. Foreign missionaries from other religious groups must renew their visas every 90 days.

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

Government Practices

Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being primarily based on religious identity.

According to Deep South Watch, during the year violence in the country resulted in at least 116 deaths – among them 83 Muslims, 29 Buddhists, and four individuals with unidentified religious affiliation – compared with 180 deaths, including 123 Muslims, 54 Buddhists, and three with unidentified religious affiliation, in 2019. Observers attributed the decline to a combination of the resumption of peace talks, improved security operations, and the impact of COVID-19. Local NGOs reported insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to statistics collected from the daily reports of the Provincial Police Region 9, no teachers or students were killed in insurgent attacks during the year. There were insurgent attacks in July and August on teacher protection units, however, that resulted in the deaths of three army rangers.

In February, a paramilitary unit exchanged gunfire with a group of suspected Muslim insurgents, killing five of them, during a raid in Narathiwat Province. Deep South Watch described the incident as an extrajudicial killing. A bomb attack the following day, reportedly in retaliation, left 10 people – mostly Buddhists – injured.

According to Radio Free Asia, authorities sentenced seven Uyghurs who broke out of a Mukdaharn immigration detention center in January to two years in prison. The seven had also attempted to escape in February 2019. The article stated they were among approximately 50 Uyghurs remaining in the country from among the more than 400 who fled persecution from China around 2014. Chalida, the head of the Thai NGO that worked to assist Uyghurs in the country, said the seven broke out because they could no longer tolerate living conditions at the center.

The Muslim community in the Deep South continued to express frustration with perceived discriminatory treatment by security forces and what they said was a judicial system lacking adequate checks and balances. On July 16, a group of activists from PERMAS submitted a petition to the House Committee on Legal Affairs, Justice and Human Rights asking that the military stop collecting DNA from military conscripts in the Deep South, who were predominantly Muslim. In the previous year, the military collected DNA from conscripts in the Deep South, but not from conscripts in other regions. A spokesperson for the Internal Security Operation Command for Region 4, which is in charge of the Deep South, said the military would continue to collect DNA from military conscripts on what he called a voluntary basis.

Authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including extending pretrial detention and expanding warrantless searches. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment by Muslims – such as disproportionate searches of vehicles with Muslim passengers.

In June, members of the Muslim community in the Deep South expressed frustration concerning a search of an Islamic school in Saba Yoi District, Songkhla Province, in which the military seized a large number of unused gas tanks. The military stated it was concerned the gas tanks might be used to make bombs for insurgent attacks. The school said the tanks were discarded fuel canisters, and that it did not support insurgent movements.

According to human rights groups and media reports, many of the refugees and asylum seekers in the country were fleeing religious persecution in their countries of origin. According to UNHCR, local law considered refugees and asylum seekers who entered the country without valid visas to be illegal aliens, and thus they faced the possibility of arrest, detention, and deportation, regardless of whether they had registered with the agency. Compared with previous years, immigration authorities conducted fewer raids to detain persons living illegally in the country, including some UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers, according to UNHCR. According to refugee advocates, during the year authorities conducted sporadic immigration raids, arresting at least 10 Pakistani Christians and 13 Pakistani Ahmadi Muslims, several of whom had asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government and UNHCR said the raids did not target any specific religious group and that the arrests were part of ongoing immigration enforcement against illegal aliens.

Authorities generally did not deport persons holding valid UNHCR asylum-seeker or refugee status. The government generally allowed UNHCR access to detained asylum seekers and refugees. In some cases, UNHCR-recognized refugees, including those fleeing religious persecution, reported staying in immigrant detention centers (IDCs) in crowded conditions for multiple years. The government, in many cases, placed mothers and children in shelters, in accordance with a policy to cease detention of migrant children; in practice, such shelters provided greater space than IDCs, but still severely restricted freedom of movement. There were multiple instances during the year, however, of the government detaining refugee and asylum seeking minors, including Rohingya Muslims fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in Burma, in IDCs or local police stations.

Human rights activists reported during the year that police periodically monitored or detained Falun Gong practitioners, who were recognized refugees from China. UNHCR assessed the majority of asylum seekers and refugees from China, including those in detention, were not at risk of refoulement to China.

Media and NGOs reported during the year that several dozen Uyghur Muslims from China remained in IDCs across the country, most of them in detention since 2015. Humanitarian organizations reported that Chinese authorities continued to pressure the government to return the Uyghurs to China against their will. The humanitarian groups called on the government to allow these individuals to relocate to a safe country of their choosing.

The government continued to investigate and prosecute embezzlement crimes allegedly committed by senior Buddhist monks and government officials from the NBB. In March, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) announced it had completed 11 cases and that there were ongoing ones involving the theft of 26.7 million baht ($892,000). By the end of the year, NACC said it had forwarded 27 cases to the police for further investigation and 25 additional cases to public prosecutors and the courts for prosecution. It said more than 30 cases were still under NACC review.

The government did not recognize any new religious groups and has not done so since 1984. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society organizations continued to report that unregistered religious groups operated freely and that the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities. A leading member of Falun Gong, however, reported security authorities continued to closely monitor and sometimes intimidate practitioners distributing Falun Gong materials. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference.

Monks and temple authorities continued to comply with a 2018 Sangha Supreme Council order prohibiting the use of temple land for political activities or rallies, meetings, or seminars for purposes that violated the law or affected national security, social order, or public morals. While there were no media reports of monks defying the council order, a small number of monks participated in anti-government street protests.

The law denying legal recognition to female monks (bhikkhunis) remained in effect despite the National Human Rights Commission’s 2015 recommendation that the government amend the law. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the approximately 239,023 Buddhist clergy in the country, between 250 and 300 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” bhikkhunis were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials continued to neither formally oppose nor support female ordination. Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples – primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks, bhikkhunis continued to receive no special government protection from verbal and physical attacks.

The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu; a mandatory peace studies course; and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. At year’s end, approximately 3,000 students and 250 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.

Muslim students attending a public school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple in Muslim-majority Pattani Province in the Deep South continued to wear religious head scarves, pending the outcome of a case before the Yala Administrative Court on the legality of their attire that was ongoing at year’s end. The case was based on a 2018 challenge by Muslim parents to a new Ministry of Education regulation that barred students from dressing in accordance with their religious belief and required them to wear the uniform agreed to by the school and temple, without accommodation for personal religious attire.

For the October 1, 2019-September 30, 2020 fiscal year, the government allocated the RAD a budget of approximately 435 million baht ($14.54 million) to support non-Buddhist initiatives, compared with 415 million baht ($13.87 million) the previous fiscal year. Approximately 341.8 million baht ($11.42 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, artistic, and cultural development, including promotion of interfaith cooperation through peace-building projects in the Deep South, compared with 341.5 million baht ($11.41 million) the previous fiscal year. The government also allocated approximately 22.7 million baht ($759,000) for dissemination in honor of the previous King, Rama IX. The NBB, funded separately from the RAD, received 4.85 billion baht ($162.1 million) in government funding, the same amount as the previous fiscal year. Of that amount, 1.87 billion baht ($62.5 million) went to empowerment and human capital development projects, 1.6 billion baht ($53.48 million) to personnel administration, 1.1 billion baht ($36.76 million) to education projects, and 242 million baht ($8.09 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.

The government continued to recognize elected provincial Islamic committees. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the Deep South continued to report some acted as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.

Buddhist monks worked as missionaries, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the NBB, 5,383 Buddhist missionaries worked nationwide. Buddhist missionaries were required to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University or Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.

During the year, there were 11 registered foreign missionary groups with visas operating in the country: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups, unchanged from the previous year. There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionaries. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of foreign missionaries in the country. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), which is not an officially recognized religious group, continued to fill its special quota of 200 foreign missionaries, granted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. The COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent immigration restrictions significantly reduced the number of Church of Jesus Christ missionaries entering the country during the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Reports of violence against religious groups were largely confined to the Deep South, where ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims. Authorities blamed Muslim insurgents for a February 24 bomb attack in Songkhla Province that injured at least 10 persons, including nine Buddhists and one Muslim. The victims included a deputy district chief, security volunteers, villagers, and students. Authorities said they believed the attack was retaliation for the killing of five Muslim villagers in Narathiwat Province on February 23, which Deep South Watch said was extrajudicial. There were no reports of attacks on monks or temples, and no reports of major attacks on security checkpoints, in contrast to previous years.

Some Buddhist groups expressed frustration with perceived special allowances for Muslims, such as financial assistance, job placement, and lower testing standards for Muslim university students.

In February, the Chiang Mai Provincial Islamic Committee petitioned authorities regarding anti-Muslim activities in Chiang Mai and Lamphun by “the Buddhism Protection Organization for Peace,” which the committee called an extremist movement. During a June parliamentary session, a member of the coalition Democrat Party raised a motion with the Prime Minister against the group, citing its efforts to organize anti-Muslim events and materials and to obstruct the construction and registration of mosques. In June, Deputy House Speaker Supachai Phosu and Minister attached to the Prime Minister’s Office Tewan Liptapanlop, whose responsibilities included overseeing religious affairs, responded by stating the NBB and the Supreme Sangha Council had already instructed monks and temples not to associate with the movement.

Buddhist activists continued to campaign to designate Buddhism as the country’s official religion. The Pandin Dharma (Land of Dharma) Party, led by Buddhist nationalist Korn Meedee, had a platform that advocated making Buddhism the state religion and called for the establishment of segregated, Buddhist-only communities in the country’s three southern Muslim-majority provinces. As of October, the party had 8,573 members with five regional party offices, according to the Election Commission of Thailand.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with officials from the National Buddhism Bureau (NBB) and the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) at the Ministry of Culture, as well as diverse groups of religious leaders, academics, and members of civil society, to discuss efforts to promote religious pluralism, tolerance, and interfaith dialogue. In September, the Ambassador hosted 16 religious leaders, government officials, and representatives of civil society and academia for a roundtable discussion commemorating the 142nd anniversary of the country’s 1878 Edict of Religious Tolerance. Participants discussed religious tolerance in the context of the country’s cultural, legal, and economic history, and considered how religious freedom could promote social and economic development. The embassy published an op-ed by the Ambassador in both English and Thai language news outlets emphasizing religious tolerance and interfaith cooperation.

In August, the Ambassador addressed a group of monks at Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University (MCU), the country’s oldest Buddhist university. The audience included “diplomat” monks who would eventually pursue residencies in Thai Buddhist temples around the world, including in over 100 Thai Buddhist temples in the United States. The speech highlighted religious freedom in both the United States and Thailand and the positive role religious freedom can play in a country’s social and economic prosperity. The visit also supported the ongoing partnership between MCU and the embassy in promoting interfaith dialogue, including between the Buddhist majority and the Thai Muslim community.

In June, the Ambassador met with Supreme Patriarch Somdej Phra Ariyavamsagatanana, the most senior Thai Buddhist figure, and discussed the potential for joint activities to promote religious freedom.

International Religious Freedom Reports
Edit Your Custom Report

01 / Select A Year

02 / Select Sections

03 / Select Countries You can add more than one country or area.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future