Bosnia and Herzegovina
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population of BiH at 3.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population; Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent; Roman Catholics 15 percent; and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.
There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion. The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.
The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It guarantees equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.
A state law on religion guarantees freedom of conscience; grants legal status to churches and religious communities; and grants numerous rights to registered religious communities, including the rights to assemble, conduct collaborative actions such as charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.
According to state law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Other requirements for registration include the development of a statute defining the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application, and a group may appeal a negative decision to the state-level Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction. The law also stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.”
The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.
A concordat with the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including rights to establish educational and charitable institutions, carry out religious education, and officially recognize Catholic holidays. The commission for implementation of the concordat comprises five members from the government and five from the Holy See. A similar agreement exists with the SOC, but a commission for implementation does not yet exist, due to inaction from the government and also from the SOC.
The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.
The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to be responsible for teaching religious studies in public and private pre-, primary, and secondary schools and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers. These individuals are employees of the schools where they teach, but they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.
The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions. Secondary students who do not wish to attend the religion class have the right to opt out if their school offers a class in ethics as an alternative, which many schools do. Parents of primary school students may request an exemption for their child from religion class attendance.
In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. In Sarajevo and Tuzla Cantons, primary and secondary students may either opt out or take ethics courses in lieu of religious education classes. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. In September the RS Ministry of Education introduced religious education in secondary schools.
A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.
The state constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion. Parliamentary seats and government positions are apportioned among the three constituent major ethnicities – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – according to quotas set by constitutional provisions.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Officials publicly acknowledged the need to the address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house, but they took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups. Individuals who were not members of the three major ethnic/religious groups reported they could not hold any of the proportionally guaranteed government positions, including the presidency. There were reports of the various levels of government making little progress in resolving longstanding issues pertaining to religious freedom and rights.
NGOs, academics, and government agencies reported the continued association of each of the country’s major political parties with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership. The biggest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the biggest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.
NGOs continued to report that government authorities were not enforcing the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. During the year, the Border Police complied with a November 2017 state Constitutional Court ruling that declared their January 2017 regulation prohibiting beards for the police to be unconstitutional and ordering the police to abolish the regulation.
According to IC officials, the Presidency again did not approve an agreement, reached in 2015, between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers as well as to take a one-time trip to Mecca for the Hajj. During the year, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency refused to put this issue on the agenda of the Presidency sessions due to disputes over the proposed text of the agreement.
According to representatives of the Catholic Church, there had been no meeting of the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest. Earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays, remained unimplemented by the government and parliament.
In December SOC officials reported the government had taken no steps to establish a commission to implement the government’s agreement with the SOC.
According to officials of religious groups that are in a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits for new religious properties. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse construction permits for a new Catholic church, despite repeated requests from the local Catholic priest, the Banja Luka Catholic Diocese, and representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which became directly engaged on the issue. In pursuit of a solution, Drvar Catholics, led by their priest, began raising funds to purchase private land to build the church.
In December leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH lamented the lack of any BiH institution responsible for the rights of religious communities. They said this lack hindered efforts on the part of the religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965.
According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provisions of the law regarding the religious education of returnee children remained unimplemented, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government authorities seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a sixth year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.
Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions.
Authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. These members of religious minorities reported discrimination regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They stated that refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Leaders of religious minority communities and NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, reported the continued failure of authorities to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. NGOs reported that representatives of minority communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc were discriminated against particularly when it concerned access to education in their mother tongue and employment in public companies. The community leaders also said local authorities continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to an annual report published by the IRC in May, only 45 percent of perpetrators were identified in these cases. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.
On March 6, the Sarajevo Canton Assembly annulled its 2016 decision to name an elementary school and a street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad after Mustafa Busuladzic, a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. As of the end of the year, the decision remained unimplemented. The school’s website continued to list the school name as Mustafa Busuladzic, and the street was still named after him. During the year, the president of the Jewish Community strongly condemned the continued use of the name.
In April seven individuals were convicted for a 2015 attack on a mosque in Tomislavgrad and sentenced to one and one-half years in prison, but their sentences were suspended pending two years of probation. In 2017, a different defendant in the same case pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a similar one-year suspended prison sentence.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the IRC, which records and tracks cases of intolerance and hatred in an annual report when members of affected religious communities report them, released data it had collected between November 2016 and December 2017. The data showed 11 attacks on religious sites, religious officials, or believers during that period (compared with 12 in the report covering November 2015-October 2016). One attack was against a Catholic site, seven against the IC, and three against the SOC. Of 209 attacks on religious officials and sites since 2010, the IRC reported police had identified perpetrators in 73 of the attacks. As of May 2018, the courts had prosecuted 23 of these cases. The IRC stated that while there were fewer reported attacks, authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes.
In March unknown perpetrators stole items from and desecrated the Catholic Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet in Zenica, causing significant material damage. The local chapter of the IRC condemned the incident, but as of year’s end, no perpetrators had been identified. In June individuals broke into an Orthodox church in the town of Cekrekije in the Visoko Municipality, set fire to sacral items, and stole valuables. Police arrested two suspects and forwarded the case to the Zenica Doboj Prosecutor’s Office for further proceedings. On July 10, three minors verbally accosted a Catholic nun in the central town of Fojnica. Police identified the perpetrators and discussed the incident with their parents. The local mayor condemned the attack.
The Council of Muftis of the IC continued efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease their “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. While the IC reported that 64 para‑jamaats were active in 2016, only 21 were active and operating outside the auspices of the IC in 2018.
On July 18, during a talk show on the Serbian television program Cirilica, also broadcast on Alternative TV in BiH, then RS President and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats Milorad Dodik referred to the adhan (Muslim call to worship) as “howling” that disturbed citizens in Banja Luka and caused property values to depreciate. The statement drew strong condemnation from opposition politicians, the international community, and the IC.
On July 20, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared, almost at the same time, inside the hallways of apartment buildings in Tuzla and Sarajevo, where members of the Jewish community resided. Authorities condemned the incidents. No perpetrators were identified by year’s end.
On December 28, 2017, individuals threw beer bottles at the city mosque in Kiseljak, inflicting light damage to the mosque’s facade. Police identified the perpetrators and forwarded the case to the local prosecutor’s office. No information was available what sanctions, if any, were handed down to the perpetrators.
The IRC continued to sponsor projects aimed at increasing interfaith dialogue involving women and youth. On April 23, in cooperation with the German Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, the IRC organized its fourth “European Workshop on Facing the Past Burdened with Violence,” which also involved participants from other European countries. Within the project, religious leaders visited places of suffering of each ethnic/religious group from past wars. The visits included the testimonies of victims in those places.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2014 census, GOC members constitute 83.4 percent of the population, followed by Muslims at 10.7 percent and members of the Armenian Apostolic Church (AAC) at 2.9 percent. According to the census, Roman Catholics, Yezidis, Greek Orthodox, Jews, growing numbers of “nontraditional” religious groups such as Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and individuals who profess no religious preference constitute the remaining 3 percent of the population.
Ethnicity, religious affiliation, and region of residence are strongly connected. Most ethnic Georgians affiliate with the GOC. A small number of mostly ethnic Russians are members of several Orthodox groups not affiliated with the GOC, including the Molokani, Staroveriy (Old Believers), and Dukhoboriy (Spirit Wrestlers). Ethnic Azerbaijanis are predominantly Shia Muslims and form the majority of the population in the southeastern region of Kvemo-Kartli. Other Muslim groups include ethnic Georgian Muslims in Adjara and Chechen Kists in the northeast, both of which are predominantly Sunni. Ethnic Georgian Sunni Muslims are also present in Samtskhe-Javakheti. Ethnic Armenians belong primarily to the AAC and constitute the majority of the population in Samtskhe-Javakheti.
According to a census reportedly conducted in 2016 by the de facto government of Abkhazia, there are 243,564 residents of Abkhazia. A survey reportedly conducted in 2003 by the de facto government listed 60 percent of respondents as Christian, 16 percent Muslim, 8 percent atheists or nonbelievers, 8 percent followers of the pre-Christian Abkhazian religion, and 1 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, or adherents of other religions. The remaining 7 percent listed no preference.
According to a 2015 census reportedly conducted by the de facto government of South Ossetia, there are 53,000 residents of South Ossetia. Estimates indicate the majority of the population practices Christianity, followed by Islam and the Right Faith, a revival of the pre-Christian ethnic Ossetian religion.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A new constitution went into effect in December and provides for “absolute freedom of religion,” the separation of the GOC and the state, and equality for all regardless of religion. Like the previous constitution, it prohibits persecution based on religion and prohibits compelling anyone to express his or her opinion about religion. It also continues to prohibit public and political associations that create religious animosity. The law provides for freedom of religious belief, denomination, and conscience, including the right to choose and change religious affiliation.
The previous and new constitutions recognize the GOC’s special role in the country’s history, but stipulate the GOC shall be independent from the state and relations between the GOC and the state shall be governed by a constitutional agreement (also called a concordat). The concordat grants rights not given to other religious groups, including legal immunity for the GOC patriarch, exemption of GOC clergy from military service, and a consultative role in government, especially in education. The concordat states some of its provisions require additional legislation before they may be implemented, including the GOC’s consultative role in education.
A religious group may register with the National Agency of the Public Registry (NAPR) as a Legal Entity of Public Law (LEPL) or as a nonprofit organization, both of which offer benefits, including legal recognition when conducting activities, partial tax exemptions, and the right to own property and open bank accounts. Unregistered religious groups may conduct religious activities but do not receive the legal status or benefits conferred on registered groups.
To acquire LEPL status, the law requires religious organizations to register with the government. To register, religious groups must have historic ties to the country and recognition from Council of Europe member states as a religious organization. In addition, an organization registering for LEPL status must submit to the NAPR information regarding its objectives and procedures and a list of its founders and governing body. The civil code defines the activities and rights of denominations registered under LEPL status. Groups registering as nonprofit religious organizations do not have to demonstrate historic ties to the country or recognition by Council of Europe members but must submit to the NAPR similar information on their objectives, governing procedures, and names of founders and members of their governing body.
The tax code does not consider religious activities to be economic activities, and grants registered religious groups partial tax exemptions for donations.
Until a July Constitutional Court ruling, the GOC was exempt from several requirements applicable to other religious groups, including the payment of taxes on the construction, restoration, and maintenance of religious buildings and the payment of taxes on property. Moreover, the Law on State Property states that no religious organization registered as an LEPL, except the GOC, could acquire nonagricultural state property through a direct sale. The law also states a denomination registered as a nonprofit organization could purchase state property and only grants the GOC the right to acquire state-owned agricultural land free of charge.
In July, however, the Constitutional Court declared both tax and property privileges of the GOC unconstitutional in a case brought by NGOs on behalf of nine religious groups. The court’s ruling mandated legislative changes that would either abolish the privileges or grant them to all religious organizations no later than December 31. As of the end of the year, parliament had taken no action to implement legislation on the court’s ruling.
The criminal code prohibits interference with worship services, persecution of a person based on religious faith or belief, and interference with the establishment of a religious organization, although the code provides no definition for “establishment.” Violations are punishable by fines, imprisonment, or both. Violations committed by public officials are considered abuses of power and are punishable by fines or longer terms of imprisonment if committed by force of arms or by insulting the dignity of a victim. In cases of religious persecution, the perpetrator may face imprisonment for up to three years depending on the use or threat of violence, his or her official position, and damages caused. In cases of unlawful interference with the right to perform religious rituals involving the use or threat of violence, offenders may face imprisonment for up to two years; in cases where the offender holds an official position, offenders may face up to five years in prison. Interference with the establishment of a religious organization is punishable by fine, correctional work for up to one year, or imprisonment for up to two years.
By law, the Chief Prosecutor’s Office (CPO) prosecutes human rights violations involving religious intolerance, while the PDO serves as the country’s human rights ombudsman and monitors complaints of restrictions on religious freedom. The PDO’s Tolerance Center coordinates the PDO’s Council of Religions and Ethnic Minorities, carries out educational activities, and monitors and analyzes cases of religious and ethnic discrimination and xenophobia.
SARI distributes government compensation to Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and AAC religious organizations registered as LEPLs for “the material and moral damages inflicted upon them during the Soviet period.” According to SARI, its mandate is to promote and ensure a peaceful coexistence based on principles of equality and tolerance. According to its website, SARI’s stated responsibilities include researching the existing religious situation and reporting to the government, preparing recommendations and draft legal acts for the government, and serving as a consultative body and intermediary for the government in disputes arising between religious associations. SARI also issues recommendations to relevant state institutions on approval of construction of religious buildings, determination of their locations, and transfer of such properties to religious organizations.
Although the law states public schools may not be used for religious indoctrination, proselytizing, or forcible assimilation, the concordat accords the GOC the right to teach religious studies in public educational institutions and authorizes the state to pay for GOC religious schools. As of December, however, the GOC had not taught any religious studies classes in public institutions. The law states students may pursue religious study and practice religious rituals in schools “of their own accord” to receive religious education, but only after school hours. Outside instructors, including clergy of any denomination, may only attend or direct students’ religious education or activities if students invite them to do so; school administration and teachers may not be involved in this process. In practice, however, NGOs and non-GOC organizations report that GOC clergy often visit classes during academic hours, sometimes at the initiative of teachers or school administrators. The law includes no special regulations for private religious schools.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In March the ruling Georgian Dream (GD) party withdrew a draft constitutional amendment that critics said would have allowed the government to interfere in religious affairs based on national security grounds. The Council of Europe’s European Commission for Democracy through Law (known as the Venice Commission), as well as NGOs and local religious organizations, criticized the draft amendment. Parliament revised the language and introduced a new amendment that did not include the provision on national security as a justification for interference in religious affairs. The Venice Commission positively assessed the revised language and parliament passed the new amendment.
In April a member of parliament from the Alliance of Patriots political party introduced a draft of a “blasphemy law” that would criminalize “insults to religious feelings.” Although the draft generated significant discussion about religious sentiment, free speech, and the “defense” of Georgia’s traditions and history, parliament ultimately did not pass the legislation.
The introduction of the draft bill followed an incident in March, when protesters attacked two Rustavi 2 journalists after one “insulted [their] religious feelings” with an on-air joke that involved Jesus Christ. Authorities arrested six individuals on charges of group hooliganism and an investigation of threats against the journalist was ongoing at year’s end.
In April the government fined a condom production company for including on its products a design of medieval Queen Tamar, whom the GOC considers a saint. The judge said the design was “unethical” and charged the firm with an administrative offense under the “Law on Distribution of Advertisement.”
NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to influence the NGO All Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including the appointment of AMAG religious leaders.
The PDO reported it received 19 accounts of violence on the ground of religious intolerance during the year, 14 more than in 2017. The PDO also noted that cases from previous years remained largely unresolved. The 2018 cases all pertained to Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Church members accused the relevant authorities of lacking the will to investigate these cases.
During the year, the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MoIA) investigated 23 cases involving alleged religiously motivated hate crimes. The CPO, however, investigated none of these cases during the year, as compared to seven such cases in 2017. Of the MoIA investigations, one concerned unlawful interference with the activities of a religious association; one, damage or destruction of property; one, damage or destruction of property together with persecution; five, unlawful interference with the performance of a divine service; 14, persecution; and one, abuse of official authority.
The NGO Tolerance and Diversity Institute (TDI) assessed that the MoIA was correctly applying proper articles of the criminal code and the quality of investigations of crimes motivated by religious hatred had improved since 2017. TDI reported, however, that several cases from previous years remained pending.
Authorities registered seven new religious organizations as legal entities during the year: Christian Church Spring of Life, Armenian-language Christian Church of Gospel Faith, Evangelical-Christian Centralized Religion Organization First Nazareth Church, International Orthodox Laz-Khalibian Kharibian Catacomb Church, Salvation Army in Georgia, the Light of the Evangel, and Multinational Church of Marneuli. Authorities suspended the registration of the Georgian Christian-Evangelical Church New Life due to legal issues with its application.
Most prisons reportedly continued to have GOC chapels but no areas for nondenominational worship. According to SARI, Catholic, AAC, Baptist, Muslim, and Jewish groups, services remained available upon request in the military and in prisons.
According to the PDO’s Tolerance Center, non-GOC religious organizations continued to face government resistance when attempting to obtain construction permits for houses of worship, as was the case with the Batumi mosque. The center continued to attribute the resistance to what it termed a general societal bias in favor of the GOC. According to TDI, although the law provides for equal treatment for applicants seeking construction permits, representatives of religious minority groups were often subject to discrimination. TDI previously stated municipalities issued construction permits, although religious minorities often faced obstacles due to the municipalities’ discriminatory approaches. TDI also noted the “problematic role” of SARI in the process, which “without a legitimate purpose and legal basis,” interfered with the authority of local self-governance.
In January the AAC appealed the National Agency of Public Registry’s decision to register as GOC property a church the AAC has claimed ownership of since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As of the end of the year, the appeal remained under review by the courts. The AAC continued to request restitution of five churches in Tbilisi and one in Akhaltsikhe, all of which the GOC also claimed and authorities registered as state property. The AAC reported it operated 57 churches in the country but did not own any of them. The AAC petitioned SARI for ownership and/or right of usage of 20 of the churches in 2015 and for the remaining churches during the year. SARI’s response remained pending at year’s end.
Muslim community members said there was a lack of transparency around government decisions on mosques and their construction. The Muslim community continued to dispute the government’s ownership of mosques in Kvemo Kartli, Adigeni, and Adjara. Muslim leaders and local and central government authorities remained unable to reach a mutually agreeable solution to address overcrowding in the state-owned mosque in Batumi. NGOs and some Muslim community leaders stated the government continued to exert influence over the NGO Administration of Muslims of All Georgia (AMAG), including through the selective transfer of land to AMAG and the appointment of AMAG religious leaders. The potential transfer of land to AMAG rather than local religious organizations continued to be a source of tension, including in Batumi. A number of Sunni Muslim groups also were critical of AMAG for its attempt to represent all Muslim communities in the country within one organization regardless of denomination.
In February Batumi City Court held its first hearing of the New Mosque Construction Fund’s 2017 appeal of Batumi City Hall’s decision in 2017 to deny the permits necessary to build a new mosque on land the fund owned. In April the new mayor of Batumi announced he wanted to negotiate with the fund to find a resolution. The mayor outlined several conditions to allow the construction, including that the fund retract its appeal from the courts and give the land acquired for the mosque to AMAG, which would later apply for the necessary permits. The fund rejected the requests and refused to continue negotiations. Parallel to this, the fund appealed Batumi City Hall’s decision to impose a fine of 3,000 lari ($1,100) for the construction of a temporary wooden structure built on the fund’s land. As of December court hearings had not resumed on either case.
Construction continued on a new mosque promised by SARI and AMAG in the village of Mokhe in Samtskhe-Javakheti. The construction resulted from a 2017 SARI commission recommendation that the government transfer ownership of a building claimed by local Muslims and the GOC to the National Agency for Cultural Heritage Preservation and provide the local Muslims an alternative plot for a new mosque. The disputed historical building has been fenced off and protected as a cultural heritage monument. The PDO stated the SARI commission failed to establish the origin and ownership of the building. In April the Human Rights Education and Monitoring Center (EMC) addressed the UN Human Rights Committee on behalf of the Mokhe Muslims and stated the government’s discriminatory restitution policy towards minority religious groups constituted a violation of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and was emblematic of the government’s more general restitution policy.
The government continued to pay subsidies for the restoration of religious properties it considered national cultural heritage sites, increasing funding compared to the previous year. The National Agency for Cultural Heritage, now housed within the Ministry of Education, Science, Culture, and Sport, allocated 2,483,300 lari ($930,000) during the year for the restoration of religious monuments, including 145,000 lari ($54,300) for design drafts and 2,338,300 lari ($876,000) for rehabilitation, conservation, and infrastructure development.
The EMC appealed to the Supreme Court a Kutaisi Court of Appeals ruling that the MoIA did not discriminate against Muslims by failing to prevent vandalism in 2014 against a planned Muslim boarding school in Kobuleti. The EMC also submitted a case to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on “the prolonged and discriminatory obstruction of boarding schools for Kobuleti Muslim students,” although the Supreme Court must rule on the case before the ECHR can accept it. As of December protests by the Orthodox community had prevented local Muslims from installing sewage infrastructure for the boarding school, which had not yet opened.
TDI continued to report cases of religious discrimination in schools, including incidents involving the promotion of GOC theology in religion courses, GOC prayers conducted in classrooms, and the display of icons and other religious symbols in schools, despite the law’s prohibition of proselytization. The Ministry of Education’s General Inspection Department continued to be responsible for dealing with complaints of inappropriate teacher behavior. According to a TDI report, while the law governing general education provides for religious neutrality and nondiscrimination, religious education in public schools persisted.
The government distributed 25 million lari ($9.36 million) to the GOC in compensation for “material and moral damages” inflicted upon it during the Soviet period. In addition, in accordance with a 2014 parliamentary resolution allowing the government to compensate Islamic, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic religious organizations registered as LEPLs, SARI disbursed compensation funds totaling 4.5 million lari ($1.69 million) to those four religious groups in coordination with the Ministry of Finance. SARI reported compensation remained the same as the previous year and was as follows: 2.75 million lari ($1.03 million) to the Muslim community, represented by the AMAG; 550,000 lari ($206,000) to the RCC; 800,000 lari ($300,000) to the AAC; and 400,000 lari ($150,000) to the Jewish community. In making the disbursements, SARI stated the compensation was of “partial and of symbolic character,” and stated the government continued to take into account levels of damage and “present day negative conditions” of denominations during the selection process. NGOs continued to criticize the exclusion of other religious groups and to question the criteria the government used to select the four denominations for compensation.
In accordance with the government human rights action plan for 2018-2020, SARI trained approximately 1,000 students, journalists, and representatives from religious organizations to raise awareness of human rights, freedom of religion, and other fundamental freedoms.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Abkhazia and South Ossetia remained occupied by Russia and outside the control of the central government. Reliable information from those regions continued to be difficult to obtain. According to the de facto “constitution” adopted in Abkhazia, all persons in the region are equal before the law regardless of religious beliefs and everyone enjoys freedom of religion. Forming associations or parties aimed at sowing religious discord is forbidden.
De facto authorities in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia continued to impose a ban on the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to anecdotal reports, Jehovah’s Witnesses nonetheless did not encounter significant problems when renting space for Kingdom Halls in Abkhazia.
Representatives of the GOC remained unable to conduct services in the Russian-occupied territories, and the Georgian government has said the de facto authorities damaged historical religious buildings in an attempt to erase Georgian cultural heritage.
The de facto authorities in Abkhazia’s Gali District reportedly continued not to permit GOC clergy to travel to Abkhazia to conduct religious services, and ethnic Georgians were unable to attend services in their own language. According to a SARI report, the district’s ethnic Georgian population had to travel to Georgian-controlled territory to celebrate religious holidays.
SARI reported it was unable to monitor houses of worship in South Ossetia, and the status of most properties in the territory was unknown.
According to media and online accounts, some religious figures in Abkhazia continued to support turning the region’s Orthodox churches, which are claimed by the GOC, into an autocephalous Abkhaz Orthodox Church, others wished to subordinate them to the Russian Orthodox Church, while yet others wished to subordinate them to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
A Council of Europe report from November found that, after LGBT individuals, Georgians thought Jehovah’s Witnesses were most likely to face discrimination. The PDO reported that a large number of the alleged hate crimes reported to it over the years were cases of violence or property damage committed against Jehovah’s Witnesses. Despite continued requests from Jehovah’s Witnesses, however, authorities generally classified such cases as cases of violence rather than persecution on religious grounds.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported approximately eight assaults during the year, down from 10 in 2017. The attacks targeted 12 individuals, and all included physical assaults, verbal insults, and property damage, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. In one case in May, unidentified attackers shot at a Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Hall in Gori, damaging the front door, and spray-painted “Believe in our God” (in Georgian) on the outer wall. As of December the MoIA was investigating the incident. The investigation into repeated vandalism of the Vazisubani Kingdom Hall in Tbilisi in previous years was also ongoing.
In January the Tbilisi City Court found one person guilty in criminal proceedings in connection with the 2016 attack on two female Jehovah’s Witnesses who were sharing Bible verses in Alexandre’s Garden in Tbilisi. The Tbilisi Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and, as of December, the trial was pending before the Supreme Court.
Representatives of minority religious groups continued to report what they termed a widespread societal belief that minority religious groups posed a threat to the GOC and to the country’s cultural values. In November the Council of Europe released the results of a study it commissioned, reporting 36 percent of Georgians believed diversity adversely affected the country and was detrimental to Georgian culture and local traditions. Minority religious communities, including Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, and Protestants, continued to report resistance to their establishing places of worship and religious schools. In October, for example, the Batumi City Court ruled authorities in the village of Kobuleti must provide sewage and water connections to a Muslim boarding school. The mayor’s office had previously refused, stating it could not connect the school because of objections from neighbors that led to it remaining closed. As of December the school remained closed and disconnected. Representatives from the AAC in Batumi mentioned repeated instances of graffiti on their properties.
As of September MDF documented at least 140 instances of religiously intolerant statements on television, online, and in printed media by media representatives, political parties, clergy, public organizations, and others, compared to 92 such incidents from January to October 2017. The instances included 90 statements which were termed Islamophobic, 35 of which were directed against Muslim migrants. MDF listed 29 statements against Jehovah’s Witnesses; two each against the AAC, Baptists, and Protestants; one anti-Semitic statement; one against the GOC; and eight against other religious groups.