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.

China (Includes Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Macau)

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTION: CHINA (BELOW) | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU


Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet are appended at the end of this report.  Given the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to Xinjiang this year, a separate section on the region is also included in this report.

The constitution states citizens have freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” and does not define “normal.”  The government continued to exercise control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when the government perceived these as threatening state or Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, according to nongovernmental organization (NGO) and international media reports.  Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” (Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant) are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services.  There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.

Multiple media and NGOs estimated that since April 2017, the government detained at least 800,000 and up to possibly more than 2 million Uighurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other Muslim groups, mostly Chinese citizens, in specially built or converted detention facilities in Xinjiang and subjected them to forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity.  There were reports of deaths among detainees.  Authorities maintained extensive and invasive security and surveillance, particularly in Xinjiang, in part to gain information regarding individuals’ religious adherence and practices.  The government continued to cite concerns over the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism” as grounds to enact and enforce restrictions on religious practices of Muslims in Xinjiang.  Authorities in Xinjiang punished schoolchildren, university students, and their family members for praying.  They barred youths from participating in religious activities, including fasting during Ramadan.  The government sought the forcible repatriation of Uighur Muslims from foreign countries and detained some of those who returned.

Religious groups reported deaths in or shortly after detentions, disappearances, and arrests and stated authorities tortured Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and members of Falun Gong.  The Church of Almighty God reported authorities subjected hundreds of their members to “torture or forced indoctrination.”  Although authorities continued to block information about the number of self-immolations of Tibetan Buddhists, including Buddhist monks, there were reportedly four self-immolations during the year.  The government began enforcing revised regulations in February that govern the activities of religious groups and their members.  Religious leaders and groups stated these regulations increased restrictions on their ability to practice their religions, including a new requirement for religious group members to seek approval to travel abroad and a prohibition on “accepting domination by external forces.”  Christian church leaders stated the government increased monitoring even before the new regulations came into effect, causing many churches to cease their normal activities.  Authorities continued to arrest Christians and enforce more limitations on their activities, including requiring Christian churches to install surveillance cameras to enable daily police monitoring, and compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership.  An ongoing campaign of church closings continued during the year, and authorities removed crosses and other Christian symbols from churches, with Henan Province a particular focus area of such activity.  In September the Holy See reached a provisional agreement with the government that reportedly would resolve a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops.

Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities.  In Xinjiang, tension between Uighur Muslims and Han Chinese continued.

The Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom.  On July 26, the Vice President said, “Religious persecution is growing in both scope and scale in the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China…Together with other religious minorities, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians are often under attack.”  On September 21, the Secretary said, “Hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called re-education camps, where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses.  Their religious beliefs are decimated.  And we’re concerned too about the intense new government crackdown on Christians in China, which includes heinous actions like closing churches, burning Bibles, and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.”  A statement from the July 24-26 U.S. Government-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom said, “Many members of religious minority groups in China – including Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakh Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; Catholics; Protestants; and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their beliefs.  These communities consistently report incidents, in which the authorities allegedly torture, physically abuse, arbitrarily arrest, detain, sentence to prison, or harass adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and peaceful practices.  Authorities also restrict travel and interfere with the selection, education, and veneration of religious leaders for many religious groups….”  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with Chinese officials, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom.

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (July 2018 estimate).  According to the State Council Information Office’s (SCIO) report on religious policies and practices, published in April, there are more than 200 million religious believers in the country.  Many experts, however, believe official estimates understate the total number of religious adherents.  The U.S. government estimated in 2010 that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, and followers of folk religion 21.9 percent.  According to a February 2017 estimate by the international NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious believers in the country, including 185-250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60-80 million Protestants, 21-23 million Muslims, 7-20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, 6-8 million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions.  According to 2017 data from the Jewish Virtual Library, the country’s Jewish population is 2,700.

SCIO’s report found the number of Protestants to be 38 million.  Among these, there are 20 million Protestant Christians affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017.  According to a 2014 State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) statistic, more than 5.7 million Catholics worship in sites registered by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), the state-sanctioned organization for all officially recognized Catholic churches.  The SCIO’s report states there are six million Catholics, although nongovernment estimates suggest there are 10-12 million Catholics, approximately half of whom practice in non-CCPA affiliated churches.  Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to SCIO’s report, there are 10 ethnic minorities in which the majority practices Islam, and these 10 groups total more than 20 million persons.  Other sources indicate almost all of the Muslims are Sunni.  The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uighur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces.  SARA estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by branch, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.

Prior to the government’s 1999 ban on Falun Gong, the government estimated there were 70 million adherents.  Falun Gong sources estimate that tens of millions continue to practice privately, and Freedom House estimates 7-20 million practitioners.

Some ethnic minorities retain traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region.  Media sources report Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, is growing in popularity among the Han Chinese population.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, even state-sanctioned legal religions, are unclear and purposely kept opaque by authorities.  Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers.  The Pew Research Center and other observers say many religious groups often are underreported.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states citizens have “freedom of religious belief,” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities.”  The constitution does not define “normal.”  It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system.  The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief.  State organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion.”  The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution.  Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practice.  Members found to belong to religious organizations are subject to expulsion, although these rules are not universally enforced.  The vast majority of public office holders are CCP members, and membership is widely considered a prerequisite for success in a government career.  These restrictions on religious belief and practice also apply to retired CCP cadres and party members.

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups.  The criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison.  There are no published criteria for determining, or procedures for challenging, such a designation.  A national security law explicitly bans “cult organizations.”  The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other such organizations.  The government continues to ban Falun Gong, the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy), and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline).  The government also considers several Christian groups to be “evil cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of Almighty God (also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Lord God religious group, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

The Counterterrorism Law describes “religious extremism” as the ideological basis of terrorism that uses “distorted religious teachings or other means to incite hatred, or discrimination, or advocate violence.”

Regulations require religious groups to register with the government.  Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” are permitted to register with the government and legally hold worship services.  These five associations operate under the direction of the CCP United Front Work Department (UFWD).  Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official “patriotic religious association” or Catholics professing loyalty to the Vatican, are not permitted to register as legal entities.  The government does not have a state-sanctioned “patriotic religious association” for Judaism.  The country’s laws and policies do not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official “patriotic religious associations” to obtain legal status.

In March as part of a restructuring of the central government, the Central Committee of the CCP announced the merger of SARA, which was previously under the purview of the State Council, into the CCP’s UFWD, placing responsibility for religious regulations directly under the party.  SARA, while subsumed into the UFWD, continued to conduct work under the same name.  This administrative change at the national level was followed in the spring and autumn with parallel changes at the provincial and local levels.

All religious organizations are required to register with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations, all of which SARA oversees through its provincial and local offices.  The revised Regulations on Religious Affairs announced in 2017 and implemented on February 1, 2018, state that registered religious organizations are allowed to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations.  According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five “patriotic religious associations.”  According to SARA, as of April 2016, there are more than 360,000 clergy, 140,000 places of worship, and 5,500 registered religious groups in the country.

The State Council’s revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs strengthen already existing requirements for unregistered religious groups and require unregistered groups be affiliated with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations to legally conduct religious activities.  Individuals who participate in unsanctioned religious activities are subject to criminal and administrative penalties.  The regulations stipulate any form of illegal activities or illegal properties should be confiscated and a fine between one to three times the value of the illegal incomes/properties should be imposed.  The revised regulation adds that, if the illegal incomes/properties cannot be identified, a fine below 50,000 renminbi (RMB) ($7,300) should be imposed.  The regulations provide grounds for authorities to penalize property owners renting space to unregistered religious groups by confiscating illegal incomes and properties and levying fines between 20,000-200,000 RMB ($2,900-$29,100).  The revisions instate new requirements for members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad and prohibit “accepting domination by external forces.”

The revised Regulations on Religious Affairs include new registration requirements for religious schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their lower-level affiliates to form religious schools.  The regulations specify all religious structures, including clergy housing, may not be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments.  The revisions place new restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues may not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning and using the venues.  The revisions also impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating that any such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site.  The regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions and state any donations exceeding 100,000 RMB ($14,500) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval.  Religious groups, religious schools, and religious activity sites must not accept donations from foreign sources with conditions attached.  If authorities find a group has illegally accepted a donation, the regulations grant authorities the ability to confiscate the donation and fine the recipient group between one to three times the value of the unlawful donations or, if the amount cannot be determined, a fine of 50,000 RMB ($7,300).

Additionally, the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs require that religious activity “must not harm national security.”  The revisions expand the prescribed steps to address support for “religious extremism,” leaving “extremism” undefined.  These steps include recommending penalties such as suspending groups and canceling clergy credentials.  The revised regulations include a new article placing limits on the online activities of religious groups for the first time, requiring activities be approved by the provincial religious affairs bureau.  The revisions also restrict the publication of religious material to guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration.

Regulations concerning religion also vary by province; many provinces updated their regulations during the year following the enforcement of the revised regulations in February.  In addition to the five nationally recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, permit certain unregistered religious communities to carry out religious practices.  Examples include local governments in Xinjiang and in and Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces that allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.  The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

SARA states through a policy posted on its website that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government.

According to the law, inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious beliefs while in custody.  According to the new regulations implemented February 1, proselytizing in public or holding religious activities in unregistered places of worship is not permitted.  In practice, offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

Religious and social regulations permit official “patriotic religious associations” to engage in activities, such as building places of worship, training religious leaders, publishing literature, and providing social services to local communities.  The CCP’s UFWD, SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalizes the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments.  Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

National printing regulations restrict the publication and distribution of literature with religious content.  Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles and Qurans, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

The government offers some subsidies for the construction of state-sanctioned places of worship and religious schools.

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must receive approval from the religious affairs department of the relevant local government both when the facility is proposed and again before any services are held at that location.  Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members.  Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space.  Therefore, every time they want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for each service.  Worshipping in a space without pre-approval, either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity, which may be criminally or administratively punished.  By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or construction of key projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local Bureau of Religious Affairs (administered by SARA) and the religious group using the structure.  If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The revised religious regulations implemented in February and policies enacted by the state-sanctioned religious associations inhibit children under the age of 18 from participating in religious activities and religious education.  For example, one provision states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools other than religious schools.  At the county level, religious affairs bureaus in localities including Henan, Shandong, Anhui, and Xinjiang have released letters telling parents not to take their children under 18 to religious activities or education.

The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students.

The law states job applicants shall not face discrimination in hiring based on factors including religious belief.

Birth limitation policies remain in force, stating all married couples may have no more than two children, with no exceptions for ethnic or religious minorities.  Women choosing to have more than two children are subject to fines ranging from one to ten times the local per capita income.

The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  With respect to Macau, the central government notified the UN secretary general, in part, that residents of Macau shall not be restricted in the rights and freedoms they are entitled to, unless otherwise provided for by law, and in case of restrictions, the restrictions shall not contravene the ICCPR.  With respect to Hong Kong, the central government notified the secretary general, in part, that the ICCPR would also apply to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Government Practices

There were reports that authorities subjected individuals to death, forced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison because of their religious beliefs or affiliation.

According to the Church of Almighty God website, kingdomsalvation.org, a member of the Church died while in custody shortly after Guizhou authorities arrested her on an unspecified charge in March.  Authorities said the unnamed person committed suicide by hanging herself, but did not allow her family to view her body.  Officials reportedly told her family the government did not approve of her Christian beliefs.  When her relatives questioned the government’s determination of her death as suicide, authorities threatened them with potential loss of employment and university access for their children.

According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, on January 16 police took into custody and interrogated Ye Guohua and five other Falun Gong practitioners who were doing Falun Gong exercises.  Police released the five practitioners the next morning and took Ye to the Jianye Detention Center where his family believes he was brutally tortured for his Falun Gong practice.  On September 8, Ye suffered what authorities said was a sudden acute illness and was sent to the hospital.  Authorities allowed his family to see him briefly, and family members reported Ye was in a coma and his body was swollen.  He died three days later.  A local Falun Gong practitioner called the detention center to inquire about what happened to Ye and the person who answered the phone said, “He’s dead, so there’s nothing that can be done.  Asking about this is just asking for trouble.”

The Church of Almighty God reported that in April CCP police secretly arrested and tortured one of its members for 25 days.  The individual was sent to the hospital with severe injuries to the skull and she died several months later.  The Church of Almighty God also reported that on June 27, two church members were arrested, and on July 2, one of them was “persecuted to death” in Chaoyang Municipal Detention Center.

Minghui reported that on July 4, authorities arrested and detained Ma Guilan from Hebei Province for talking to people about Falun Gong.  On September 17, authorities said Ma suddenly fell ill and they took her to the hospital where she died hours later.  According to the report, several officials came to the hospital and removed Ma’s organs for examination, although it was unclear what happened to those organs.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese authorities have subjected prisoners of conscience including Falun Gong, Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and “underground” Christians to forcible organ extraction.  Former prisoners stated that while in detention, authorities subjected them to blood tests and unusual medical examinations that were then added to a database, enabling on-demand organ transplants.  On December 10, an independent tribunal established by the international NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China issued an interim judgement that the panel was “certain – unanimously, and sure beyond reasonable doubt – that in China, forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience has been practiced for a substantial period of time, involving a very substantial number of victims.”

In August the Association for the Defense of Human Rights and Religious Freedom (ADHRRF), an international NGO providing regular reports on the situation of the Church of Almighty God, reported that between April and August, authorities in Chongqing, Sichuan Province, detained 109 church members.  Of those, 40 remained missing at year’s end.

The whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police.  Police detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups, in September 2017.

There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep.

The Church of Almighty God reported authorities subjected 525 of its members to “torture or forced indoctrination” during the year.  The Church also reported members suffered miscarriages after police subjected them to “torture and abuse” in detention facilities.

The Globe and Mail reported in September that authorities tortured a Canadian citizen who is a Falun Gong practitioner during her 18-month pretrial detention in Beijing.  While detained, authorities reportedly initially deprived the individual of food and water, and later pushed her to the ground and pepper sprayed her.  Officials arrested her in February 2017 on charges of “organizing or using a cult to undermine implementation of the law.”  After the arrest, her husband, whom she stated she believed turned her in to authorities, reportedly transferred all of her property and company shares to his name.

According to The Epoch Times, in September a court sentenced Chen Huixia, a Falun Gong practitioner in Hebei Province, to 3.5 years in prison for “using an evil cult to undermine law enforcement,” according to Chen’s daughter.  Amnesty International said detention center officials tortured Chen and strapped her to an iron chair so that she was immobile.  Chen had been held with limited access to family and lawyers since 2016.

According to Minghui, detained Falun Gong practitioners to various methods of physical and psychological coercion, such as sleep deprivation, in attempts to force them to renounce their beliefs.

In June Pastor Yang Hua (also known as Li Guozhi) of the Livingstone Church – the largest unregistered church in Guizhou Province before the government shut it down in 2015 – completed his 2.5-year prison sentence for “divulging state secrets.”  According to Yang Hua, prison officials tortured him before and after his sentence to extract a confession to the alleged crime.  As a result of this as well as inadequate medical care in prison, Yang Hua developed vasculitis, leading to near paralysis of his legs, and became ill with diabetes.  His lawyers stated that authorities continued to surveil Yang Hua following his release from prison.

Police arrested and otherwise detained leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered, as part of the state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations.”  There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention.  Reportedly, authorities used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.  Some previously detained persons were released.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation contained the following number of imprisoned religious practitioners at year’s end:  310 Protestants, 205 Church of Almighty God members, 136 Muslims, 22 Buddhists, and nine Catholics, compared with 308 Protestants, 277 Church of Almighty God members, 107 Muslims, 30 Buddhists, and nine Catholics at the end of 2017.  According to Dui Hua, these numbers are based on Dui Hua’s classification system for inclusion in the PPDB and are not the total number of religious prisoners.  The number of Muslim prisoners did not include 505 Uighur and 234 Kazakh prisoners, which Dui Hua classified as “ethnic prisoners.”  According to Dui Hua, these figures did not account for Muslims in “vocational skill education training centers.”  The PPDB listed 3,486 Falun Gong practitioners imprisoned at year’s end, compared with 3,516 at the end of 2017.  Dui Hua defined imprisoned religious practitioners as “people persecuted for holding religious beliefs that are not officially sanctioned.”

Falun Gong reported that during the year authorities arrested or harassed approximately 9,000 citizens for refusing to renounce Falun Gong.  According to Minghui, authorities arrested 4,848 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed an additional 4,127.  Of those arrested, 2,414 remained in detention at year’s end.

According to the Epoch Times, Sichuan Province security officials detained 78 Falun Gong practitioners in the province during the first six months of the year.

International Falun Gong-affiliated NGOs and international media reported detentions of Falun Gong practitioners continued to increase around “sensitive” dates.  Authorities instructed neighborhood communities to report Falun Gong members to officials.

The Church of Almighty God reported authorities arrested 11,111 of its members during the year, of which 2,392 remained in custody.

On December 31, Radio Free Asia reported more than 100 riot police and People’s Armed Police in Yunnan’s Weishan County raided three mosques and forcibly evicted Hui Muslims for engaging in what they said were “illegal religious activities.”  Authorities injured several individuals who resisted the eviction.  Video footage showed police charging into a crowd of unarmed civilians and shoving, dragging, and beating them.

On December 24, two police officers beat and kicked a Christian woman who was protesting the demolition of the TSPM church in Luyi County, Zhoukou City, Henan Province.

Radio Free Asia reported that on September 5, uniformed officers in Nanyang, Henan Province, conducted raids on at least four Protestant churches, physically subduing passersby who asked about the raid.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern, on November 21, more than 100 uniformed government officers raided the Beimen Catholic Church in the city of Ji’an in Jiangxi Province and injured four elderly Catholics who were defending the church.

The New York Times reported on December 9, authorities in Sichuan Province raided the Early Rain Covenant Church – Chengdu’s highest-membership unregistered church – and detained more than 100 leaders, seminary students, and congregants.  This was the third time since May that officials raided the church for lacking proper registration.  ChinaAid reported authorities arrested 200 church members in May and another 17 in June.  One detainee publicly said officials struck him approximately 30 times as they interrogated him.  According to church members, police struck another individual in the face even though he had not resisted arrest.  In May authorities arrested lead Pastor Wang Yi, an outspoken critic of the government’s controls on religion, on allegations of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”  In December Wang and his wife Jiang Rong were both charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” which carries a potential sentence of life imprisonment.  As of year’s end, the whereabouts and conditions of many detainees remained unknown, including Wang and his wife, who were being held in unspecified locations.

In anticipation of his arrest, Pastor Wang Yi wrote a letter titled “My Declaration of Faithful Disobedience,” which the Early Rain Church published following his detention on December 9.  He wrote, “I am filled with anger and disgust at the persecution of the church by this Communist regime, at the wickedness of their depriving people of the freedoms of religion and of conscience…I am not interested in changing any political or legal institutions in China … I’m not even interested in the question of when the Communist regime’s policies persecuting the church will change.  Regardless of which regime I live under now or in the future, as long as the secular government continues to persecute the church, violating human consciences that belong to God alone, I will continue my faithful disobedience.”

Bitter Winter, an online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China, reported that pastors across the country released a joint declaration in August supporting religious liberty and condemning the CCP’s revised Regulations on Religious Affairs.  At year’s end, more than 600 pastors, ministers, and church elders had signed the statement.  According to the report, the Bureau of Religious Affairs in every region was strictly monitoring all individuals who signed the letter and prohibiting them from traveling to Chengdu to support the Early Rain Church.  A statement released by the Early Rain Church said authorities had questioned and pressured more than half of the signatories.  Reportedly, authorities also raided and shut down churches because their pastors had signed the joint declaration.

In March authorities in Yunnan Province convicted and sentenced Protestant pastor Cao “John” Sanqiang, a U.S. lawful permanent resident and Christian leader, to seven years in prison for “organizing others to illegally cross the border.”

In January Radio Free Asia reported defense attorney Xiao Yunyang said the Yun County People’s Court in Yunnan Province sentenced six Christians to up to 13 years in prison for involvement in the Three Grades of Servants, which the government had designated a “cult.”  Authorities in Yunnan reportedly told lawyers defending the accused their licenses to practice would be reviewed.  Attorney Li Guisheng said the court revoked the status of lawyers defending Christians in a similar case in Fengqing County, Yunnan Province.  In April a court in Dali, Yunnan Province, sentenced Tu Yan to two years of imprisonment for participating in Three Grades of Servants activities.  As part of a case that involved more than 100 Christians in Yunnan Province, authorities arrested Tu in 2016, and held her in a detention center for more than 20 months before sentencing her.  Authorities originally charged Tu with “organizing and using a cult organization to undermine law enforcement.”

In April the government sentenced Su Tianfu, Copastor with Yang Hua of the Livingstone Church, to a yearlong suspended sentence and a further six months of residential surveillance for “illegally possessing state secrets.”  Authorities also fined Su and Yang 7,053,710.68 RMB ($1.03 million) for collecting “illegal” donations from congregation members.  The government rejected Su’s appeal in which he said church members voluntarily donated the money to fund church activities.

On November 16, Crux reported that Catholic bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Wenzhou, recognized by the Vatican but not government authorities, had again been taken into custody.  The article stated Shao had been “subjected to several days of interrogation as in the Cultural Revolution” but gave no further details.  Authorities denied knowledge of his whereabouts.  According to the news agency Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, authorities released Shao on November 23 after detaining him for 14 days.  News sources said security officials detained Shao before Holy Week (April 9-15) 2017 and held him five days.  Authorities again subsequently detained Shao in May 2017 and released him on January 3, 2018.  Authorities have detained Shao several times since September 2016, reportedly to prevent him from assuming control of Wenzhou Diocese following the death of Bishop Vincent Zhu Weifan.

UCA News also reported that Catholic priest Lu Danhua, who was taken into custody by officials of the Qingtian Religious Affairs Bureau in Wenzhou, Zhejiang in December 2017, was released November 22.  According to the report, a source said authorities detained Lu because they wanted to replace him at the Qingtian church with a priest from the CCPA.

Media reported police detained Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the Vatican-appointed bishop of the Mindong area of Fujian Province, on March 26 after he reportedly declined to jointly lead an Easter ceremony with government-approved Bishop Vincenzo Zhan Silu, who was not recognized by the Holy See.  Police released him the next day.  In a compromise, authorities allowed Guo to lead the ceremony, provided he kept it “low key” and agreed not to wear his bishop’s insignia.

On June 3, police arrested a Baptist preacher Liang Ziliang and his wife, Li Yinxiu, in Heshan, Guangdong Province, for distributing brochures about Christianity and carrying banners protesting abortion in a local park, according to ChinaAid.  Authorities held the couple at a detention center for several days.

In June Xuanwu District Court, Nanjing City, Jiangsu Province, sentenced Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zehnyu to three years and fined him 30,000 RMB ($4,400) for mailing letters in defense of Falun Gong to some of China’s top leaders.  The Nanjing Intermediate People’s Court upheld his conviction in August.  Ma’s lawyers requested to meet with him in November, but authorities denied the request.  As of year’s end, Ma was serving his sentence in Suzhou Prison, Jiangsu Province.  Ma, who had been imprisoned previously, was arrested in September 2017 and authorities reportedly told him, “This time, we will let you die in jail.”

On March 15, police arrested a Liaoning Province woman, Zhou Jinxia, after she traveled from Dalian to Beijing to attempt to share her Christian faith with President Xi Jinping, reported the Gospel Herald.  Zhou held up a sign in front of Zhongnanhai, the former imperial garden, which said, “God loves the people of the world and is calling out to Xi Jinping.”  Authorities immediately transported her back to Dalian where authorities criminally charged her.

Radio Free Asia reported in July that authorities in Sichuan Province detained two Tibetan businessmen after they found the men in possession of photographs of the Dalai Lama.

The government did not recognize religious groups not affiliated with the “patriotic religious associations” including unregistered Protestant (also known as “house” churches), Catholic, Muslim, and other groups, and continued to close down or hinder their activities.  At times, the closures reportedly were because the group or its activities were unregistered and other times because the place of worship reportedly lacked necessary permits.

Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations.  Some officials reportedly still denied the existence of unregistered churches.  Although SARA said family and friends had the right to worship together at home – including prayer and Bible study – without registering with the government, authorities still regularly harassed and detained small groups that did so.

In implementing the new regulations on religious affairs, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving their congregations with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader, rather than allow it to alter its legal status as an intact religious community.

ChinaAid reported that after the religious affairs regulations went into effect on February 1, officials in 19 towns in Henan Province went door-to-door, urging Christians to attend the government-sponsored TSPM-affiliated Church instead of unregistered churches.  Reportedly, many Christians subsequently met secretly in their homes, afraid of public security agents.

Sources said that local Public Security Bureaus in Liaoning Province began intensifying efforts to force the closure of dozens of unregistered “underground” churches and detained their pastors even before the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs went into effect February 1.  According to Bitter Winter, since March, authorities shut down at least 40 unregistered churches across Liaoning Province in cities such as Donggang, Anshan, Dandong, and Shenyang.

According to a September Voice of America report, there were widespread reports indicating the government of Henan was waging a campaign against the province’s Christians by taking down crosses, demolishing churches, and erasing Christian slogans from church buildings.  According to Bitter Winter, in the past years there was the most severe “persecution against Christianity” in Henan Province.

In late July religious affairs officials raided Chongqing Aiyan House Church and issued an order for the church to end all “illegal” religious activities.  Citing the new regulations, the officials told congregants they were conducting religious activities at an unregistered location and ordered them to attend religious services at a TSPM church instead.  Authorities warned congregants authorities would arrest them if they did not comply.

On February 4, police shut down another house church in Qingxi Town, Dongguan, Guangdong Province, and dismissed more than 80 congregation members, warning them against future assembly.

ChinaAid reported authorities in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, raided Dao’en Church on September 7, saying the Church had not registered with the government.  Authorities closed three of the Church’s five branches and pressured landlords to not renew leases for the Church, according to the report.  ChinaAid earlier reported authorities had fined the pastor and another minister of Dao’en Church 10,000 RMB ($1,500) and threatened to confiscate the Church’s offerings.

Radio Free Asia reported that on September 9, authorities in Beijing shut down Zion Church, a large unregistered Protestant church led by Pastor Jin “Ezra” Mingzhi, saying it had broken rules by organizing mass gatherings without registering with authorities.  A church elder surnamed Yi said more than 100 police officers entered the church and detained some church members who tried to stop them shutting it down.  The church’s landlord canceled the contract even though the terms of the contract had not yet expired.

Radio Free Asia reported in February that authorities in Shenzhen ordered a 3,000-member Protestant church, the Shekou One Country International Church, to close after a fire and safety inspection.  Also in February, authorities in Henan Province fined a Protestant house church in Yuzhou, citing violations of building and safety regulations, and stating the building was an illegal structure because the church failed to obtain required permissions when it was built.

According to a source, local authorities in Liaoning Province charged underground church leaders with taking members’ money under false pretenses.  ChinaAid reported that on August 20, authorities visited a church in Shenyang they said was an “unapproved venue.”  Officials deemed church offerings illegal and forced the church to close by August 23.  On December 31, Radio Free Asia reported authorities sealed three mosques in Yunnan’s Weishan County after a protest, to prevent further use as they were pending demolition at year’s end.  A local source reportedly said local Muslims had submitted the right paperwork to register the mosques but were unsuccessful, and that the local state-sanctioned Islamic Association of China (IAC) approved of the closures.

The South China Morning Post reported in August hundreds of Hui Muslims gathered outside the Weizhou Grand Mosque in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region to protest its demolition.  The mosque had been recently rebuilt, the second to replace Weizhou’s 600-year-old mosque that was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  The article said although the government seemed to support the mosque’s construction in 2015, government officials said the mosque had not been granted the necessary planning and construction permits.  After days of negotiation, authorities and religious leaders agreed on an alternative plan:  instead of demolishing the mosque, the government would revamp the mosque and construction would only take place once everyone was happy with the renovation plan.  The government initially proposed removing eight of the mosque’s nine domes, but the local community opposed the idea.

According to a Radio Free Asia report, local believers in Henan said authorities demolished or shut down over 100 churches and crosses in August.

According to the Association for the Defense of Human and Religious Rights, on September 16, authorities in Zhengzhou, Henan Province demolished Yangzhai Zhen Jesus Church after forcing members to agree to the demolition by threatening their families’ livelihood.

ChinaAid reported that on September 9, approximately 100 officials from the religious affairs and public security bureaus attempted to break into Dali Christian Church, in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, but more than 400 church members stopped them.  The officials left after handing the church a document that said the building was not a legal religious activities site and the religious department had not approved the day’s speaker, both violations of the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs.  Church members therefore immediately had to cease holding “illegal” religious events.

Bitter Winter reported that from October 28 to November 1, authorities shut down or sealed off 35 Buddhist temples and memorial temples in the city of Xinmi, Henan Province.

ChinaAid reported that on Sunday, January 14, more than 20 government agents closed an unregistered church in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, interrupting a service led by Lou Siping.  They informed the Christians gathered there that the building had not been registered and took 30 church members to the police station for questioning.  Authorities later demanded the church’s landlord cancel the church lease.

In January police and local officials dynamited the 50,000-member Golden Lampstand (Jindengtai) Church in Linfen, Shanxi Province, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide.  The state-run Global Times reported the destruction was part of a campaign against “illegal buildings.”  This church did not register with TSPM and reportedly had been involved in a dispute with local officials, who refused to grant the building permits when it was originally constructed.

Bitter Winter reported the United Front Work Department of Shaanxi Province issued a document outlining a campaign against Buddhist and Daoist religious sites in the Qinling Mountains that the department said violated construction or processing regulations.  In July authorities destroyed Longhua Temple of Taiyi Town, Chang’an District, Xi’an City, saying it did not have a permit.  At the end of August authorities sent 100 armed police officers and two excavators to destroy the Jade Buddha Temple in Huyi District of Xi’an City, Shaanxi Province.  Several monks who lived at the temple were left homeless and, according to Bitter Winter sources, local villagers were not allowed to admit monks into their homes.

ChinaAid reported government officials in Qiqihar, Heilongjiang Province, destroyed the St. Theresa Convent on December 18-19.  Nuns living at the convent received an eviction notice on the morning of December 18, and by 11:00 p.m., authorities began demolishing the site.  According to the report, church members said they believed authorities destroyed the convent to put pressure on congregations not registered with the government.  Following the convent’s demolition, the nuns were left temporarily homeless.

A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the pope remained unable to register with the CCPA.  The government and the Holy See still did not have diplomatic relations, and the Vatican had no representative in the country.  In September the Holy See and the China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs both announced that the two sides had reached a provisional agreement that would resolve a decades-long dispute concerning the authority to appoint bishops.  Neither provided details of the provisional agreement.  When speaking to media in late September, Pope Francis said there would be a “dialogue” on bishops who would be named by the pope.  At year’s end, there was no official explanation on what the mechanism would be for the Vatican and the government to make decisions regarding appointment of bishops.  The existing government regulation on the Election and Consecration of Bishops requires candidate bishops to publicly pledge to support the CCP.  Also in September the Vatican said the pope would be lifting the excommunication of seven bishops who had been ordained without the pope’s authority.  The Vatican subsequently appointed two of these men to lead dioceses and appointed the bishops it had formerly appointed in those dioceses (including Bishop Gua of Mingdon) as auxiliary bishops.

In an interview in February, retired Archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun condemned talks between the Holy See and the Chinese government.  Zen expressed concerns that a deal between the Holy See and the government would give too much power to authorities and would place the country’s Catholics in a “birdcage.”

Unofficially, authorities tolerated members of foreigner groups meeting for private religious celebrations.  International churches received heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese nationals from attending “foreigner” services.

In May SARA released draft Measures on the Administration of Foreigners’ Group Religious Activities in the Mainland Territory of the People’s Republic of China.  These regulations, which would apply to religious activities of groups containing 50 or more foreigners, would update regulations last issued in 1991.  The draft amendments stipulate where groups may hold religious activities, who can preside over and attend these activities, and who would be responsible for reporting activities to authorities and what kind of information about the participants they would be required to provide.  To obtain approval for their activities, groups would need to name three representatives who do not possess diplomatic immunity.  Foreign groups would need to allow the corresponding state-sanctioned religious association to assign a Chinese religious professional to preside over the function.  All other Chinese citizens would be barred from attending the activities of these foreign groups.  As of the end of the year, SARA had not announced the implementation of these regulations.

The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the “patriotic religious associations” or otherwise.  Government-accredited religious personnel had to conduct such activities and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups.  According to the SCIO’s report on religious policies and practice released in September 2017, there were 21 officially recognized Protestant seminaries, 57,000 clerical personnel, and 60,000 churches and other meeting places.  This report stated there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA, including nine Catholic schools.  This report also stated there were six national level religious colleges.  Civil society groups reported the government closed CCPA-affiliated seminaries in Shanghai and Chengdu, Sichuan Province.  Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society regarded one of them to be primarily used as the CCPA’s propaganda for international visitors.

The state-run Global Times quoted Bishop Guo Jincai, Secretary General of the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church in China, as stating there were 61 (CCPA-affiliated) Catholic bishops, 12 of them over the age of 80.  The Vatican did not previously recognize eight of these bishops, and had excommunicated three of them.  Crux, an online newspaper reporting on the Catholic Church, reported in September more than 37 Catholic bishops remained independent of the CCPA.  In some locations, local authorities reportedly pressured unregistered Catholic priests and believers to renounce all ordinations approved by the Holy See.

The SCIO report also estimated there were 35,000 mosques, 57,000 imams, and 10 Quran institutes (religious seminaries under the auspices of IAC) in the country.

Religious groups reported “patriotic religious associations” continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice.  Official “patriotic religious associations” regularly reviewed sermons and sometimes required church leaders to attend education sessions with religious bureau officials.  They also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

As part of its efforts to implement the central government’s policy of Sinicization of religions, at a forum in Guizhou in September, TSPM leaders highlighted what they said was TSPM’s important role in helping China’s Christianity get rid of foreign influence during the last 68 years and helping Christian churches to truly gain sovereignty while strengthening Christians’ patriotism.  Religious scholars said they interpreted this statement as informal guidance for Christians to curtail all interactions with international Christian groups.

At the end of August in Jiaozuo City, Henan Province, CCP officials forcibly occupied and converted multiple TSPM churches into communist party schools, cultural centers, and activity hubs.  Bitter Winter reported that in September at least 20 churches in Dengzhou City and more than 138 churches in Luoyang City, including some government-approved TSPM churches, were repurposed to suit government needs.

According to sources, Northeast China had fewer unregistered churches than other parts of the country.  While still strictly controlled, the northeastern religious groups had reportedly enjoyed relatively more autonomy over their sermons and practices in past years.  Sources indicated that authorities closed some Sunday schools in Jilin, Liaoning, and Heilongjiang Provinces.  According to sources, until July authorities in Northeast China rarely enforced a rule preventing churches from holding services for minors under the age of 18.  Until recently, the updated religion regulations mainly affected unregistered churches.  In July authorities began scrutinizing registered churches in Liaoning more strictly, including pressuring young adults over the age of 18 not to attend church services.  Some churches reported also shutting down their college student services.

There were reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities compelling members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership.

In February many companies began requiring workers to sign a “no-faith commitment,” according to Bitter Winter.  Between April and August, local security personnel approached nearly 300 members of Zion Church in Beijing and pressured members to sign a document renouncing their church membership as well as their Christian faith.

Radio Free Asia reported that in mid-September, the CCP took further steps to implement the ban on religious activity among government employees, including schoolteachers and medical personnel.  According to local Christians, authorities were asking teachers working in high schools in Zhejiang, Jiangxi, and Henan Provinces to sign a letter pledging to hold no religious beliefs.  Christian believers said the crackdown on religious beliefs among teachers came alongside pressure on students, who are required to submit to an interview with school authorities if they declare religious beliefs on mandatory forms.

World Watch Monitor, an online news site reporting on Christianity, reported in April that teachers forced more than 300 Christian children in two high schools in Zhejiang Province to fill out a form stating they did not adhere to any religion.  According to the report, the children were given a questionnaire about their faith and pressured to write they had no religion.  Those who did not comply reportedly were denied access to opportunities at school and faced the potential threat of not receiving certificates of completion, which would make them unable to attend college.

In May ChinaAid reported education authorities in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, asked students to state the religious beliefs of their families.  After identifying students whose parents were Catholic or another Christian denomination, authorities visited the parents in their homes to persuade them to give up their religious beliefs.  Some authorities used the parents’ employers to pressure parents to renounce their religious beliefs, including by withholding bonuses, according to the report.

According to pastors and a group that monitors religion in China, the government was ordering Christians to sign papers renouncing their faith.  The New York Post reported in September that ChinaAid leadership released video footage of what appeared to be piles of burning Bibles and forms stating that signatories renounced their Christian faith.  ChinaAid leadership said this marked the first time since the Cultural Revolution that Christians had been compelled to make such declarations, under the fear of expulsion from school and the loss of welfare benefits.

International media and NGOs reported on a nation-wide campaign to “Sinicize religion,” and the government restricted individuals’ ability to express or practice their religion in other ways.

On March 28, in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, the government launched a five-year plan on promoting the “Sinicization of Christianity.”  The plan outline advocated “incorporating the Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clergy attire, and the architectural style of church buildings” and proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.”  The government’s proposed plan to augment the content of the Bible in line with CCP policies fueled speculation in Christian groups that it was a reason the government began enforcing a ban on online Bible sales.

According to the South China Morning Post, cities throughout Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China reported efforts by authorities to replace Islamic structures and symbols with traditional Chinese iconography.  Individuals in Yinchuan reported bright red lamps with Chinese cloud designs replacing gray lamp posts with Islamic motifs and two round flat rings in the style of Chinese jade discs replacing two large crescent moon sculptures.  The local government banned Arab-style mosques and set out plans to convert existing mosques to resemble Chinese temples.

Radio Free Asia reported in August that state-sanctioned religious associations had proposed a measure that would require all places of worship to fly the national flag.  Representatives at a conference in Beijing indicated that the national flag should be raised at religious venues during national holidays and during each religion’s important festivals and celebrations.  The measure also indicated that otherwise officials would place scrutiny on the places of worship.

Authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating one’s loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party over the church.

ChinaAid reported that in early July, more than 100 churches in Xinyu County, Jiangxi Province, received a warning from local authorities demanding they dismantle their crosses and replace them with an image of President Xi Jinping or the national flag.  Reportedly, government agents destroyed the crosses of churches that refused to dismantle their crosses.

In September Pastor Zhang Liang reported authorities in Shangqiu, Henan Province, had begun requiring churches to flank the cross with a photograph of Chairman Mao Zedong on one side and President Xi Jinping on the other.

According to Bitter Winter, on November 1, authorities in Luoning County, Henan Province ordered a government-approved TSPM church to remove one of the Ten Commandments from a sign displayed on its wall.  Authorities said President Xi Jinping opposed the commandment “You shall have no other gods before me,” and they wiped it off from the display.  Prior to this incident, media reported in August government officials had forcibly dismantled the church’s cross.

In 2017, the Ningxia government initiated a campaign to remove Arabic translations from street signs, and by February 2018, Arabic logos for halal restaurants and butcher shops were removed and replaced by Chinese characters and pinyin.  In Tongxin, Hui County, Ningxia, the article stated the government barred party members from going to mosques for daily prayers or taking part in the Hajj, even after they retired from office.  Authorities also banned government workers from wearing white caps to work.  In Yinchuan, the capital of Ningxia, authorities banned calls to prayer on the grounds of noise pollution.  Government officials ordered the Quran and books on Islam removed from souvenir shops and ordered mosques to cancel public Arabic-language courses.

Bitter Winter reported that authorities told Buddhist temple leaders in Xinmi, Henan Province, they had to take down banners and lock their doors because this was CCP Central Party Committee policy.  Authorities painted over the names of CCP members who had donated to the temples and whose names were displayed on the donors’ recognition steles.  According to the report, villagers said they saw the defacing of the donors’ steles as the coming of another Cultural Revolution.

According to media reports, at least four cities and one province ordered restrictions on Christmas celebrations including bans on Christmas decorations, promotional activities in shops, Christmas-themed events, and public performances.  Authorities also increased law enforcement and patrols in the days leading up to December 25 to prevent any illegal Christmas celebrations.  Police in Kunming issued a notice prohibiting Christmas decorations and related activities in crowded places such as hotels, karaoke parlors, internet cafes, and bars.  The notice said, “It is forbidden to hang Christmas stockings, wear Christmas hats, and place Christmas trees, and so on.”  Officials sent a notice to churches in Zhoukou, Henan Province, requiring them to vet Christmas commemorations with the government, forbidding minors from participating in Christmas events, and limiting expenses to 2000 RMB ($290).  School administrators at a university in Shanghai canceled a student union’s Christmas celebration, and administrators warned students in Qingdao against celebrating Christmas.

According to a brief statement released on August 28 by the National People’s Congress, the country’s new revised civil code would no longer retain the relevant content of family planning, which could scrap birth restrictions altogether.  The revised code, however, will not be completed until March 2020, and there is no indication yet how exactly the change would be made, or whether any other restrictions or conditions might remain on Chinese families.

In December state-run media outlet the Global Times reported that the Gansu provincial market regulation bureau banned four provincial halal certifications for food, restaurants, dairy, and noodles.  The article cited an official at the Gansu Ethnic Affairs Commission who stated that one region and five provinces (Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Qinghai, Shaanxi, Henan, Yunnan, and Tianjin Provinces) would also restrict the use of halal certifications on various products.  The Ethnic Affairs Commission employee stated the province was restricting these standards in line with the CCP’s United Front Work Department requirement to “fight the pan-halal tendency.”

Hui Muslims in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and Gansu, Qinghai, and Yunnan Provinces continued to engage in religious practice with less government interference than did Uighurs, according to local sources.  Hui Muslims reported they were free to practice as they wished with regard to family customs such as fasting during Ramadan, clothing, prayer, and performing the Hajj.  They reported, however, they did not receive special accommodations for time to pray during their workday and were not given time off for Islamic holidays.

In August the government of Hubei Province issued new regulations on the commercialization of the Buddhist and Daoist religions stating all activities of any religion must be confined to the private sphere and strictly prohibiting religious iconography in the public sphere.

Authorities increased social media and other surveillance on religious groups.  According to Bitter Winter, church leaders in Hebei and Henan Provinces had begun warning their church members that their social media accounts were under surveillance and cautioned them not to transmit religious content.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone applications to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials.

In July Radio Free Asia reported authorities in Malho, Qinghai Province, tightened controls on social media and deployed large numbers of armed police to Tibetan villages to discourage celebrations of the July 6 birthday of the Dalai Lama.  Authorities warned managers of social media chat groups to restrict sharing any secret or internal information by Tibetans and to keep an eye out for attempts to organize celebrations of the spiritual leader.

The Wall Street Journal reported in July that the IAC required Chinese Muslims departing for Mecca in Saudi Arabia to wear customized smart cards with personal data and a GPS tracker.

In September Pastor Zhang Liang reported the Chinese government had tightened its control over his church’s operations in Shangqiu, Henan Province.  Zhang said the government was installing “information officers” to report on “antigovernment” activities and behavior seen as a threat to social stability.

In April Beijing authorities ordered an unregistered church, Zion Church, to install 24 closed-circuit surveillance cameras inside the church, according to Reuters.  After church leadership refused this order, police and security personnel harassed and threatened church members and ultimately forced the eviction of the church.  In November the State Security Bureau installed surveillance equipment including multiple surveillance cameras inside an officially registered Protestant church in Lanzhou, Gansu Province, including in washrooms, according to Bitter Winter.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible and other religious literature, and government prepared regulations to extended control of online postings by religious groups.

The government limited distribution of Bibles to CCPA and TSPM/Chinese Christian Council entities such as churches, church bookshops inside churches, and seminaries.  Individuals could not order Bibles directly from publishing houses.  Members of unregistered churches reported the supply and distribution of Bibles was inadequate, particularly in rural locations.  There were approximately 11 provincial TSPM Christian publishers.  Authorities only allowed the national TSPM and CCPA to publish the Bible legally.  According to reports, while there were no independent domestic Christian booksellers, publishers without a religious affiliation could publish Christian books.  Approximately 20 distribution centers and bookstores were linked to the national TSPM.  In addition, authorities reportedly allowed churches with more than 2,000 members to sell books at their church facilities.  Approximately 700 churches had such bookstores.  During the year, authorities continued to limit the number of Christian titles that could be published annually, with draft manuscripts closely reviewed.  Authorities also restricted the ability of some bookstores to sell Christian books.

While only government-sanctioned bodies that oversee Christian churches were officially able to sell the Bible, a South China Morning Post article reported that authorities had tended to look the other way.  The article also reported that on several visits in April Ministry of Culture inspectors told the Christian bookstores they could no longer sell “foreign books.”

Radio Free Asia reported that starting April 2, online selling platforms Taobao, JD.com, and Dangdang banned the sale of Bibles without international standard book numbers (ISBNs) and related spiritual books, according to a Taobao seller.  A New York Times article said the government banned online retailers from selling the Bible, and on leading online stores, internet searches for the Bible came up empty.  The article also reported that Christianity was the only major religion in China whose major holy text “cannot be sold through normal commercial channels.”  As of the end of the year, at least one dual-language (English and Chinese) Bible and two foreign-published English language Bibles were sold on some online sites.  Bibles in Chinese only were still unavailable for online purchase, however.

Bitter Winter reported that in Anshan Prefecture, Liaoning Province, police imposed a 400,000 RMB ($58,200) fine on any church discovered with an “unofficial” version of the Bible.  Faced with these pressures, underground churches reported gathering far less frequently and breaking up into small groups that moved around and held services at different locations.

The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which are used by both registered and unregistered religious groups.

In September the Associated Press reported the government posted draft rules regulating religious activity on the internet that would impose tight limits on what could be said or posted, including a ban on criticizing official religious policies and promoting religion among minors.  The draft regulations would require anyone wishing to provide religious instruction or similar services online to apply by name and have authorities deem them morally fit and politically reliable.  They also would prohibit livestreaming of religious activities, including praying, preaching, or burning incense.

According to Bitter Winter, the draft rules regulating religious activity on the internet would force churches to obtain licenses so the Chinese government could control what religious information is posted online.

The government continued limitations on religious education.

The South China Morning Post reported in January education officials from the local government in Guanghe County, a largely Hui Muslim area in Gansu Province, banned children from taking part in religious education during the Lunar New Year break.  Officials did not allow children to attend religious events, read scripture in classes, or enter religious venues during the holiday, and instructed teachers and students to “strengthen political ideology and propaganda.”  Officials also implemented similar restrictions in Linxia, the capital city of the Linxia Hui Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province.

Starting in April authorities reportedly pressured churches to prevent children under 18 years old from attending services or otherwise studying the Bible.  Local government departments of religious affairs in Henan, Shandong, and Anhui Provinces released public letters announcing juveniles could not enter religious venues or attend religious education activities.  One announcement in Xinxiang City, Henan Province stated the purpose of these measures was to ensure minors do not believe in religion, enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or participate in religious training classes.  The same message was delivered in other locations.  AsiaNews reported in April a joint notice from the Henan Catholic Patriotic Association and the Henan Commission for Church Affairs required the religious bodies to adhere to the principle of “separating religion from education,” and in particular prohibit religious associations from organizing activities of any type to disseminate religious education to minors and effectively prohibit minors from attending church.

In August Open Doors USA, a Christian nonprofit organization, reported that in Shangrao, Jiangxi Province, more than 40 churches hung slogans that said “Non-locals are prohibited form preaching; no underage people allowed in church.”

Radio Free Asia reported that on October 25, state security agents prevented more than 100 Protestants from unrecognized churches from traveling to a religious training event in South Korea hosted by a U.S. church.  Saying the participants would “likely damage national security,” airport police in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong issued travel bans on the conference participants.

Radio Free Asia reported in July that authorities in Dzachuka, a Tibetan-populated region of Sichuan Province, forced Buddhist monks aged 15 and younger to leave their monasteries and placed them in government-run schools.  Authorities strictly limited the number of monks and nuns enrolled at the monasteries and forced those remaining to take part in classes promoting loyalty to the country and the ruling CCP.

On April 16, approximately 20 officials from Fujian Province’s Xiamen Education Bureau and the Ethnic and Religious Affairs Bureau conducted a surprise inspection, without warrants, of a kindergarten operated by a local, unregistered house church.  Authorities said the kindergarten operation was illegal.  Authorities reportedly tried to confiscate religious teaching materials and shut down the school, but faculty members and parents prevented them from doing so.

On June 20, Liang Liuning, Deputy Director General of the Guangxi Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission, held two lectures for more than 100 Islamic clerics and administrators on the essence of the 19th Party Congress and the implementation of the revised Regulations on Religious Affairs.

Individuals seeking to enroll at an official seminary or other institution of religious learning had to obtain the support of the corresponding official “patriotic religious association.”  The government continued to require students to demonstrate “political reliability,” and political issues were included in examinations of graduates from religious schools.  Both registered and unregistered religious groups reported a shortage of trained clergy due in part to government controls on admission to seminaries.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it identified as “cults” and others and prevented employees from participating in religious activities.

In February the Guiyang-based Yunnan District People’s Court specified in its recruitment notice for judicial assistants that individuals who previously participated in “illegal religious activities” or “cult-organized activities” could not apply for the position.

On February 18, formerly jailed Jiangmen house church clergyman Ruan Haonan said it was almost impossible for a blacklisted “cult” member to find a decent job.  Ruan was a chef before he worked full time at a house church in Heshan City.  He said authorities warned each employer Ruan contacted, and as a result, no employer dared offer him a job.  Heshan police arrested Ruan on June 12, 2017, for sabotaging law enforcement by utilizing and organizing “heretic cult organizations” and released him on bail with restricted movement in July 2017.  ChinaAid reported that while on bail, authorities required Ruan to report to the Public Security Bureau every three months and to obtain permission before traveling.

According to sources, individuals with Christian affiliations in Northeast China faced difficulties with career enhancement or government employment.  Government officials or employees tied to state-affiliated organizations often attempted to hide their religious beliefs to avoid discrimination.  The sources said it was one reason some believers choose to attend unregistered rather than official churches.

Healthcare professionals were required to discover, stop, and report violations of law regarding religion, including among family, friends, and neighbors, according to a letter issued to staff at the Yueqing Maternal and Child Health Hospital in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province.  Any staff organizing or participating in religious activities in the hospital could be fired.  Staff were banned from wearing any clothing linked to a religious belief.  Staff were also considered to have committed a violation if they did not adhere to the pledge not to follow any religion or participate in religious activities.  The hospital’s letter stated violations of this policy would lead to “education.”  Hospitals in Xinyu, Jiangxi Province, posted banners and notices against religious beliefs as well.

Authorities took other actions against “cults.”  On March 17, Guangzhou’s Huadu District Political and Law Commission hosted an anticult organization event in Hongshan Village for local students.  After the event, many students vowed to stay away from any “cult” organization and signed their names on the anticult signature wall.

In April Fujian Province’s Zhangpu County Government and Zhangzhou Justice Department redesigned a local public park giving it an anticult theme to promote the results of the 19th Party Congress and related anticult laws and raise awareness of the influence of “cults.”

On April 24, the Foshan Municipal CCP Political and Legal Commission, the Guangdong University of Finance and Economics’ Shanshui Campus (Foshan), and the Guangdong Legal Studies Institute Shanshui Campus jointly launched an anticult campaign highlighting the influence of “cults” on state security, social developments, and family lives.

On February 24, the Guangdong Provincial Anti-Heretic Cult Association posted a letter drafted by former Guangzhou Falun Gong member Zhang Zhiming denouncing Falun Gong as a “cult organization” that had jeopardized his work and ruined his family life.

In September Jiangxi Province’s commission on religious affairs published an article indicating changes to the basic nature of religious control in the province.  The article stated all religious activities should be “amiable and gentle” and that they should contribute to the unity of the people.

On November 29, The Telegraph reported that local authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region had signed a “cooperation antiterrorism agreement” with Xinjiang officials to “learn from the latter’s experiences in promoting social stability.”  As part of these efforts, the Communist Party head of Ningxia, Zhang Yunsheng, went to Xinjiang to learn about combatting terrorism and managing religious affairs.  According to a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, there was a growing fear among Chinese that the Xinjiang model could spread across the country and have grave consequences for religious freedom.

Government policy continued to allow religious groups to engage in charitable work.  Regulations specifically prohibited faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities.  Authorities required faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government.  Once registered as an official charity, authorities allowed them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits.  The government did not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property.  According to several unregistered religious groups, the government required faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of the registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau.  Authorities often required these groups to affiliate with one of the five “patriotic religious associations.”

The government continued its efforts to restrict the movement of the Dalai Lama.  After the Dalai Lama visited Sweden in September, Global Times reported the government consistently firmly opposed the decision of any country to allow such a visit, adding “…some countries still turn a deaf ear, taking chances to challenge China’s bottom line.”

In October ChinaAid reported that since the second week of September, a CCP-backed militant group, United Wa State Army, had arrested more than 200 Christian pastors and missionaries in territory the group controls in Shan State, Burma, according to Lahu Baptist Church, a local church in Burma.  At least 100 were released after guards forced prisoners to sign a pledge they would pray only at home, rather than at churches.  According to the report, many observers believed close ties between United Wa State Army and China fueled these actions.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.  The Council on Foreign Relations reported religious and ethnic minority groups, such as Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims, experienced institutionalized discrimination throughout the country because of both their religious beliefs and their status as ethnic minorities with distinct languages and cultures.

Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread, despite the government’s announcement in September 2017 that it would censor some anti-Muslim expression on the internet.

In some online forums, anti-Muslim speech regarding the Hui Muslims in Shadian, Yunnan Province persisted.  Some individuals said imams in Shadian colluded with Rohingya Muslims from Burma on drug use and drug trafficking in Shadian.  Other criticisms in these online forums include labelling the imams in Shadian as radicals for encouraging Hui Muslims in the city to marry Rohingya individuals and not to send their children to school.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers openly discriminated against religious believers.  Some Protestant Christians reported employers terminated their employment due to their religious activities.  There were also reports from Falun Gong practitioners that employers dismissed them for practicing Falun Gong.  In some instances, landlords discriminated against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs.  Falun Gong practitioners reported having a very difficult time finding landlords who would rent them apartments.  Following government crackdowns in May and December, members of the Early Rain Covenant Church in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, reported local authorities pressured their landlords to evict them due to their affiliation with the unregistered church.  The members also said their universities and employers received pressure from the local authorities to expel them from the schools or terminate their employment.

The Guardian reported Uighurs faced difficulty in finding accommodation because local hotels frequently told Uighur visitors no rooms were available.  One individual, who was initially mistaken as a foreigner, said hotel staff denied him entry to a hotel after they saw the word Uighur on his Chinese identification card.  Hotels are required to report on guests to local police authorities, and hoteliers could face punishment for hosting Uighurs.

On April 19, the son of a pastor from the Shenzhen-based Canaan House Church in Guangdong Province said the church’s landlord relented to authorities’ pressure to terminate the lease and cut off the church’s electrical supply.  The pastor’s son said the church faced “constant persecution” after unidentified people repeatedly harassed the church, broke into the church’s property, and requested members leave the building for what authorities said were safety or fire hazards.

On July 5, a Uighur woman in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province reportedly posted a letter online addressed to Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Weizhong complaining about the frustrating restrictions she experienced as an ethnic minority in finding a rental apartment.  The Uighur woman identified herself as a CCP member holding a senior management position in a big company in Shenzhen.  After receiving discouraging messages from the local community, several landlords broke her rental contracts.  Local officials told the woman they required her landlord and her to report in person each week to the police, which she said no landlord wanted to do.  The woman was staying in a colleague’s apartment at year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other embassy and consulates general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom.  The Vice President, Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and the Ambassador for International Religious Freedom met with survivors of religious persecution or their family members, from the Uighur Muslim, Tibetan Buddhist, and Protestant communities at the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington.  At the ministerial, the Vice President said, “religious persecution is growing in both scope and scale in the world’s most populous country, the People’s Republic of China….together with other religious minorities, Buddhists, Muslims, and Christians are often under attack.”  On September 21, the Secretary of State said, “Hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of Uighurs are held against their will in so-called reeducation camps where they’re forced to endure severe political indoctrination and other awful abuses.  Their religious beliefs are decimated.  And we’re concerned too about the intense new government crackdown on Christians in China, which includes heinous actions like closing churches, burning Bibles, and ordering followers to sign papers renouncing their faith.”

At the ministerial the United States, Canada, Kosovo, and the United Kingdom issued a statement that said, “As representatives of the international community, we are deeply concerned about the significant restrictions on religious freedom in China and call on the Chinese government to respect the human rights of all individuals.  Many members of religious minority groups in China – including Uighurs, Hui, and Kazakh Muslims; Tibetan Buddhists; Catholics; Protestants; and Falun Gong – face severe repression and discrimination because of their beliefs.  These communities consistently report incidents, in which the authorities allegedly torture, physically abuse, arbitrarily arrest, detain, sentence to prison, or harass adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and peaceful practices.”

Embassy officials met regularly with a range of government officials managing religious affairs, both to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance and to obtain more information on government policy on the management of religious affairs.

Embassy officials, including the Ambassador, urged government officials at the central and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the State Council, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and release prisoners of conscience.  The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in private diplomacy with senior officials.  The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience, including individuals imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom.  For example, while in Yunnan Province, the Ambassador visited two long-standing Christian churches in areas heavily populated by religious minorities, meeting with local clergy members.  The Consul General similarly met with Muslim and Christian leaders in Yunnan Province.  Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities.  The embassy arranged for the introduction of religious officials to members of U.S. religious communities and U.S. government agencies that engaged with those communities.

Throughout the year, the embassy and consulates general reached large local audiences with messages promoting respect, understanding, and tolerance for religious diversity.  Through a series of lectures by academics and government officials, the embassy and consulates general discussed with audiences a number of religious freedom topics.  In January an embassy-sponsored visitor discussed with a Beijing audience the role religious organizations played in shaping public and private institutions in the United States.  Also in January a consulate general officer led a discussion in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, about the U.S. Muslim community, addressing questions about religious conflict, highlighting the connection between freedom of religion and free speech, and sparking a debate about the extent to which a diverse society must exercise tolerance toward minorities.  In May an official at the Consulate General in Shenyang provided a historical perspective on major U.S. religions, detailed the constitution’s protection of religious expression, and led the audience in a discussion that included comments about rule of law, civil rights, and racial equality.  In June the embassy held a discussion about the evolving interaction between the gay community and religious communities in the United States, with a focus on the interaction of religious groups and social change.  Later in June an officer of the Consulate General in Shanghai explained recent U.S. legal cases involving freedom of religion, and facilitated audience discussion of the contours of proper legal protections for religious groups.  The embassy hosted a presentation in July by a film director about her documentary portraying attempts by Muslims to increase gender equality within their community.  The director engaged an audience of hundreds in a discussion about the value of equality and tolerance within and across religious traditions.  That same month, an officer at the Consulate General in Guangzhou presented research on religion in politics, including the historical role of religious congregations in political activism.

The embassy amplified Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through postings to the embassy website and to Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts.  A series of six posts about the July Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom garnered over six million views on these social media accounts, and 46,141 direct engagements by netizens.  A set of four posts regarding the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report received 1.4 million views.  The embassy social media team shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador.  This included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists.  Millions of local citizens viewed these holiday messages, and the messages often sparking further comments and questions, such as, “A great country must have a broad mind!,” “Society has reached the point where one is not even allowed to read the Bible,” and “How do you protect the religious freedom of atheists?”  Over the course of the year, the embassy and the consulates general regularly addressed questions of religious tolerance raised by some of the millions of online followers, offering them uniquely U.S. perspectives on religious freedom and tolerance.

Authorities continually harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials.  Authorities interrupted a meeting between the abbot of a prominent Tibetan Buddhist monastery and the Chengdu Consul General, quickly removing the abbot from the scene.  Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend.  For example, in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, officials followed and harassed a prominent pastor and his family after he met with the Consul General from Chengdu.  On at least three occasions during the year security officials threatened Tibetan Buddhist leaders and forced them to cancel meetings with high-level U.S. government visitors to southwest China at the last minute.  In one instance, in April they interrogated a Tibetan Buddhist abbot and delayed his return to his home monastery in another province after authorities learned about his meeting with the Deputy Chief of Mission.

On December 11, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said “the treatment of Muslims, Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners over a long period were reasons to keep China as a Country of Particular Concern.

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.


IN THIS SECTION: CHINA (ABOVE) | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG | MACAU

Croatia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious thought and expression and prohibits incitement of religious hatred.  All religious communities have the same religious protections under the law, and are free to worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature.  The government has written agreements with the Roman Catholic Church that provide state financial support and favorable tax and other treatment; 53 other registered religious communities that have agreements with the state receive equivalent treatment that registered religious communities without such agreements and unregistered religious groups do not receive.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations reported instances of border police subjecting migrants to treatment inconsistent with their religious beliefs.  The government denied these reports.  The ombudsperson covering human rights reported some health institutions denied operations to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions for religious reasons, despite the ombudsperson having issued a recommendation that public hospitals provide treatment in such cases.  Jewish leaders said the government did not take concrete steps to restitute private or communal Jewish properties seized during the Holocaust.  According to observers, the government made no significant progress on such issues during the year.  Atheists and Jewish organizations said non-Catholic children were discriminated against in public schools.  Senior government officials attended an annual commemoration for victims of the World War II (WWII)-era Jasenovac concentration camp.  Jewish and Serb leaders, the latter largely Orthodox, boycotted the commemoration for the third year in a row, the former stating the government failed to address anti-Semitism.  Leaders of the Islamic community reported overall good relations with the government.

Jewish community leaders continued to report Holocaust revisionism and public use of Ustasha (WWII pro-Nazi regime) symbols and slogans.  The Council of Europe and the national ombudsperson reported an increase in religious intolerance, particularly online.  The ombudsperson’s report said comments on various online portals accused Jews of undermining democracy, freedom, and financial institutions.

The U.S. embassy continued to encourage the government to restitute property seized during and after WWII, particularly from the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and advocated amendments to existing legislation that would allow for restitution and compensation claims with a revised deadline for new applications.  The embassy sponsored a visit by two teachers to the United States for a Holocaust education exchange program and sponsored the visit to the United States of the director of the Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site on a leadership study program.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.3 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, 86.3 percent of the population is Catholic, 4.4 percent Serbian Orthodox, and 1.5 percent Muslim.  Nearly 4 percent self-identify as nonreligious or atheist.  Other religious groups include Jews, Protestants, and other Christians.  According to the Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia, there are between 2,000 and 2,500 Jews.

Religious affiliation correlates closely with ethnicity.  Ethnic Serbs are predominantly members of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and live primarily in cities and areas bordering Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Most members of other minority religious groups reside in urban areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for equality of rights regardless of religion, as well as freedom of conscience and religious expression.  It prohibits incitement of religious hatred.  According to the constitution, religious communities shall be equal under the law and separate from the state; they are free to publicly conduct religious services as well as open and manage schools and charitable organizations under the protection and assistance of the state.

The Catholic Church receives state financial support and other benefits established by four concordats between the government and the Holy See.  These agreements provide for state financing for salaries and pensions of some religious officials associated with religious education through government-managed pension and health funds.  These agreements also stipulate state funding for religious education in public schools.

The law defines the legal position of religious communities and determines eligibility for government funding and tax benefits.  Registered religious communities are exempt from taxes on the purchase of real estate, the profit/capital gains tax, and taxes on donations.  According to the law, a religious community previously active as a legal entity before enactment of the current law need only submit its name, the location of its headquarters, information on the office of the person authorized to represent it, and the seal and stamp it uses to register.  To register as a religious community, a religious group without prior legal status must have at least 500 members and have been registered as an association, with at least three members for at least five years.  To register as a religious community, a group submits a list of its members and documentation outlining the group’s activities and bylaws and describing its mission to the Ministry of Administration.  Nonregistered religious groups may operate freely but do not receive tax benefits.  They may conduct financial transactions as legal entities.  A contractual agreement with the state, which grants a registered religious community eligibility for further funding and benefits, defines the community’s role and activities and provides for collaboration with the government in areas of joint interest, such as education, health, and culture.

There are 54 registered religious communities, including the Catholic Church, SOC, Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Christian Adventist Church, Church of Christ, Church of God, Croatian Old Catholic Church, Evangelical Church, Macedonian Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Reformed Christian Church, Union of Baptist Churches, Seventh-day Adventist Reform Movement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Union of Pentecostal Churches of Christ, Coordination of Jewish Communities in Croatia (an umbrella group of nine distinct Jewish communities), Jewish Community of Virovitica, Bet Israel (a Jewish group), and the Islamic Community of Croatia.  Besides the Catholic Church, 19 religious communities have agreements with the state.

The state recognizes marriages conducted by registered religious communities that have concluded agreements with the state, eliminating the need for civil registration.  Marriages conducted by registered communities that have not concluded agreements with the state, or by nonregistered religious groups, require civil registration.

Registered religious communities that have not concluded agreements with the state and nonregistered religious groups may not conduct religious education in public schools or access state funds in support of religious activities, including charitable work, counseling, building costs, and clergy salaries; however, they may engage in worship, proselytize, own property, and import religious literature.  Only registered religious communities, with or without agreements with the state, may provide spiritual counsel in prisons, hospitals, and the military.

Public schools must offer religious education, although students may opt out without providing specific grounds.  The Catholic catechism is the predominant religious text used.  Other religious communities that have agreements with the state may also offer religious education classes in schools if there are seven or more students of that faith.  Eligible religious communities provide the instructors and the state pays their salaries.  Private religious schools are eligible for state assistance and follow a national curriculum.  Registered religious communities may have their own schools.  Unregistered religious groups may not have their own schools.

Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in the seventh and eighth grades of elementary school and during four years of high school education.

The law does not unequivocally allow foreign citizens whose property was confiscated during and after the Holocaust era to seek compensation or restitution.  According to law, an applicant’s country must have a bilateral restitution treaty with Croatia, but no such bilateral treaties currently exist.  Two court cases have held such treaties are not required; however, the law has not changed.  The law does not allow new property claims, because the deadline expired in 2003.

The ombudsperson is a commissioner of the parliament responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights and freedoms, including religious freedom.  The ombudsperson examines citizens’ complaints pertaining to the work of state bodies; local and regional self-government; and legal persons vested with public authority.  The ombudsperson may issue recommendations to government agencies regarding human rights and religious freedom practices but does not have authority to enforce compliance with his or her recommendations.

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

Government Practices

According to the Office of the Commission for Relations with Religious Communities, the government budgeted 288.2 million kuna ($45.67 million) during the year for the Catholic Church for salaries, pensions, and other purposes, compared with 299.5 million kuna ($47.46 million) in 2017.  The government offered funding to other religious communities that had concluded agreements with the state, a portion of which was based on their size, in addition to funds provided to support religious education in public schools, as well as the operation of private religious schools.  The government provided 21.4 million kuna ($3.39 million) to these groups.

Some minority groups said the Catholic Church continued to enjoy a special status in relation to other religious communities, in part because of its concordats with the government and in part because of its cultural and political influence as the majority religion.

Atheist, Jewish, and Serbian Orthodox organizations said that although the law allows students to opt out of religious education, in practice most public schools did not offer viable alternatives to Catholic catechism.  They also said public schools did not take adequate steps to prevent bullying of nonparticipating children.  The press covered several specific instances of such bullying during the year.  Atheist groups said Catholic symbols remained prevalent in government buildings such as courtrooms, prisons, and public hospitals.  They said they believed this practice was inconsistent with the constitution, which states religious communities shall be separate from the state.  The courts have not ruled on this question to date.

NGOs and international organizations reported incidents of border police using religious epithets in interactions with migrants and subjecting migrants to situations that conflicted with their religious values.  For example, one NGO said border police conducted a strip search of a Muslim woman in the presence of Muslim men.  Ministry of Interior authorities denied all such reports.

The ombudsperson reported continued obstacles encountered by Jehovah’s Witnesses regarding their right to health care in accordance with their religious beliefs.  During the year, the ombudsperson stated that in 2017, the latest year for which figures were available, there were 24 cases in which state healthcare institutions denied surgery to Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused blood transfusions because of their religious beliefs.  Of the 24 cases, 15 patients eventually received adequate medical care in private hospitals in the country.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses community reported again having to use its own finances to send patients to different hospitals for procedures, including hospitals outside of the country.  The ombudsperson’s report on 2017 recommended the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Labor and Pension System improve hospital procedures and policies to provide adequate health care to patients in accordance with their religious beliefs.

The ombudsperson’s 2017 report said Jews faced frequent online hate speech, threats, and accusations, e.g., that Jews undermined Croatian society, democracy, and financial institutions; Jews should leave the country; and the extermination of the Jewish people during WWII should have been completed.  Jewish groups said the government did not take adequate steps to prevent or punish such speech.

Following a September meeting with Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic, Mufti Aziz Hasanovic, leader of the Islamic Community of Croatia, publicly described cooperation between his community and the government as excellent and a positive example for other countries in Europe.  Hasanovic cited as an example his cooperation with the government to provide religious and cultural instruction to soldiers before they deployed to Muslim countries, particularly Afghanistan.  The mufti accompanied President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic on state visits to majority-Muslim countries.

Following an April meeting with Prime Minister Plenkovic, Metropolitan Porfirije Peric, leader of the SOC, publicly stated he was satisfied with the legal status of the Church.

On April 22, the government held its official annual commemoration of victims killed by the WWII-era Ustasha regime at Jasenovac concentration camp.  The Jewish community, along with the Serb National Council and the Alliance of Anti-Fascist Fighters, boycotted the official commemoration for the third year in a row, instead holding their own commemorations.  Members of Jewish groups said the boycott was necessary to condemn what they said was the government’s lack of response to Holocaust revisionism and failure to address Holocaust-era property restitution.  Observers said the government made no significant progress on such issues during the year.

Representatives of the SOC reported the government resolved three outstanding property restitution cases related to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, although several others remained unresolved.

On the same day the government commemorated victims of Jasenovac, and again on May 6, police prevented members of the extra-parliamentary Autonomous Croatian Party of Rights (A-HSP), described widely in both media reports and academic analyses as far right, from entering Jasenovac Concentration Camp Memorial Site to hold a meeting.  Prior to both attempts, A-HSP President Drazen Keleminec sent the media an online invitation that included the WWII-era Ustasha salute “Za Dom Spremni” (“For the Homeland Ready”).

In June Jasenovac Memorial Site released a statement criticizing state-owned television (HRT) for airing an interview with Igor Vukic, author of a book published during the year minimizing the crimes committed at Jasenovac during the Holocaust.  The officials said taxpayer-funded state-owned television should not be a platform for what they termed Holocaust revisionism.

Jewish community leaders said some government officials made statements downplaying the country’s role in the Holocaust.  For example, they highlighted as problematic President Grabar-Kitarovic’s March statement in Buenos Aires that, “After World War II, many Croats found a space of freedom in Argentina where they could testify to their patriotism,” saying that some Croats who settled there after the war were Ustasha fleeing prosecution for war crimes.

On February 28, a special government-appointed council tasked with examining the use of totalitarian symbols made a nonbinding recommendation to legalize limited use of such symbols for commemorative or ceremonial purposes.  Many civil society organizations criticized this recommendation, believing it would allow for continued use of symbols from the country’s WWII-era Ustasha regime by some veterans groups and nationalist political organizations who minimize the country’s role in the Holocaust.

The Office of the President continued to maintain a special advisor for Holocaust issues, who was involved in developing and implementing religious freedom projects, including a film festival on religious tolerance and a competition to choose an architect for a new Holocaust memorial in downtown Zagreb.

The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May the Council of Europe released a report saying religious intolerance, including pro-Ustasha graffiti and online speech, were on the rise in the country.  Minority religious communities reported occasional instances of verbal harassment and physical assault, including of religious workers.  One NGO said that in Zagreb in September, volunteers in the process of removing graffitied swastikas from a building were beaten by unknown assailants and hospitalized, one with severe injuries.  Although police initiated an investigation, the volunteers ultimately declined to press charges, stating concern for potential social repercussions.

SOC representatives reported fewer incidents of targeted crime compared with the previous year.  For example, they reported to police two burglaries (compared with 10 in 2017) of SOC religious properties.  SOC representatives reported frequent verbal attacks on Metropolitan Peric in public spaces in Zagreb; however, they said Peric did not file police reports.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and embassy staff regularly discussed religious freedom issues, including the status and treatment of religious minorities, property restitution, anti-Semitism, and Holocaust revisionism with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Culture; the ombudsperson; representatives of parliament; and other officials.  The embassy also discussed the religious freedom of migrants and asylum-seekers with officials from the Ministry of Interior.

In March the Ambassador, embassy staff, and the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with the minister of justice, the minister of culture, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, leaders of Jewish organizations, and a panel of Holocaust survivors.  The U.S. officials encouraged the government to adopt amendments to existing legislation to provide for restitution of private and communal or religious property seized during and after WWII, including provisions that would unequivocally allow for foreign claims and that would reopen the deadline for potential new claims.  Embassy engagement also focused on the restitution of Jewish communal properties such as cultural centers, synagogues, and cemeteries, as well as private property, and creation of a claims process for victims.

Embassy officials discussed religious freedom issues, including freedom of expression and efforts to counter discrimination, with NGOs such as the Society for Promotion of Religious Freedom, Human Rights House, Documenta, Protagora, and Zagreb Pride, as well as with representatives from Catholic, Serbian Orthodox, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious groups.

In cooperation with the Ministry of Science and Education, the embassy again funded Holocaust education training in the United States for two high school teachers, who later applied the training in the classroom.  The Department of State, Association of Holocaust Organizations in New York, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum organized the annual program.  The program continued to focus on new teaching methods and techniques, facilitated an exchange of ideas and experiences, and provided resources and materials for classroom instruction.

The embassy sponsored the participation of the director of Jasenovac Memorial Site in a program in the United States focused on religious freedom and human rights.

The embassy posted a range of religious freedom issues on social media platforms, including support for Holocaust commemorations.

Czech Republic

Executive Summary

The Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplement to the constitution, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and states everyone has the right to change, abstain from, and freely practice religion.  The Ministry of Culture (MOC) registered two religious groups in June; applications of three other groups and legal appeals by two other groups of registration denials remained pending at year’s end.  The High Court in Olomouc upheld a lower court conviction in absentia of Path of Guru Jara (PGJ) leader Jaroslav Dobes and another PGJ member and sentenced them to prison.  The high court also reversed and remanded the lower court’s convictions on seven other counts of rape involving PGJ; reportedly, the lower court later dismissed those charges.  The government stated that in the first nine months of 2017 it settled 638 claims by religious groups for property confiscated during the communist period.  President Milo Zeman awarded a medal to a nursing school head for “fighting intolerant ideology” after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab.  The opposition Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) campaigned on an anti-Muslim platform in October elections.

The nongovernmental organization (NGO) In IUSTITIA reported 17 religiously motivated incidents – 13 against Muslims and four against Jews – compared with 34 in 2017.  The government reported 27 anti-Semitic and three anti-Muslim incidents in 2017, compared with 28 and seven, respectively, in 2016.  A survey by the Median polling agency found 80 percent of citizens did not want Muslims as their neighbors.  The government reported an increase in anti-Muslim rhetoric online.  A theater in Zlin received a letter stating Jews were unwanted immigrants who should “disappear abroad or in gas” after presenting a play on efforts to restore a Jewish cemetery in Prostejov.  The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported 18 concerts in which participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views.

U.S. Embassy representatives discussed religious freedom issues, such as property restitution for religious groups and religious tolerance, with government officials.  In June embassy officials and the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues (SEHI) discussed the welfare of Holocaust survivors and other issues of concern with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Embassy officials met with Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim religious leaders to reaffirm U.S. government support for religious freedom and tolerance.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 10.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 census, of the 56 percent of citizens who responded to the question about their religious beliefs, approximately 62 percent held none, 18 percent were Catholic, 12 percent listed no specific religion, and 7 percent belonged to a variety of religious groups, including the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, the Czechoslovak Hussite Church, other Protestant churches, other Christian groups, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism.  Academics estimate there are 10,000 Jews; the Federation of Jewish Communities (FJC) estimates there are 15,000 to 20,000.  Leaders of the Muslim community estimate there are 10,000 Muslims, most of whom are immigrants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution does not explicitly address religious freedom, but the Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, a supplementary constitutional document, guarantees freedom of religious conviction and the fundamental rights of all regardless of their faith or religion.  It states every individual has the right to change religion or faith; to abstain from religious belief; and to freely practice religion, alone or in community, in private or public, “through worship, teaching, practice, observance.”  The charter defines religious societies, recognizing their freedom to profess their faith publicly or privately and to govern their own affairs, independent of the state.  It stipulates conscientious objectors may not be compelled to perform military service and that conditions for religious instruction at state schools shall be set by law.  The charter states religious freedom may be limited by law in the event of threats to “public safety and order, health and morals, or the rights and freedoms of others.”

The law states the MOC Department of Churches is responsible for religious affairs.  While religious groups are not required by law to register with the government and are free to perform religious activities without registering, they have the option to register with the MOC.  The law establishes a two-tiered system of registration for religious groups.  The MOC reviews applications for first- and second-tier registration with input from other government bodies, such as the Office for Protection of Private Data and outside experts on religious affairs.  The law does not establish a deadline for the MOC to decide on a registration application.  Applicants denied registration can appeal to the MOC to reconsider its decision and, if again denied, to the courts.

To qualify for the first (lower) tier, a religious group must present the signatures of at least 300 adult members permanently residing in the country, a founding document listing the basic tenets of the faith, and a clearly defined structure of fiduciary responsibilities.  First-tier registration confers limited tax benefits, including exemptions from a tax on the interest earned on current account deposits and taxes on donations and members’ contributions, and establishes annual reporting requirements on activities, balance sheets, and use of funds.

For second-tier registration, a group must have been registered with the Department of Churches for 10 years, have published annual reports throughout the time of its registration, and have membership equal to at least 0.1 percent of the population, or approximately 10,700 persons.  The group must provide this number of signatures as proof.  Second-tier registration entitles religious groups to government subsidies.  In addition, only clergy of registered second-tier religious groups may perform officially recognized marriage ceremonies and serve as chaplains in the military and at prisons.  Prisoners who belong to unregistered religious groups or groups with first-tier status may receive visits from their own clergy, outside of the prison chaplaincy system.

Religious groups registered prior to 2002 have automatic second-tier status without having to fulfill the requirements for second-tier registration.

There are 40 state-registered religious groups; 18 groups are first tier and 22 are second tier.

Unregistered religious groups are free to assemble and worship but may not legally own property.  Unregistered groups may form civic associations to manage their property.

The law authorizes the government to return to 17 religious groups (including the Roman Catholic Church, FJC, the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren, and the Hussite Church) land and other property confiscated during the communist era and still in the government’s possession, the total value of which is estimated to be approximately 75 billion koruna ($3.42 billion).  It also sets aside 59 billion koruna ($2.69 billion) for financial compensation for property that cannot be returned, to be paid to these 17 groups over a period of 30 years, ending in 2043, according to a fixed timetable.  Using a mechanism prescribed by law based on an agreement among the religious groups concerned, the government allocates slightly more than 79 percent of the financial compensation to the Catholic Church.  Religious groups had a one-year window, which ended in 2013, to make restitution claims for confiscated land and other property, which the government is processing.  If the government rejects a property claim, the claimant may appeal the decision in the courts.  The law also contains provisions for phasing out direct state subsidies to second-tier religious groups over a 17-year period, ending in 2029.

The law permits second-tier registered religious groups to apply through the MOC to teach religion in state schools; 11 of the 22 second-tier groups have applied and received permission.  The teachers are supplied by the religious groups and paid by the state.  If a state school does not have enough funds to pay for its religious education teachers, teachers are paid by parishes or dioceses.  Although the law makes religious instruction in public schools optional, school directors must provide instruction in the beliefs of one of the 11 approved religious groups if seven or more students register for the optional class at the beginning of the school year, in which case the school provides the religious instruction only to the students who registered.

The government does not regulate instruction in private schools.

The penal code outlaws denial of Nazi, communist, or other genocide, providing for prison sentences of six months to three years for public denial, questioning, approval of, or attempts to justify the genocide committed by the Nazis.  The law also prohibits the incitement of hatred based on religion and provides for penalties of up to three years’ imprisonment.

Foreign religious workers from European Economic Area countries or Switzerland must obtain long-term residence and work permits to remain in the country for more than 90 days.  There is no special visa category for religious workers; foreign missionaries and clergy are required to meet the conditions for a standard work permit.

The law designates January 27 as Holocaust Remembrance Day.

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

Government Practices

In June the MOC registered two religious groups – the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X and Theravada Buddhism – both of which had applied in 2016.  Registration applications by the Community of Baptist Congregations, which applied in January, and Ecclesia Risorum, which applied in March, remained pending at year’s end.

In March the Municipal Court in Prague, ruling on an appeal by the Cannabis Church, overturned the MOC’s December 2016 decision to halt that group’s registration application.  The court ordered the MOC to reopen the registration procedure.  The MOC asked the Cannabis Church to supplement the registration application with additional information.  The Cannabis Church’s application remained pending at year’s end.  An appeal filed in 2017 with the Municipal Court in Prague by the Lions of the Round Table – Order of the Lands of the Czech Crown, whose registration application the MOC rejected in 2016, remained pending at year’s end.  In January the Municipal Court confirmed with the PGJ its wish to continue its legal appeal against the MOC, which twice rejected the group’s application in 2017.  PGJ’s lawsuit against the government’s Office for Personal Data Protection, alleging an interrogative and abusive investigation of the PGJ’s registration application in 2017, remained pending at year’s end.

According to local news media, on October 11, the High Court in Olomouc upheld the January conviction in absentia by the Regional Court in Zlin of PGJ leader Jaroslav Dobes and PGJ member Barbora Plaskova on one count of rape and sentenced them to prison terms of five and five and a half years, respectively, and ordered them to pay the victim 60,000 koruna ($2,700).  The high court voided convictions by the Zlin Regional Court of Dobes and Plaskova on seven other counts of rape and remanded the cases back to the Zlin court for retrial.  In January the Zlin Regional Court had sentenced Dobes and Plaskova to seven and a half years in prison each after convicting them in absentia on eight counts of rape involving six women.  Defense lawyers had appealed the verdict to the High Court in Olomouc.  On December 21, according to PGJ representatives, the Zlin Regional Court dismissed the remaining seven charges of rape against Dobes and Plaskova and halted all criminal proceedings.  Dobes and Plaskova reportedly remained in immigration detention in the Philippines.

The government provided 17 second-tier religious groups with approximately 3.3 billion koruna ($150.4 million), 1.2 billion koruna ($54.69 million) as a subsidy and 2.1 billion koruna ($95.71 million) as compensation for communal property in private and state hands that would not be returned.  Five of the 22 second-tier groups declined all state funding.  While accepting the state subsidy, the Baptist Union opted not to accept the compensation for unreturned property.  The MOC provided 2.8 million koruna ($128,000) in grants for religiously oriented cultural activities in response to applications from a variety of religious groups.

Throughout the year, the Communist Party (a supporter of the coalition government but not an official coalition member and holding no ministries) supported legislation (which it introduced in 2017) to tax the remaining portion of financial compensation for property that could not be returned, estimated at approximately 46 billion koruna ($2.1 billion).  The draft legislation, which some parliamentarians said they opposed, was scheduled to be voted on in 2019.

The government reported that, between January and September 2017, the most recent period for which data were available, it settled 446 claims with religious groups for agricultural property and 192 claims for nonagricultural property.  (An earlier government report had incorrectly cited a higher number of settled claims for agricultural and nonagricultural property in the first three months of 2017.)  At the end of this period, 66 agricultural and 89 nonagricultural property claims had not been adjudicated, and 1,318 lawsuits filed by religious groups in the courts to appeal government restitution decisions were pending.

In August the Supreme Court upheld the 2017 ruling by the South Moravian Regional Court in Brno that overturned a decision by the Brno Municipal Court earlier that year holding that the Brno Jewish Community (BJC) had legal title to a property in possession of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.  The Supreme Court and the South Moravian Regional Court both held the property belonged to the ministry.  The BJC had filed its claim in 2013 based on church restitution legislation, and the ministry had rejected the claim in 2014.

The city of Prostejov continued to oppose the restoration of a former Jewish cemetery by the Kolel Damesek Eliezer Foundation, a U.S. charity, and the FJC.  The cemetery, which along with its remaining tombstones the MOC designated as a cultural monument, was destroyed by the Nazis and later converted into a park.  Vladimir Spidla, who was an adviser to former Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka, continued to mediate the dispute.

In July a district court in Prague convicted former SPD Party Secretary Jaroslav Stanik of hate speech after he stated publicly in November 2017 that Jews, Roma, and homosexuals should be shot right after birth.  The court issued a criminal order allowing for a suspended sentence up to one year or a fine if the defendant did not appeal it.  Stanik appealed the criminal order.  The Prague 1 District Court indefinitely postponed an appeals hearing scheduled for September for reasons of Stanik’s health.

In October President Zeman bestowed the Medal for Merits to the director of a state nursing school in Prague for “fighting intolerant ideology,” widely seen as a reference to Islam, after she barred a Somali student from wearing a hijab at school.

During municipal and senate elections in October, the SPD Party and its leader Tomio Okamura ran on an anti-Islam platform, posting notices on billboards reading “No to Islam, No to Terrorists.”  The party did not win any senate seats and attained 155 out of 61,892 seats in municipal assemblies.

In February the government granted asylum to eight Chinese Christians and rejected asylum applications of 70 others.  The Chinese Christian applicants had all applied in 2016 on the grounds of religious persecution in China.  Fourteen other applicants withdrew their applications before the government announced its decisions.  The 70 applicants whom the government rejected remained in the country at year’s end while they appealed their cases.

In April then-Deputy Chairman (later Chairman) of the Senate Jaroslav Kubera again sponsored and participated in an annual march and concert against anti-Semitism.  The march opened the government-funded 15th annual Culture against Anti-Semitism Festival.  Festival-goers signed a petition against anti-Semitism initiated by Senator Daniela Filipiova.  Approximately 600 people attended the event.

The government funded religiously oriented cultural activities, including the Night of Churches held in several cities, the annual National Pilgrimage of St. Wenceslaus, KRISTFEST (a festival of seminars, workshops, and musical performances on religious themes), the Concert in Memory of Holocaust Victims, the annual Hussite Festival (commemorating the religious teaching of reformation leader Jan Hus), and the Romani Pilgrimage, organized by the Catholic Diocese of Olomouc.

The MOI said it continued to cooperate with the Jewish community on protection of Jewish sites in Prague and across the country, but did not provide details.

The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to NGO In IUSTITIA, there were reports of 17 religiously motivated hate crimes during the year, 13 against Muslims and four against Jews, compared with 34 such cases in 2017.  In IUSTITIA did not provide details of the incidents.

In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, the MOI reported 27 criminal offenses with anti-Semitic motives, compared with 28 cases in 2016.  The MOI reported three crimes with anti-Muslim motives in 2017, compared with seven in 2016.  The MOI did not provide details of the incidents.

In March press reported police had arrested a 70-year-old man who in 2017 caused two trains to derail near Mlada Boleslav, approximately 40 miles north of Prague, and left Arabic messages at the scene in what authorities described as an attempt to provoke a reaction against Muslims.  According to state attorney Marek Bodlak, the man left leaflets “containing linguistically garbled threatening texts to evoke that they were written by a jihadist.”  Bodlak told newspaper Lidove noviny, “The accused is a native Czech citizen, motivated by the effort to raise concerns among the population about the Muslim migration wave and the commission of terrorist attacks.”  The man’s trial was pending at year’s end.

According to a July survey of more than 800 persons by the Median polling agency, 35 percent said they did not mind interacting with Muslims in public places, but 80 percent did not want them as neighbors or want a mosque in their neighborhood, and 81 percent said they would be bothered if their child had a relationship with a Muslim.  Citizens with less education and over the age of 45 were more likely to cite fear of Muslims.  Respondents with greater interactions with Muslims reported more positive attitudes towards them.

In March the Municipal Theatre in Zlin received an anonymous anti-Semitic letter after it presented a play based on local developments following the efforts to restore the former Jewish cemetery in the nearby city of Prostejov.  The letter stated, “The Jews are unwanted immigrants who have the obligation to immediately disappear abroad or in gas.”  Police were investigating the case at year’s end.

The MOI reported 18 private “white power” music concerts took place in the country, where participants expressed anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi views.  The MOI estimated approximately 50 to 100 persons attended a typical “white power” concert.

According to press reports, at a soccer match on November 4 between the Sparta Prague and Slavia Prague clubs, fans of the former shouted anti-Semitic taunts at Slavia, including “Jude Slavia,” alluding to the club’s supposed Jewish links.  An interior ministry spokesperson said the chant was not motivated by “hatred towards a group of people for their alleged or actual race, ethnic group…” and that the football association should address the issue.  Pavel Stingl, a documentary filmmaker, organized an exhibition, titled “Football:  A Century of Fouls,” examining the sport’s relationship with fascism when the country was under Nazi occupation and highlighting the involvement of Jews in soccer’s development in the country.  Stingl said he was motivated by the failure of government and soccer officials to address the problem of anti-Semitism among fans and because Sparta fans had posted anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi messages on social media.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric on the internet increased, according to the MOI.  Discussions on social networks or in the comments sections under news articles featured anti-Muslim hate speech.  For example, a discussion under an online series of articles on the Muslim community in the country published by mainstream newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes included anti-Islamic posts, including one stating that “Islam is a cancer on democracy.”  In contrast to the previous year, there were no reports of demonstrations protesting against Islam or the acceptance of refugees from Muslim countries.

In May the state prosecutor’s office in Ceske Budejovice halted the prosecution of Martin Konvicka, leader of the Block Against Islamization Party (BPI), whom it had charged in 2016 with incitement of hatred and suppression of rights and freedoms.  The prosecutor’s office dropped the charges due to a failure to secure evidence in a timely fashion from the online social network in which it alleged Konvicka posted statements calling for the creation of concentration camps for Muslims and their physical annihilation.  The BPI held no seats in parliament.

In January the Supreme Court upheld the verdict of a regional court in Jihlava that sentenced well-known anti-Semitic blogger Adam Bartos to a conditional sentence of one year in prison with two years of probation (meaning he would serve the prison sentence if found guilty of another crime during the two-year probation period) for incitement to hatred and defamation in March 2017.  The verdict concerned a note Bartos wrote in 2015 supporting an 1899 Jewish blood libel trial.  In June the Prague 1 District Court convicted Bartos of incitement to hatred and Holocaust denial on the internet, in public speeches, and books and sentenced him to a conditional sentence of two years in prison.  Bartos appealed the verdict.  In November the Municipal Court in Prague upheld the decision.  Bartos appealed to the Supreme Court, where the case remained pending at year’s end.

In May the Czech Bar Association fined bar member Klara Samkova 25,000 koruna ($1,100) for publicly cursing the Turkish ambassador in June 2016.  Samkova compared Islam to Nazism in a statement read in front of the Turkish embassy.

The government-funded Endowment Fund for Holocaust Victims, established by the FJC, again contributed 4.5 million koruna ($205,000) to 13 institutions providing health and social care to approximately 500 Holocaust survivors.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy continued to engage government officials from the MOC, especially the Department of Churches, on issues such as property restitution to religious groups and religious tolerance.  In June SEHI and embassy representatives met with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to reiterate continued support for the goals of the Terezin Declaration, the welfare of Holocaust survivors, and issues of concern to them and others, including property restitution, eligibility for state pensions, and the status of the Prostejov Jewish cemetery.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials continued to meet with representatives of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim groups to reaffirm U.S. commitment to religious tolerance and to hear the groups’ views on interfaith relations.

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief.  The 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK, however, concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, and in many instances, violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity.  In October the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity remained unchanged despite a series of diplomatic engagements between the country and other nations.  In December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”  The assembly specifically expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.”  In May, after diplomatic discussions involving the U.S. Secretary of State, the government released a U.S. citizen pastor who had been arrested in 2017.  A South Korean nongovernmental organization (NGO) said defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until March 2018 and other sources reported 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 120 killings and 90 disappearances.  The government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders.  According to NGOs and academics, the government’s policy toward religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state.  The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make arrests and punishments difficult to verify.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.  There were conflicting estimates of the number of religious groups in the country and their membership.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the country.  In July the Secretary of State hosted the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, at which the Vice President said, “…North Korea’s persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth.  It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding, and often fatal.”  The United States cosponsored a resolution at the UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council condemning the government’s systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations.  In December the Department of State submitted the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress, identifying three entities and three North Korean officials responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship.  Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  In a 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, and 800 Roman Catholics.  The report noted Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement, had approximately 15,000 practitioners.  Consulting shamans and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify.  The South Korea-based Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB) reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.  South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners in the country is considerably higher than reported by the authorities.  UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000.  The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides that “Citizens shall have the right of faith.  This right guarantees them chances to build religious facilities or perform religious rituals.”  It further provides, however, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

According to a 2014 official government document, “Freedom of religion is allowed and provided by the State law within the limit necessary for securing social order, health, social security, morality and other human rights.”

The country’s criminal code punishes a “person who, without authorization, imports, makes, distributes or illegally keeps drawings, photos, books, video recordings, or electronic media that reflect decadent, carnal, or foul contents.”  The criminal code also bans engagement in “superstitious activities in exchange for money or goods.”  The NGO Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK) reported that under these two provisions, ownership of religious materials brought in from abroad is illegal and punishable by imprisonment and other forms of severe punishment, including execution.  Also according to the HRNK, the law banning “superstitious activities” is specifically intended to prohibit fortune telling and enable the imprisonment of fortunetellers.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to deal harshly with those who engaged in almost any religious practices through executions, torture, beatings, and arrests.  An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions.  Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said a policy of guilt by association was often applied in cases of detentions of Christians, meaning that the relatives of Christians were also detained regardless of their beliefs.

In February CSW released a survey of 100 sources, including refugees that asked how respondents thought the situation for religious believers had changed since 2007.  Twenty-four percent said there was less freedom, 13 percent said about the same, 6 percent said more freedom, and 57 percent said they did not know.  One refugee said there was no religious freedom in the country, and another said that if someone were found to be a Christian, he or she would immediately be shot.

Religious and human rights groups outside the country continued to provide numerous reports that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs.  According to the NKDB, there was a report in 2016 of disappearances of persons who were found to be practicing religion within detention facilities.  International NGOs and North Korean defectors reported any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps.  According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2018 report, authorities punished both superstitious activities and religious activities, but the latter more severely.  In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors were involved with the Bible or Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitions with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

The government deported, detained, and sometimes released foreigners who allegedly engaged in religious activity within its borders.

In May, after diplomatic discussions involving the U.S. Secretary of State, the government released from prison a U.S. pastor arrested in 2017 for “hostile acts” toward the state.  In June Religion News Service reported the pastor said that when he asked his captors what hostile acts he had committed, they told him his crime was prayer.  Time reported the pastor had worked for several weeks at the privately funded Pyongyang University for Science and Technology, which was supported in part by evangelical Christians outside the country.

The Korea Times reported in December that at least three Republic of Korea (ROK) citizen missionaries remained detained in the DPRK despite the ROK government’s efforts to negotiate their release.  One had been held since 2013, and two others since 2014.

The NKDB aggregated 1,341 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country reported by defectors and other sources from 2007 to March 2018.  Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners.  Of the 1,341 cases, DPRK authorities reportedly killed 120 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 90 (6.7 percent), physically injured 48 (3.6 percent), deported or forcibly moved 51 (3.8 percent), detained 794 (59.2 percent), and restricted movement of 133 (9.9 percent).    

In October the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK reported to the UN General Assembly the country’s use of arbitrary executions, political prison camps, and torture amounting to crimes against humanity remained unchanged despite a series of diplomatic engagements between the country and other nations.  In December the UN General Assembly passed a resolution that condemned “the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”  The assembly specifically expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association.”  The assembly also strongly urged the government “to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”  The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the relevant conclusions and recommendations of the COI.  The February 2014 COI final report concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association.  It further concluded that, in many instances, the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended that the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable.

The COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat, as it challenged the official cult of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government.  The report concluded Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside the state-controlled churches.  The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

Defectors continued to report the government increased its investigation, repression, and persecution of unauthorized religious groups in recent years, but access to information on current conditions was limited.

According to KINU’s 2018 report, “it is practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.”  According to the NKDB, the constitution represents only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters, and only when the regime deems it necessary to use it as a policy tool.  A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country.  In its 2018 report the NKDB said only 4.1 percent of 12,885 defectors said they had seen a Bible when they lived there, although survey data reflected a slight increase in recent years.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and current leader Kim Jong Un.  Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment.

Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology.  Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country.

The HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes.  There were no exceptions for these or any form of military service for conscientious objectors.

While shamanism has always been practiced to some degree in the country, NGOs noted an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang.  These NGOs reported government that authorities continued to react by taking measures against the practice of shamanism.  In October 2017 the HRNK reported at least one individual had recently been imprisoned for fortune telling and other “crimes.”  Defector reports cited an increase in party members consulting fortunetellers in order to gauge the best time to defect.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2016 there were 121 religious facilities in North Korea, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church.  A 2014 government report also cited the existence of 64 Buddhist temples but said the temples had lost religious significance in the country and remained only as cultural heritage sites or tourist destinations.  The 2015 KINU white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and noted most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities nor saw Buddhist monks as religious figures.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity.  The Chilgol Church was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, who was a Presbyterian deaconess.  The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these five churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations.  Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches.  One defector said when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held on suspicion of being secret Christians.  This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and allowing persons to attend church was that many of the attendees converted to Christianity, so authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome.  Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches, and according to the 2018 KINU white paper, no Protestant or Catholic churches existed in the country except in Pyongyang.  In the paper, KINU also said foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed the door of the church being closed on Easter Sunday when they visited without prior consultation, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged.

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children.  Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them.  Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely.

KINU also reported in 2015 the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country such as the Korean Christian Federation (KCF), Korea Buddhist Federation, Korean Catholic Association (KCA), Korea Chondoist Central Guidance Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists.  The NKDB white paper also noted the existence of the Korea Orthodox Committee, which it said is a Russian Orthodox Church organization.  There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established KCA provided basic services at the Changchung Roman Catholic Cathedral but had no ties to the Vatican.  There also were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

According to foreign religious leaders who traveled to the country, there were Protestant pastors at Bongsu and Chilgol Churches, although it was not known if they were resident or visiting pastors.

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-Giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country.  Several of them reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

According to a report in Orthodox Christianity on August 31, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow ordained two priests to serve in North Korea.  The report said four students from North Korea had attended the Khabarovsk Theological Seminary in the past two years.  The patriarch told Chairman of the Orthodox Committee of North Korea Vitaly Kim Chi So, “I believe that with the advent of the clergy in North Korea, the needs of Orthodox believers will be met,” according to the report.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.”  According to the 2018 KINU report, however, not one defector who had testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches”.  According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none had ever seen any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed.  Observers stated that “family worship centers” may be part of the state-controlled KCF.

The COI report concluded authorities systematically sought to hide from the international community the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

According to KINU’s 2018 report, the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship.  Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.”  Foreigners who met with representatives of government-sponsored religious organizations stated they believed some members were genuinely religious, but they noted others appeared to know little about religious doctrine.  KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom.  In January the NGO Open Doors and Express.co.uk reported pictures showing religious congregations in churches in the country were staged.

In May a six-person international delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) including WCC General Secretary Rev. Olav Fykse Tveit and WCRC General Secretary Rev. Chris Ferguson visited Pyongyang at the invitation of the KCF.  In August the KCF was permitted to officially accept an invitation from the United Methodist Church to deepen relationships.

In 2017, NK News, an independent news provider based outside the country, reported the government had attempted to appear less hostile to Christianity by sending local clergy to international Christian seminars and publishing its own official translation of the King James Bible.  Also in 2017, NK News interviewed an official of the privately funded Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, who said he occasionally attended the local Protestant church in Pyongyang where the pastor’s sermon was “normally good” but often focused on progovernment politics.  The official added he and his colleagues confined their worship to 6 a.m. prayers in a small university office.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports and airports to search for religious items as well as other items deemed objectionable by the government.

Little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion.  There were no reports members of government-controlled religious groups suffered discrimination, but the government reportedly regarded members of underground churches or those connected to missionary activities as subversive elements.  Scholars said authorities meted out strict punishment to forcibly returned defectors, including those who had contact with Christian missionaries or other foreigners while in China.

The government reportedly allowed certain forms of religious education, including programs at three-year colleges for training Protestant and Buddhist clergy, a religious studies program at Kim Il-sung University, a graduate institution that trained pastors, and other seminaries related to Christian or Buddhist groups.

Christians were restricted to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies individuals on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime based on political opinion and religious views.  The songbun classification system results in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence.  According to KINU the government continued to view Christianity in particular as a means of foreign, Western encroachment.  KINU again reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year emphasizing ways to detect and identity individuals who engage in spreading Christianity.

According to an April Associated Press article, dozens of missionaries in China near the border, most of whom were South Koreans or ethnic Koreans, worked with North Koreans.  According to the Rev. Kim Kyou Ho, head of the Seoul-based Chosen People Network, in recent years, 10 such front-line missionaries and pastors died mysteriously and the North Korean government was suspected of involvement in those deaths.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border of China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and alleged these groups were involved in intelligence gathering.  The government reportedly continued tightening border controls in an effort to crack down on any such activities.

The government continued to allow some overseas faith-based aid organizations to operate inside the country to provide humanitarian assistance.  Such organizations reported they were not allowed to proselytize; their contact with local citizens was limited and strictly monitored, and government escorts accompanied them at all times.  Some workers of such organizations reported being permitted to take their personal Bibles into the country.

According to press reports, in October the South Korean President delivered to Pope Francis an invitation from Chairman Kim Jong Un to visit the country.  According to a South Korean press secretary, Pope Francis said, “I will definitely answer if I get the invitation, and I can go.”  In December Voice of America reported a Vatican official said it was unlikely the pope would visit in 2019.

Media reported in August that, according to a Russian Orthodox Church official, a delegation was to visit Pyongyang in October to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Russia-DPRK ties.  Patriarch Kirill reportedly said “in the northern part of Korea, the DPRK, a society of Orthodox believers of North Korea has been created and is actively working.”  In November a Russian delegation headed by Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Volokolamsk – the most important cleric in the Russian Orthodox Church after Patriarch Kirill – visited Pyongyang and delivered a gift from Patriarch Kirill to Kim Jong Un.  Media reported Metropolitan Hilarion celebrated the Divine Liturgy in the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity together with Father Feodor Kim, dean of the Church.  During the celebration, they reportedly offered prayers in memory of Andrei Karlov, who served in the country from 2001 to 2006 and had made a special effort to build a Russian Orthodox church in Pyongyang.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to the fear their activities would be reported to the authorities.

The COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

In 2017, KINU reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify.  While some NGOs and academics estimated up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith underground, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers.  Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes.  Some defector reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available and secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China.  Some NGOs reported individual underground churches were connected to each other through well-established networks.  The government did not allow outsiders access to confirm such claims.

According to KINU, defectors reported being unaware of any recognized religious organizations that maintained branches outside Pyongyang.  Religious ceremonies such as for weddings and funerals were almost unknown.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country.  In June, however, the United States and the DPRK held their first ever head of state summit, in Singapore, and both leaders agreed to meet again in 2019.

The U.S. Secretary of State was involved in diplomatic discussions that resulted in the release of an American pastor in May, and accompanied him from the country to the United States.

In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the Secretary of State hosted survivors of religious persecution including Ji Hyeon-a, a North Korean defector whom North Korean authorities tortured and imprisoned because she had a Bible.  After a failed escape attempt, North Korean authorities forced her to have an abortion.  She was later able to escape.  In his remarks, the Vice President said, “…North Korea’s persecution of Christians has no rival on the Earth.  It is unforgiving, systematic, unyielding, and often fatal.  The mere possession of a Christian Bible is a capital offense.  And those identified by the regime as Christians are regularly executed or condemned with their families to North Korea’s gulags.”

The United States cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.”  The resolution further expressed grave concern over the country’s denial of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, as well as of the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and association, and urged the government to take immediate steps to ensure these rights.

In December the Department of State submitted the Report on Human Rights Abuses and Censorship in North Korea to Congress, identifying three entities and three North Korean officials responsible for or associated with serious human rights abuses or censorship.

The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country.  The United States has made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries.  Senior U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country, including some Christian humanitarian organizations.

Since 2001, the country has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Denmark

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the right of individuals to worship according to their beliefs.  It establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the national church, which has privileges not available to other religious groups.  Other religious groups must register with the government to receive tax and other benefits.  In August a law to ban masks and face coverings in public spaces, including burqas and niqabs, entered into force.  The government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list during the year, banning them from entering the country.  In December parliament enacted a law instituting a handshake requirement for persons becoming citizens that critics said targeted Muslims.  In June a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision for individuals younger than age 18 acquired enough signatures to be debated in parliament.  The measure, strongly opposed by the Jewish and Muslim communities, was scheduled for a vote in 2019, and a majority of political parties said they would vote against it.  In January the government unveiled an action plan against what it called “ghetto” communities, which critics interpreted to mean Muslims, that included mandatory religious teaching on Christmas and Easter during day care for children receiving government benefits.  The immigration and integration minister made statements critical of Islam.

Police reported 142 religiously motivated crimes in 2017, 61 percent more than in 2016.  There were 67 incidents, including assault and a death threat, against Muslims and 38 against Jews.  Separately, the Jewish community in Copenhagen reported 30 anti-Semitic acts in that city in 2017, including aggravated harassment, threats, and hate speech.  Jewish and Muslim community leaders stated most victims did not report incidents because they believed police would not follow up.  The Nye Borgerlige Party adopted a platform critical of Islam.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officials regularly met with foreign ministry and other government representatives, including at the cabinet level, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over proposals to ban male circumcision and the prohibition on masks and face coverings.  They also met with religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, the ELC, Buddhists, and humanists and atheists, as well as nongovernmental organizations, to discuss their concerns and stress the importance of religious tolerance and diversity.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to an October estimate by Statistics Denmark, the government statistical office, 75 percent of all citizens are members of the ELC.

The University of Copenhagen’s Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies estimated in October 2017 that Muslims constitute 5.3 percent of the population.  Muslim groups are concentrated in the largest cities, particularly Copenhagen, Odense, and Aarhus.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates other religious groups, each constituting less than 1 percent of the population, include, in descending order of size, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, and nondenominational Christians.  Although estimates vary, the Jewish Society (previously known as Mosaike) stated the Jewish population numbers approximately 7,000, most of whom live in the Copenhagen metropolitan area.  A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found 30 percent of persons identified as religiously unaffiliated.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares the ELC as the country’s established Church, which shall receive state support and to which the reigning monarch must belong.  The constitution also states individuals shall be free to form congregations to worship according to their beliefs, providing nothing “at variance with good morals or public order shall be taught or done.”  It specifies that, “rules for religious bodies dissenting from the established Church shall be laid down by statute.”  It stipulates that no person may be deprived of access to the full enjoyment of civil and political rights because of religious beliefs, and that these beliefs shall not be used to evade compliance with civic duty.  It prohibits requiring individuals to make personal financial contributions to religious denominations to which they do not adhere.

The law prohibits hate speech, including religious hate speech, and specifies as penalties a fine (amount unspecified) or a maximum of one year’s imprisonment.  If a religious leader disseminates the hate speech, the penalties increase to a fine or a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.

The law permits the government to prevent religious figures who are foreign nationals and do not already have a residence permit from entering the country if the Ministry of Immigration and Integration determines their presence poses a threat to the public order.  In such cases, the ministry places the individuals on a national sanctions list and bars them from entry into the country for a two-year period, which may be renewed.

The ELC is the only religious group that receives funding through state grants and voluntary taxes paid through payroll deduction from its members.  Members receive a tax credit for their donations to the ELC.  The voluntary taxes account for an estimated 86 percent of the ELC’s operating budget; the remaining 14 percent is provided through a combination of voluntary donations by congregants and government grants.  Members of other recognized religious communities cannot contribute via payroll deduction but may donate to their own community voluntarily and receive an income tax credit.  The ELC and other state-recognized religious communities carry out registration of civil unions, births, and deaths for their members.

On May 31, the government enacted a law prohibiting masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, in public spaces.  Violators may be fined 1,000-10,000 kroner ($150-$1,500).  The maximum fine is for those who violate the law four or more times.

The Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs has responsibility for granting official status to religious groups besides the ELC through recognition by royal decree (for groups recognized prior to 1970) or through official registration.  According to the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs, there are (as of November) 315 religious groups and congregations the government officially recognizes or that are affiliated with recognized groups:  208 Christian groups, 62 Muslim, 17 Buddhist, nine Hindu, three Jewish, and 16 other groups and congregations, including the Baha’i Faith, the Alevi Muslim community, and followers of the indigenous Norse belief system Forn Sidr.

Recognized religious groups have the right to perform legal marriage ceremonies, name and baptize children with legal effect, issue legal death certificates, obtain residence permits for foreign clergy, establish cemeteries, and receive tax-deductible financial donations and various valued-added tax exemptions.  A religious community law enacted in December 2017 effective on January 1 allows only religious communities recognized before 1970 to issue name, baptismal, and marriage certificates.  According to the law, this privilege will expire for all religious communities except the ELC in 2023.  Members of other religious communities or individuals unaffiliated with a recognized religious group may opt to have birth and death certificates issued by the health authority.

Groups not recognized by either royal decree or a government registration process, such as the Church of Scientology, are entitled to engage in religious practices without any kind of public registration, but members of those groups must marry in a civil ceremony in addition to any religious ceremony.  Unrecognized religious groups are not granted fully tax-exempt status, but they have some tax benefits; for example, contributions by members are tax-deductible.

The religious community law that came into force in January codifies for the first time the registration process for religious communities other than the ELC and eliminates the previous distinction between those recognized by royal decree and those approved through registration.  For a religious community to be recognized, it must have at least 150 members, while a congregation, which the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs considers as a group within one of the major world religions (Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam), must consist of at least 50 adult members to be approved.  For congregations located in sparsely populated regions, such as Greenland, the government applies a lower population threshold, varying according to the total population of the region.  The guidelines for approval of religious organizations require religious groups seeking registration to submit a document on the group’s central traditions; descriptions of its most important rituals; a copy of its rules, regulations, and organizational structure; an audited financial statement; information about the group’s leadership; and a statement on the number of adult members permanently residing in the country.  Groups must also have formal procedures for membership and make their teachings available to all members.  The Ministry of Justice makes the final decision on registration applications after receiving recommendations from a group consisting of a lawyer, religious historian, sociologist of religion, and nonordained theologian.

The law bans judges from wearing religious symbols such as headscarves, turbans, skullcaps, and large crucifixes while in court.

All public and private schools, including religious schools, receive government financial support.  Public schools must teach ELC theology; the instructors are public school teachers rather than persons provided by the ELC.  Religious classes are compulsory in grades 1-9, although students may be exempted if a parent presents a request in writing.  No alternative classes are offered.  The ELC course curriculum in grades 1-6 focuses on life philosophies and ethics, biblical stories, and the history of Christianity.  In grades 7-9, the curriculum adds a module on world religions.  The course is optional in grade 10.  If the student is 15 years old or older, the student and parent must jointly request the student’s exemption.  Private schools are also required to teach religion classes in grades 1-9, including world religion in grades 7-9.  The religion classes taught in grades 1-9 need not include ELC theology.  Collective prayer in schools is allowed if it does not include proselytizing.  Prayers are optional at the discretion of each school.  They may consist of ELC, other Christian, Muslim, or Jewish prayers, and students may opt out of participating.

Military conscription is mandatory for all physically fit men older than 18.  Women may participate but are not obligated to do so.  Military service is typically four months.  There is an exemption for conscientious objectors, including on religious grounds, allowing conscientious objectors to perform alternative civilian service, which also has a period of four months, instead.  An individual wishing to perform alternative service as a conscientious objector must apply within eight weeks of receiving notice of military service.  The application is adjudicated by the Conscientious Objector Administration and must show that military service of any kind is incompatible with the individual’s conscience.  The alternative service may take place in various social and cultural institutions, peace movements, organizations related to the United Nations, churches and ecumenical organizations, and environmental organizations throughout the country.

The law prohibits ritual slaughter of animals without prior stunning, including kosher and halal slaughter.  The law allows for slaughter according to religious rites with prior stunning and limits such slaughter to cattle, sheep, goats, and chickens.  All slaughter must take place at a slaughterhouse.  Slaughterhouses practicing ritual slaughter are obliged to register with the Veterinary and Food Administration.  Violations of this law are punishable by fines or up to four months in prison.  Halal and kosher meat may be imported.

A law that came into force on May 1 requires clergy members with legal authorization to officiate at marriages to have an adequate mastery of the Danish language and to complete a two-day course on family law and civil rights, administered by the Ministry of Culture and Ecclesiastic Affairs.  The law also includes a requirement that religious workers “must not behave or act in a way that makes them unworthy to exercise public authority.”  Religious workers perceived as not complying with the new provisions may be stripped of their right to perform marriages.

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

Government Practices

During the year, the government added seven new individuals, including two Americans, to a “hate preachers” list that barred those individuals from entering the country.  The Ministry of Immigration and Integration stated these individuals threatened the nation’s values and public security.

In April Minister of Justice Soren Pape Poulsen stated the government enacted the law banning face coverings because concealing the face was antithetical to the social interaction and coexistence that was crucial in a society.  According to a 2010 survey by the University of Copenhagen, an estimated 150 to 200 women in the country wore a niqab and three wore a burqa.  Widespread media reporting portrayed the ban as targeting Muslim women.  Poulsen called the niqab “incompatible with the values in Danish society,” while Martin Henriksen, the immigration spokesperson for the Danish People’s Party, one of the country’s largest political parties, called the vote a “statement from parliament that the burqa and niqab do not belong in Denmark.”  Religious groups and several human rights groups protested the ban.  Amnesty International said the law “essentially criminalizes women for their choice of clothing, making a mockery of the freedoms Denmark purports to uphold.”

In August an estimated 1,300 Muslims and non-Muslims wearing veils marched from Norrebro, a neighborhood in Copenhagen with a high concentration of immigrants, to a local police station to protest the law banning face coverings.  Ministry of Justice officials declined to prosecute protesters, stating wearing a burqa or niqab in this instance was an act of protest and protected as freedom of expression.

In the first six months of the ban, 109 violations were filed with the National Police, resulting in 22 charges and 13 fines; 31 other cases resulted in a warning, with the person either removing the face covering or leaving the public space.  Eight other inquiries were dismissed because the violation was in connection with a demonstration.  Media reports stated the first fine involved a woman who wore a niqab in a shopping complex.  She received a 1,000 kroner ($150) fine, and authorities asked her to remove the veil or leave the public space; she chose to leave.  The Muslim community reported one family emigrated because of the law.

According to the a November 15 executive order from the minister of church affairs, the religious community law that entered into force in January incentivized individual congregations within a religious community to formally register with the government in order to receive tax benefits.  Some religious groups also anticipated that under the new law, individuals would be able to make tax-deductible donations to specific congregations rather than to the broader religious community to which the congregation belonged.  As such, the total number of registered religious communities and congregations was expected to increase.

In June parliament debated a citizen-driven petition to ban circumcision of individuals younger than 18.  Although the petition proposed banning circumcision of minors of both sexes, the law already prohibited female circumcision.  The petition acquired the necessary signatures pursuant to a new law requiring petitions with more than 50,000 signatures to be debated in parliament.  According to a January poll by research firm Megafon, 83 percent of persons expressed public support for the ban.  Advocates of the ban led by NGO INTACT Denmark stressed their concern for the rights of children, but Muslim and Jewish communities opposed it and formed an interreligious working group to lobby the government against it.  The debate on banning circumcision also played out on social media.  For example, individuals posted anti-Semitic comments – such as “bloody child abuse is part of Jewish rituals” – on INTACT Denmark’s Facebook page.  On July 11, Rabbi Melchior of the Jewish Society said, “The opponents of circumcision are not anti-Semites, but if they succeed in convincing the politicians into banning it, it will be an anti-Semitic act.”  Finn Rudaizky, a former leader of the Jewish Society of Denmark, stated in June that, “In addition to children’s welfare activists, many others use the situation to show that they are against Jews, Muslims, and they can express anti-Semitism and xenophobia without admitting to it.”

In October Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen linked the country’s historical rescue of the Jews in 1943 to the debate on circumcision, vowing to protect the Jews once again.  A majority of parliamentarians came out against the ban on its first reading in November, and at year’s end, the bill sat with the Health and Elderly Committee for further study before a final parliamentary vote scheduled for the spring of 2019.

In January the government announced a new action plan to eliminate “parallel societies” emerging from what it called “ghetto” communities.  Part of the government’s definition of “ghetto” community was a non-Western majority population, which media widely interpreted to mean Muslims.  Initiatives parliament enacted during the year included doubling of penalties for crimes committed in ghetto-designated communities and mandatory enrollment of children in day care or loss of child benefits.  The Muslim community expressed concerns about the compulsory day care, which had a component of 25 hours per week of instruction, including religious teaching about Christmas and Easter.

In February Minister of Immigration and Integration Inger Stojberg wrote an article titled “The Sad Truth about Islam” for the BT newspaper and also posted on social media.  Stojberg stated Danes had “lost” and “become scared by a religion [Islam] whose fanatics have threatened us to silence.”  She said, “[I]t is primarily the followers of the so-called religion of peace, Islam, which actually engages [sic] with weapons, violence, and terror.”  Citing the play The Book of Mormon, which had recently opened in Copenhagen, in the article, Stojberg said performing a similar play in the country about Islam was “unthinkable.”  Stojberg has had round-the-clock police protection since 2015 due to numerous threats against her.

In May Stojberg called for Muslims fasting during Ramadan to take time off from work because she believed they were unable to perform their jobs safely.  Colleagues from her own Liberal (Venstre) Party called for Stojberg to provide evidence to support her statement; she did not respond.

On December 20, parliament enacted into law a proposal introduced by the Conservative and Danish People’s Parties requiring persons obtaining Danish citizenship to shake hands during naturalization ceremonies.  Critics said the law, scheduled to take effect on January 1, 2019, targeted Muslims, who declined on religious grounds to shake hands with members of the opposite sex.  Media reported some of the mayors who conducted naturalization ceremonies objected to the law, which they called awkward and irrelevant to an applicant’s qualifications.  Mayor of Sonderborg Erik Lauritzen announced he would overlook the handshake requirement if applicants showed respect for authorities another way; Mayor of Aabenraa Thomas Andresen stated he would not feel comfortable reporting a noncompliant applicant and urged the national government to administer the ceremony rather than the municipality.  Imam Falah Malik from Nusrat Djahan Mosque called on applicants to show respect another way but, if a handshake was required between members of the opposite sex, to skip the ceremony.  Parliamentarian and spokesperson on immigration for the Danish People’s Party Henriksen said of the law, “If one can’t do something that simple and straightforward [shake hands], there’s no reason to become a Danish citizen.”

In September TV2 Ostjylland reported the municipality of Horsens would offer citizens a chance to specifically opt out of halal or kosher meat at municipal institutions starting in January 2019.  Horsens city councilor from the Danish People’s Party Michael Nedersoe said, “This is an offer for those people who don’t want a Muslim prayer over their food or think halal slaughter is on the edge of animal abuse.”  The Danish People’s Party had called on municipal authorities to try to ban halal meat from municipal institutions during local elections in November 2017.  Henriksen, the party’s immigration spokesperson, said at the time, “It’s wrong when the food in public institutions is blessed by an imam.”  Opponents in Horsens to the originally proposed ban on halal meat, such as Horsens city councilor Saliem Bader from the Social Democratic Party, stated the new proposal did not ban halal meat but rather offered people a chance to opt out of eating it.

The government continued to provide armed security, consisting of police and military, for Jewish sites it considered to be at high risk of terrorist attack, including Copenhagen’s synagogue and community center and schools.  Officials from the Jewish Society reported continued good relations with police and the ability to communicate their concerns to authorities, including the minister of justice.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were reports of religiously motivated incidents against Muslims, Jews, and members of other religious groups.  Jewish community leaders from the Jewish Society and B’nai B’rith stated anti-Semitic behavior emanated from Muslims rather than far-right or far-left ideologues.  Both Jewish and Muslim community leaders said most incidents were not reported because of a widespread belief police would not follow up or prosecute perpetrators.

According to police statistics for 2017, the most recent year for which data were available, there were 67 religiously motivated hate crimes against Muslims, 38 against Jews, and 37 against other religions.  The total of 142 crimes was 61 percent higher than the 88 reported in the previous year.  Forty-two crimes, typically vandalism, occurred at gravesites or religious institutions; 43 in public settings such as supermarkets, parks, or buses; 31 on the internet; 21, typically involving graffiti, at private residences; and five in the workplace or schools.

Representatives of Copenhagen’s Jewish Society separately reported 30 anti-Semitic acts against Copenhagen’s Jewish community, its community center, or synagogue in 2017.  The acts included two cases of aggravated and physical harassment, three cases of threats or intimidation, 24 cases of anti-Semitic slurs or language, and one uncategorized case.

In July the Copenhagen District Court charged Imam Mundhir Abdallah from the Masjid al-Faruq Mosque under the law against hate speech in religious preaching for posting a YouTube video in 2017 calling on Muslims to kill Jews.  Omar El-Hussein, who committed a terrorist attack at the Jewish synagogue in Copenhagen in 2015, had attended the same mosque the day before going on his shooting spree.  At year’s end, the case was pending trial.

In August a woman in the city of Odense prevented a Muslim woman from taking her parking space.  A video recording showed the woman stating she would not give up her parking spot because the other woman wore a headscarf.  The incident received prominent national news coverage.

police reported in 2017 was one where three men beat up a man in a parking lot after asking if he was Muslim.  In another case, a man threatened a Muslim woman with his dog and said, “You’re going to die… I don’t like Muslims…you are going to hell.”

In October 2017, a man posted threats of violence against Muslims as part of a self-described “poem as cultural input” on his Facebook page that authorities determined to be “macabre and threatening words.”  In October the Aalborg District Court convicted the man of hate speech and fined him 4,000 kroner ($610).

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 592 individuals identifying themselves as Jewish residents of Denmark responded to the online survey.  One-quarter said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 29 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  Twenty-four percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 85 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.

Members of both the Jewish and Muslim communities spoke highly of each other’s efforts in forming an interreligious working group to lobby government leaders against the proposed ban on circumcision.

A 2017 Pew Research Center poll found 20 percent of persons agreed that government policies should support religious values and beliefs in the country; 43 percent agreed with the statement that Islam was fundamentally incompatible with the country’s culture and values.

Nye Borgerlige, a political party established in 2015 and holding a single municipal political office in the country, described Islam as incompatible with Danish values.  The party, which said it would contest national elections in 2019, called on the state not to grant recognition to Muslim communities or award grants to Muslim schools and to refrain from selling public land on which to build mosques.  The party also advocated a ban on headscarves in public schools and for public officeholders.  In June Nye Borgerlige leader Pernille Vermund cited Mogens Glistrup, founder of the Progress Party, which was widely described as anti-Muslim, as her party’s inspiration.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with foreign ministry and other government officials, including cabinet members, to raise Jewish and Muslim concerns over the ban on masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, and the proposed ban on circumcision of minors.

Embassy officials met with various religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities throughout the year.  In January the U.S. Department of State’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia met with government officials and religious community leaders on ways to combat anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim sentiment.

In February the Ambassador met with Jewish community leaders from the Jewish Society to discuss the community’s concern regarding the proposed ban on circumcision.  In March embassy officials met with the Muslim Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim associations to discuss circumcision, the then-proposed ban on masks and face coverings, and its general views regarding religious freedom and tolerance in the country.  The Ambassador also met with the bishop of the ELC to reaffirm U.S. government commitment to religious freedom and tolerance.

In February and March embassy officials met with representatives from the Buddhist, humanist, and atheist communities to discuss concerns regarding registration as religious organizations and their access to politicians.  In October embassy representatives raised concerns about the pending circumcision ban with members of parliament’s Ecclesiastical Affairs Committee.

In October the Ambassador gave the keynote speech for Jewish organization B’nai B’rith, emphasizing the strong U.S. government commitment to religious freedom.  Her remarks were widely shared among the organization’s European branches.  The embassy amplified the Ambassador’s engagements with religious community officials throughout the year in embassy social media postings and on Facebook and Twitter.

Estonia

Executive Summary

The constitution declares there is no state church and protects the freedom of individuals to practice their religion.  It prohibits the incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law provides the procedure for registration of religious associations and religious societies and regulates their activities.  Unregistered religious associations are free to conduct religious activities but are not eligible for tax benefits.  The government continued to provide funds to the Council of Churches for ecumenical activities.  On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust.

In August unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.  A police investigation continued at year’s end.  Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.  In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

U.S. embassy officials discussed religious freedom and the importance of religious tolerance with government representatives.  The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including producing a featured video to commemorate National Religious Freedom Day.  The Ambassador and embassy staff continued to support dialogue on anti-Semitism and Holocaust education in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, civil society, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.3 million (September 2018).  According to the 2011 census, 29 percent of the population is religiously affiliated, 54 percent does not identify with any religion, and 17 percent does not state an affiliation.  According to current data from the Council of Churches, the Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church has 180,000 members (13.8 percent of the population), while the Estonian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (EOCMP) has 170,000 members (13.1 percent).  The Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church has 30,000 members (2.3 percent).  The Union of Free Evangelical and Baptist Churches of Estonia and the Roman Catholic Church in Estonia both have more than 6,400 members (1 percent together).  Other Christian groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Russian Old Believers, collectively constitute 1.1 percent of the population.  According to the 2011 census, there are small Jewish and Muslim communities of 2,500 members and 1,500 members, respectively.  Most religious adherents among the Russian-speaking population belong to the EOCMP and reside mainly in the capital or the northeastern part of the country.  According to census data, most of the country’s community of Russian Old Believers lives along the west bank of Lake Peipsi in the eastern part of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares there is no state church and stipulates freedom for individuals to belong to any religious group and practice any religion, both alone and in community with others, in public or in private, unless doing so is “detrimental to public order, health, or morals.”  The constitution also prohibits incitement of religious hatred, violence, or discrimination.  The law states that violations are punishable by fines or up to three years in prison.  The constitution recognizes the right to refuse military service for religious reasons but requires conscientious objectors to perform alternative service as provided by law.

The law regulates the activities of religious associations and religious societies.  Religious associations are defined as churches, congregations, unions of congregations, and monasteries.  Churches, congregations, and unions of congregations are required to have a management board.  The management board has the right to invite a minister of religion from outside the country.  The residence of at least half of the members of the management board must be in the country, in another member state of the European Economic Area, or in Switzerland.  The elected or appointed superior of a monastery serves as the management board for the monastery.  Religious societies are defined as voluntary organizations whose main activities include religious or ecumenical activities relating to morals, ethics, culture, and social rehabilitation activities outside the traditional forms of religious rites of a church or congregation.  Religious societies do not need to affiliate with a specific church or congregation.

The registration office of the Tartu County Court registers religious associations and religious societies.

To register, a religious association must have at least 12 members, and its management board must submit a notarized or digitally signed application, the minutes of its constitutive meeting, and a copy of its statutes.  The law treats registered religious associations as nonprofit entities entitled to some tax benefits if they apply for them, such as a value-added tax exemption.  There are more than 550 religious associations registered with the government.

The law does not prohibit activities by unregistered religious associations.  Unregistered religious associations, however, may not act as legal persons.  Unlike registered religious associations, unregistered associations are not eligible for tax benefits.

Religious societies are registered according to the law governing nonprofit associations and are entitled to the same tax benefits as religious associations.  To register as an NGO, a religious society must have a founding contract and statutes approved by its founders, who may be physical or legal persons.  The minimum number of founders is two.  The society must submit its registration application either electronically or on paper to the Tartu County Court registry office.

The law requires the commanding officer of each military unit to provide its members the opportunity to practice their religion.  Prison directors must also provide the opportunity for inmates to practice their religious beliefs.  The state funds police and border guard, military, and prison chaplains, who may belong to any registered religious denomination and must guarantee religious services for individuals of all faiths.

Optional basic religious instruction is available in public and private schools, funded by the state.  All schools must provide religious studies at the primary and secondary levels if students request these studies.  The courses offer a general introduction to different faiths.  Religious studies instructors may be lay teachers or clergy provided by religious groups.  There are also private religious schools.  All students, regardless of their religious affiliation or non-affiliation, may attend religious schools.  Attendance at religious services at religious schools is voluntary.  The majority of students attending a private religious school are not associated with the school’s religious affiliation.

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

Government Practices

According to the NGO register, six religious associations registered during the first 10 months of the year, including evangelical Protestant, Pentecostal, and other groups.

The government allocated 596,000 euros ($683,000) to the Estonian Council of Churches.  The council, which comprises 10 Christian churches – including the Lutheran Church and both Orthodox Churches – continued to serve as an organization joining the country’s largest Christian communities.  The government provided the funds for ecumenical activities, including ecclesiastical programs broadcast on the Estonian Broadcasting Company, youth work by churches, activities promoting interreligious dialogue, and religious publishing.

Following the burning and defacing of the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial in August, Prime Minister Juri Ratas and Minister of Justice Urmas Reinsalu publicly condemned the vandalism and declared the state would “seriously investigate” the incident.  The investigation continued at year’s end.  The state forestry agency and heritage organization repaired the damage on August 23.

On January 26, the government held an annual memorial event on Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Rahumae Jewish Cemetery in Tallinn.  Schools participated in commemorative activities throughout the country.  On January 26, the Ministry of Education and Research, in cooperation with the Estonian Memory Institute, sponsored a Jewish culture and history seminar for history and civics teachers from across the country and the public on Holocaust history and commemoration.

On September 25, the government hosted the visit of Pope Francis to Tallinn.  At a meeting with civil society, diplomatic, and cultural leaders during the visit, President Kersti Kaljulaid stated, “The freedom of religion is precisely one of the unyielding bedrocks on which our democracy is founded.”

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, police registered no hate crime cases involving religion, compared with six cases in 2016.

According to representatives of the Jewish community, either on August 20 or 21, unidentified individuals burned and defaced the Kalevi-Liiva Holocaust memorial with anti-Semitic graffiti.

Jewish groups expressed concern about a September 2 demonstration, organized by activists affiliated with the Estonian Conservative People’s Party, involving the temporary erection of a monument depicting an Estonian soldier in a World War II-era German uniform.

According to many religious and other civil society leaders, there was societal support for religious freedom and tolerance in the country.  Interreligious events involving religious minorities were frequent, including conferences celebrating Estonian religious life and the Jewish and Muslim communities.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed the state of religious freedom and tolerance in the country with officials from the ministries of internal, social, and foreign affairs and engaged the government on the importance of promoting religious tolerance.

The embassy again joined with the Ministry of Education to fund the travel of two teachers to a summer teacher-training program on Holocaust education in the United States.  The teachers said they had incorporated what they had learned into the Holocaust education portion of the national curriculum.

The embassy made use of social media to promote religious freedom, including making a video about a female American Anglican pastor serving in the country and retweeting the Secretary of State on publishing the 2017 religious freedom report.  The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with members of the Jewish community, leaders of religious associations, representatives of the Council of Churches, and NGOs to discuss religious tolerance.

Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community.  The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  Religious communities must register to receive government funds.  In September an appeals court upheld a 2017 lower court ban of the Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM), the largest neo-Nazi group in the country.  After a court ruled that a long-standing military service exemption which applied only to Jehovah’s Witnesses violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution, parliament began debating a bill to end the exemption.  Some politicians again made negative remarks against Muslims in social media.  The ombudsman for children in the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) advocated banning circumcision and stricter religious registration criteria.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 55 complaints of religious discrimination during the year, compared with 46 in the previous year.  Police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2017, 10 of which it determined were specifically motivated by the victim’s religion.  After its banning, the NRM continued to publish anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim language online, as did other groups.  Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population after plans for a “Grand Mosque” in Helsinki failed to materialize.  Groups promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year, with government support.

U.S. embassy staff met with various ministry officials to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, religious education, and male circumcision.  Embassy staff also discussed with the Jewish and Muslim communities their concerns about the law banning certain forms of animal slaughter, government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, and a rise in religiously motivated harassment.  They also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minorities, youth groups, and interfaith networks.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  The government statistics office estimates that, as of December 2017, approximately 71 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent identifies as Muslim, and 26.3 percent does not identify as belonging to any religious group.  Census results combine the other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and the Free Church of Finland, which together account for 1.3 percent of the population.

According to a survey from the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population was approximately 65,000 in 2016; Muslim religious leaders estimate the number rose to 100,000 in 2018, of which approximately 80 percent are Sunni and 20 percent Shia.  With the exception of Tatars, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia and North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.  The Muslim population has been growing rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.”  It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community.  It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion.  The law criminalizes the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes blaspheming against God, publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment for up to six months.  Authorities have rarely applied the law, most recently in 2009.

The law explicitly prohibits religious discrimination and prescribes a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law and investigating individual cases of discrimination and having the power to levy fines on violators.  The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling and promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities.  Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal or through the district court system.  Litigants may appeal the decisions of the tribunal and the district court system to the higher Administrative Court.

In May parliament unanimously approved a reform of the Church Act, which governs the practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  Among other changes, the new act, scheduled to come into force in 2019, devolves certain responsibilities back to the Church that previously required parliamentary approval, such as allowing Church authorities to present new policy proposals and hold votes online rather than requiring in person meetings.

Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government.  To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community.  To register as a community, a group must have at least 20 members, have as its purpose the public practice of religion, and have a set of rules to guide its activities.  A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims.  Nonprofit associations, including registered and unregistered religious groups, are generally exempt from taxes.  According to the MEC, there are approximately 130 registered religious communities, most of which have multiple congregations.  Persons may belong to more than one religious community.

All citizens who belong to either the ELC or Orthodox Church pay a church tax, collected together with their income tax payments.  Congregations collectively decide the church tax amount, now set at between 1 to 2 percent of member income.  Those who do not want to pay the tax must terminate their ELC or Orthodox congregation membership.  Members may terminate their membership by contacting the official congregation or the local government registration office, either electronically or in person.  Local parishes have fiscal autonomy to decide how to use funding received from taxes levied on their members.

Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Orthodox Church are also eligible to apply for state funds.  The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements (a minimum of 20 members and the ability to collect fees) may receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.

The ELC is required to maintain public cemeteries and account for the spending of government funds.  Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries.  All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy.  The law authorizes the ELC and Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Population Register Center.  State registrars do this for other persons.

Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12 years of age.  The parents of a child between the ages of 12 and 17 must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate religious affiliation.

All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion.  All students must take courses either in ethics or in religious studies, with the choice left up to the student.  Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community.  Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics.  Students age 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or ethics.  If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates.  The government does not prohibit or restrict private religiously based schools.

Religious education focuses on familiarizing students with their own religion, other religions, and general instruction in ethics.  Teachers of religion must have the required state-mandated training for religious instruction.  The state appoints them, and they are not required to belong to any religious community.  The National Board of Education provides a series of textbooks about Orthodox and Lutheran Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as a textbook on secular ethics.

The government allows conscientious objectors to choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service.  In February the Helsinki Court of Appeals overturned a long-standing exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses from military service.  After a conscientious objector who was not a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged the exemption policy, the court ruled in his favor, stating the legal exemption gave preferential treatment to one particular religion and thus violated the nondiscrimination clauses of the constitution.  Per current legislation, conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service.  Following the court ruling, all conscientious objectors are entitled to the same exemption from duty regardless of their religion.  Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.

The law bans certain types of animal slaughter, requiring that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be killed and stunned simultaneously in cases of religious practice.

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

Government Practices

On September 28, the Court of Appeals in Turku upheld a 2017 Pirkanmaa District Court ban on the NRM, its regional chapters, and the NRM-linked Nordic Tradition group, which had distributed anti-Semitic and anti-Islamic material and spoken out against what the group called “the criminal capitalist world order and Zionism.”  The NRM criticized the decision and stated the prohibition would lead to greater popular support, citing an October announcement of solidarity from the Soldiers of Odin, an anti-immigrant group.

The Helsinki police reduced by half the staffing for a police unit dedicated to addressing hate crimes and crimes involving infringements on the rights of individuals to practice their religion.  The unit, established in 2017, had precipitated a large rise in investigations of incitement to violence, some of which involved violations of religious freedom.  Police spokesmen described the reduction in force as a reallocation of resources, as parliament had declined to renew the 1.26 million euro ($1.44 million) grant for the unit, requiring it to draw funding from the general police budget.

On January 14, then speaker of parliament Maria Lohela spoke at an event at the Helsinki Synagogue and pledged the government’s support to defend all Jews in the country.

The ombudsman for children at the MOJ continued to advocate a change to the registration process for religious organizations, whereby a board of experts assesses groups for their compliance with certain criteria prior to issuing a formal registration.  In a February media interview, the ombudsman criticized the child-rearing practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, in particular what he said were reports of the shunning of minors who renounced the Church and the reliance by Jehovah’s Witnesses on their own internal investigations rather than on the police in cases of alleged abuse against children.  He stated the government should amend the law to include regular review of religious organizations to ensure the protection of fundamental human rights, in particular the best interests of children.  According to the ombudsman, a religion deemed noncompliant could be compelled to redress its treatment of children or face revocation of its registration.  Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives in the country criticized the statements as a threat against their religion.

Press reports described the reform of the Church Act governing the practices of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a move toward greater autonomy for the Church administration and greater transparency in internal decision making.  Minister of Education and Science Sanni Grahn-Lassonen told a meeting of the Church synod that “the easing of regulations will improve the flexibility of administration and church autonomy,” comments that official church press statements echoed shortly thereafter.

Parliament debated an animal welfare bill, scheduled for a vote in 2019, that would require prior stunning of animals before slaughter in all cases, eliminating the existing exemption allowing simultaneous stunning and killing in cases of religious slaughter.  Jewish and Muslim leaders criticized the proposed amendment, saying it would ban all kosher and halal slaughter.  These leaders also criticized the restrictions in the existing law, which hindered their communities’ ability to slaughter animals in a religiously approved manner and forced them to import meat at higher prices.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health (MSAH) guidelines discouraged circumcision of males and continued to withhold public health-care funding for such procedures.  In its guidelines, the ministry stated that only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent.  Religious communities, including members of Muslim and Jewish communities, expressed disagreement with the guidelines; however, the ministry stated it had not received any protest during the year from religious representatives regarding the recommendation that only a licensed physician perform circumcision.

In April the ombudsman for children at the MOJ sent a public request to the MSAH that it establish legally binding regulations for nonmedical circumcision and ensure it is performed on minors only with informed consent or prohibited entirely.  The request stated the ombudsman would prefer to prohibit all nonmedical circumcision of minors.  There were reports the government continued to discuss the possibility of criminalizing male circumcision.  By year’s end neither the Jewish nor the Muslim community had made an official response to the ombudsman’s proposal.

In July the Ministry of Defense published a report advocating a repeal of the conscription exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses, citing changes since the government first instituted the exemption in 1987 that allowed men to complete their conscription duties as an employee in the civil service.  The representative body for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country stated the alternative civil service could be an adequate substitute, although the organization did not take an official stand on participation in military service, leaving the decision to the approximately 100 male Jehovah’s witnesses who reached conscription age each year.  On September 20, parliament accepted a bill for debate that would terminate the legal exemption for Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The bill was under debate at year’s end.

In February police raided a mosque located in a Helsinki shopping mall.  While a police spokesperson described the raid as a response to general complaints of criminal activity in the building, Muslim community representatives said it exacerbated already tense relations between Muslims and the police and showed ignorance on the part of the authorities.

Responding to media reports that school districts had been unable to provide sufficient faculty to provide instruction in all of the faiths to which their students belonged, the minister of education stated in August that her ministry would continue to adhere to the established religious education policy and not offer combined religious courses.  According to the minister, “The current model, which protects the teaching of individual religion, the knowledge of religion, and the ability to understand different religions, has proved its value in Finnish society.”

Following news reports in 2017 that large numbers of Muslim asylum seekers had converted to Christianity during their time in the country and would face persecution should the government reject their application and remove them to their country of origin, the Ministry of Interior (MOI) sought out training from the Finnish Ecumenical Council and representatives from other faiths.  With ministry sponsorship, the council conducted training in late 2017 and 2018 for more than 200 asylum review officers on how to assess converts during asylum adjudication.

NGOs working with migrants continued to advocate for improved interpreting services for asylum seekers, many of whom belonged to religious minorities.  They also raised concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without persecution by other migrants held within the same center.

While the government did not release detailed reports on asylum applicants categorized by religion, it stated the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia applying for asylum because of what they said was religious persecution there had increased.  In addition, media reports stated more than 200 Russian Jehovah’s Witnesses applied for asylum from January to August, compared with approximately 100 who did so in all of 2017.  According to the same reports, immigration courts had approved only a small number of asylum applicants, and immigration officials were careful to state that membership in the church would not in and of itself guarantee asylum.

In May the Office of the Prime Minister announced that it would fund an independent investigation into allegations Finnish volunteers in the Nazi Waffen-SS killed Jews and other civilians during World War II.  The announcement followed a January letter from the Simon Wiesenthal Center to President Sauli Niinisto requesting the government study the participation of Finnish troops in Nazi killings, particularly in Ukraine.

In July Jussi Halla-aho, Chair of the Finns Party and Member of the European Parliament, criticized the decision by the country’s flagship school of higher learning, Helsinki University, to offer for the first time a course in Islamic theology.  In a public statement online, Halla-aho stated the goal of the course in theology “is to help us Finns better understand the Islamic minority which has been forcibly created here and of course prevent them from radicalization.”

The government again allocated 114 million euros ($130.73 million) to the ELC and 2.5 million euros ($2.87 million) to the Orthodox Church.  The MEC allotted a total of 524,000 euros ($601,000) to all other registered religious organizations.  All of the allocations were unchanged from 2017.

The MEC awarded a total of 80,000 euros ($91,700) to promote interfaith dialogue, the same amount as in 2017.  Two organizations split the funding:  the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions in Finland and Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2017, the latest period for which data were available, police reported 235 hate crimes involving members of religious groups, including crimes involving assault, threats and harassment, discrimination, and vandalism, compared with 149 such incidents in the previous year.  There were 153 incidents involving Muslims, 45 involving Christians, nine involving Jews, two involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, and 26 involving other or unknown religious groups.  Police, however, could only ascertain that 10 of these crimes were specifically motivated by the religion of the victims.  They could not determine how many of the other incidents were at least in part religiously motivated.  The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 55 complaints of religious discrimination in the same year, compared with 46 complaints in 2016.  Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite its banning, the NRM continued to operate a website and make statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims and maintained an active online presence through its website and social media.  The second priority of its political platform read, “With all means possible work towards reconquering power from the global Zionist elite.”  The NRM continued to post anti-Semitic graffiti in public spaces and printed other materials glorifying Adolf Hitler.

Kansallismielisten Liittouma (Nationalist Alliance), established in 2017, mobilized hundreds of demonstrators to an August rally in Turku commemorating the one-year anniversary of a terrorist attack by a Moroccan migrant to whom authorities had denied asylum.  The alliance described itself as a network for associated far-right groups in the country and contained members of established groups such as NRM, Soldiers of Odin, Finnish Defense League, and Suomen Sisu.  Member of Parliament Ritva Elomaa of the Finns Party participated in the demonstration and gave a public statement of support.  The demonstration sparked an anti-Neo-Nazi demonstration of approximately 1,000 marchers who condemned the presence of what they called Neo-Nazis in the city.

The website Magneettimedia, known for its anti-Semitic content, continued to post defamatory statements online.  In September it published an article entitled “The Concentration of Power in the Jewish Elite” stating that the “global Jewish or Zionist conspiracy” is behind “the collapse of modern society.”  The former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, continued to publish anti-Semitic editorials in the newspaper KauppaSuomi, a periodical available through his large chain of department stores with what it said was a circulation of 270,000.  In addition to these two outlets, online Finnish media outlets critical of Islam and Judaism increased in popularity, notably Oikea Media and Kansalainen.fi.  Major Finnish consumer brands continued to boycott the Karkkainen chain of department stores, citing anti-Semitic public statements by Karkkainen.

Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship to match their growing population.  Plans for a “Grand Mosque and Oasis Center” in central Helsinki collapsed in December 2017 amid questions about the foreign financing of the project and political resistance both inside and outside the Muslim community.  According to press reports, conservative politicians and nationalist groups said they opposed the project due to concerns it would foster violent extremism.  With the exception of a handful of purpose-built mosques, the majority of mosques were located in converted commercial spaces.

According to press reports, a mosque of the Islamic Society of Northern Finland located in Oulu was vandalized twice in December.  In the first incident, unknown persons defaced the interior of the mosque and destroyed its inventory of frozen halal meat.  In the second incident, on Christmas Eve, the perpetrators smashed a mosque window.

A member of the Jewish community said privately that high-profile Jewish sites in Helsinki were regular targets for graffiti during the year.  He said the community preferred not to publicize the incidents.

Due in part to the sponsorship of the national government, civil society groups dedicated to promoting interreligious dialogue expanded their capabilities during the year.  The National Forum for Cooperation of Religions, which brought together representatives from the largest religious denominations, gathered testimony from their respective congregations for a report on hate crimes commissioned by the public victim-support service.  The group had not issued the report by year’s end, but preliminary findings indicated that Muslim women were at particular risk for harassment in public spaces.  Representatives of religious groups attended ceremonies hosted in their counterparts’ houses of worship.  Finn Church Aid, associated with the ELC, hosted its first interreligious iftar celebration; the late-night June event brought together representatives from the major religious denominations in the capital region, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs (MFA), and municipal governments.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy staff met with officials from the MOJ, MOI, and MFA to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the treatment of religious converts in asylum adjudication, and regulations covering male circumcision and government registration of religions.

Embassy staff met with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy and community activists, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.  Topics discussed with members of the Jewish and Muslim communities included their shared concerns about the impact of the government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, the increasing number of religiously motivated crimes, proposed legislation that would prohibit forms of religious animal slaughter, and the response to efforts to build a new Islamic house of worship.  Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with members of the Muslim community, most notably at an embassy-hosted iftar celebration with representatives from different Muslim congregations and youth groups.  Topics discussed with representatives of the Jehovah’s Witness community included changes to the military service exemption and the increase in the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on persecution for their faith.

On November 1, the Ambassador gave public remarks condemning anti-Semitism at a memorial organized by the Central Council of the Jewish Communities of Finland for the victims of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.  Representatives of the Muslim and Christian communities of Helsinki attended in support of the victims and in opposition to acts of anti-Semitism.

France

Executive Summary

The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion.  The president and other government officials again condemned anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces to protect sensitive sites, including religious ones.  In June the government thwarted an attempted extremist plot to attack Muslims.  In April authorities expelled an Algerian imam because of his radical preaching in Marseille.  The government denied an Algerian Muslim woman citizenship after she refused to shake the hands of male officials.  The government announced a 2018-2020 action plan to combat hatred, including anti-Semitism, and a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and funding of Islam within France.  In July the interior minister announced expansion of a “precomplaint” system designed to facilitate reporting of crimes, to include anti-Semitic acts.  The government continued to enforce a ban on full-face coverings in public and the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools.  President Emmanuel Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.”  In May the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the application of counterterrorism laws and called the government closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.

Religiously motivated crimes and other incidents against Jews and Muslims occurred, including killings or attempted killings, beatings, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism.  The government reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, compared with 1,038 in 2017, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property.  According to government statistics, there were 100 crimes targeting Muslims, including an attack against Muslim worshippers outside a mosque, a 17 percent decrease compared with the 121 in 2017.  The government also reported an additional 51 acts against Muslim places of worship or cemeteries.  There were 541 anti-Semitic crimes, consisting of physical attacks, threats, and vandalism, an increase of 74 percent compared with the 311 incidents recorded in 2017.  Anti-Semitic incidents included the killing of a Holocaust survivor, an acid attack against a rabbi’s baby, and threatening letters against Jewish groups citing the killing of the Holocaust survivor.  Violent anti-Semitic crimes totaled 81, compared with 97 in 2017.  A student leader at the University of Paris (the Sorbonne) generated considerable debate after wearing a hijab on national television.  According to a poll conducted by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in February, 43 percent of respondents thought Islam was not compatible with the values of the republic.

The U.S. embassy, consulates general, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and with the country’s Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and Holocaust Issues.  The Ambassador, embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance.  The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and advance tolerance.  The embassy funded a visit to the United States for four nongovernmental organization (NGO) directors on an exchange program that included themes of interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance.  It also sponsored the participation of three imams at a conference in Rabat focused on building interfaith relationships.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 67.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recent study by the National Institute for Demographic and Economic Studies, conducted in 2008 and published in 2010, 45 percent of respondents aged 18-50 reported no religious affiliation, while 43 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 8 percent as Muslim, 2 percent as Protestant, and the remaining 2 percent as Orthodox Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, or other.

A poll conducted in March by the private firm Opinionway found 41 percent of respondents older than 18 years identify as Catholic, 8 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 1 percent Buddhist, and 1 percent Jewish; 43 percent said they have no religious affiliation.

According to a survey conducted in March by the Catholic Institute of Paris and St. Mary’s Catholic University in the United Kingdom, 64 percent of young people aged 16-29 in France declared themselves without a religion compared with 23 percent who said they were Catholic and 10 percent who said they were Muslim.

The MOI estimates 8-10 percent of the population is Muslim.  The Muslim population consists primarily of immigrants from former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa and their descendants.  According to a Pew Research Center study published in November 2017, Muslims number 5.72 million, 8.8 percent of the total population.

According to a 2017 Ipsos study published in Reforme, a Protestant online news daily, there are an estimated 600,000 Lutheran, 600,000 evangelical, and 800,000 nondenominational members in the Protestant community.  Many evangelical churches primarily serve African and Caribbean immigrants.

A 2016 report by Berman Jewish Data Bank estimated there are 460,000-700,000 Jews, depending on the criteria chosen.  According to the study, there are more Sephardic than Ashkenazi Jews.

The Buddhist Union of France estimates there are one million Buddhists, mainly Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants and their descendants.  Other religious groups estimate their numbers as follows:  Jehovah’s Witnesses, 120,000; Orthodox Christians, most of whom are associated with the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches, 80,000-100,000; The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 66,000; Church of Scientology, 45,000; and Sikhs, 30,000.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as a secular republic and states it “shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law,” regardless of religion, and respect all beliefs.  The law provides for the separation of religion and state and guarantees the free exercise of religious worship except to maintain public order.

The law, as well as international and European covenants which France adheres to, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion.  Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1700) and imprisonment of one month.  Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.

Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group.  Penalties for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000-75,000 euros ($51,600-86,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries.  For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($51,600).  The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.

Although the law does not require it, religious groups may apply for official recognition and tax-exempt status.  Religious groups may register under two categories:  associations of worship, which are exempt from taxes; and cultural associations, which normally are not exempt.  Associations in either category are subject to fiscal oversight by the state.  An association of worship may organize only religious activities, defined as liturgical services and practices.  Although not tax-exempt, a cultural association may engage in for-profit as well as nonprofit activity and receive government subsidies for its cultural and educational operations.  Religious groups normally register under both of these categories.  For example, Catholics perform religious activities through their associations of worship and operate schools through their cultural associations.

Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body representing the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status.  Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide.  In order to qualify, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include religious training and the construction of buildings serving the religious group.  Among excluded activities are those purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature.  The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive.  If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status.  According to the MOI, 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations have tax-exempt status.

The law states “detained persons have the right to freedom of opinion, conscience, and religion.  They can practice the religion of their choice…without other limits than those imposed by the security needs and good order of the institution.”

Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.”  The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court.  Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,600).  The core provisions of the legislation will expire at the end of 2020 unless renewed by parliament.

The law prohibits covering one’s face in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters.  If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a mask or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity.  Police officials may not remove it themselves.  If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity.  Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours.  Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course.  Individuals who coerce another person to cover his or her face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($34,400) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison.  The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.

By law, the government may not directly finance religious groups to build new places of worship.  The government may, however, provide loan guarantees or lease property to groups at advantageous rates.  The law also exempts places of worship from property taxes.  The state owns and is responsible for the upkeep of most places of worship, primarily Catholic, built before 1905.  The government may fund cultural associations with a religious connection.

The law separating religion and state does not apply in three classes of territories.  Because Alsace-Lorraine (currently comprising the Departments of Haut-Rhin, Bas-Rhin, and la Moselle and known as Alsace-Moselle) was part of Germany when the law was enacted, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Jews there may choose to allocate a portion of their income tax to their religious group.  Pastors, priests, and rabbis of these four recognized faiths in Alsace-Moselle receive a salary from the interior ministry, and the country’s president, with the agreement of the Holy See, appoints the Catholic bishops of Metz and Strasbourg.  Local governments in the region may also provide financial support for constructing religious buildings.  The overseas department of French Guiana, which is governed under 19th century colonial laws, may provide subsidies to the Catholic Church.  Other overseas departments and overseas territories, which include island territories in the Caribbean and the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, and several sub-Antarctic islands, may also provide funding for religious groups.  This provision also applies to the portion of Antarctica the government claims as an overseas territory.

Public schools are secular.  The law prohibits public school employees and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses.  Public schools do not provide religious instruction, except in Alsace-Moselle and overseas departments and territories.  In Alsace-Moselle, religious education is compulsory in public primary and secondary schools, although students may opt for a secular equivalent with a written request from their parents.  Religious education classes are taught by members of the faiths concerned and are under the control of the respective churches.  Elsewhere in mainland France, public schools teach information about religious groups as part of the history curriculum.  Parents who wish their children to wear conspicuous religious symbols or to receive religious instruction may homeschool or send their children to a private school.  Homeschooling and private schools must conform to the educational standards established for public schools.

By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations.  In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of an individual child’s religious affiliation.  The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction.

Missionaries from countries not exempted from entry visa requirements must obtain a three-month tourist visa before traveling to the country.  All missionaries from non-exempt countries wishing to remain longer than 90 days must obtain long-duration visas before entering the country.  Upon arrival, missionaries must provide a letter from their sponsoring religious group to apply to the local prefecture for a temporary residence card.

The law criminalizes the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, treating it as “a provocation to discrimination or hatred or violence towards a person or a group of persons because of their origin or belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race, or a determined religion.”

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

Government Practices

On June 23, the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) arrested 10 men linked to a suspected far-right extremist plot to attack Muslims, according to media reports.  The suspects were arrested in the Paris and southwestern regions and on the island of Corsica and charged with criminal association with a terrorist enterprise.  Among the detainees was a retired police officer whom investigators considered the head of the network.  The suspects, who were previously unknown to authorities, reportedly had an “ill-defined plan to commit a violent act targeting people of the Muslim faith,” according to a source close to the investigation.  LCI TV reported the group was planning to “target radical imams, Islamist inmates released from prison, and veiled women chosen at random in the streets.”  In a June 24 statement, Interior Minister Gerard Collomb hailed the arrests and welcomed “DGSI’s constant commitment to the protection of the French people from any violent action, no matter where it comes from.”

In January investigating magistrates dismissed the court case against Lebanese-Canadian academic Hassan Diab, who was charged with bombing a synagogue in Paris during Sabbath prayers in 1980, killing four and injuring 40.  The magistrates said they found the evidence against Diab inconclusive and ordered his release.  Prosecutors appealed Diab’s discharge, and on October 26, the Paris Appeals Court requested additional expert testimony before ruling.  The court had not issued a ruling by year’s end.  Diab was extradited from Canada in 2014.

On July 10, a senate report stated authorities had closed four places of worship under the counterterrorism law between November 1, 2017 and June 8.  On December 13, the newspaper La Voix du Nord reported the prefect of the North Department applied the counterterrorism law to close the As-Sunnah prayer room in Hautmont for six months.  According to a statement issued by the prefecture, the prayer room’s activities and the ideas disseminated there “provoke violence, hatred, and discrimination, and praise acts of terror,” and the prefecture closed the prayer room “with the sole purpose of preventing the commission of acts of terrorism.”

On April 20, authorities expelled Algerian imam El Hadi Doudi, the leader of the Salafist As-Sounna Mosque in Marseille, to Algeria.  This decision followed the closing of As-Sounna for six months by the Bouches-du-Rhone Prefecture in December 2017 because of what it stated was Doudi’s radical preaching, which, according to press reports, inspired attendees to join ISIS.  According to authorities, sermons at the As-Sounna Mosque, sometimes disseminated via internet, preached in favor of armed jihad and the death penalty for adulterers and apostates, and used insulting or threatening terms towards Jews.  The As-Sounna Mosque, which had approximately 800 worshippers for its Friday prayers before its closure, was one of 80 places of Islamic worship in Marseille.  The mosque did not reopen after the six-month closure, because, according to the Marseille online newspaper Marsactu, the city of Marseille invoked its legal “preemption right” to take possession of the site.  According to a report in Le Parisien newspaper in May citing an interior ministry source, the purposed of the preemption was to prevent the mosque from reopening, while according to a report in La Provence newspaper citing a source in the Marseille municipality, the city acquired the property for purposes of urban renewal.

In an April 12 interview, President Macron stated his intent to “fight against Salafism and extremism,” which he described as “a problem in our country.”  In September Interior Minister Collomb stated that since 2017, the country had expelled 300 radical imams.

On May 16, the prefect of the Herault Department closed a small Muslim prayer room in in a townhouse in Gigean, which the authorities said they had considered a Salafist “reference point” for six months.  According to the prefectural decree posted on the townhouse, the prayer room was “an influential place of reference of the Salafist movement, advocating a rigorous Islam, calling for discrimination, hatred and violence against women, Jews, and Christians.”  Information as to whether the prayer room reopened after the six-month period was unavailable at year’s end.

The government continued to deploy 7,000 security forces throughout the country to protect sensitive sites, including vulnerable Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim sites and other places of worship.  On March 30, NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers reported the government deployed 70,000 law enforcement personnel from March 31 until April 7 to protect places of worship during Easter celebrations.

In April authorities denied an Algerian woman citizenship for refusing to shake hands with male officials at a French nationalization ceremony in the Department of Isere in the Auvergne-Rhone-Alpes Region due to her religious convictions.  The country’s top administrative court, the Council of State, ruled there were sufficient grounds to do so since the woman’s refusal “in a place and at a moment that are symbolic, reveals a lack of assimilation,” and that the decision was not detrimental to her freedom of religion.

On September 4, a court in Nanterre fined the Union of Clichy Muslim Association (UAMC) 17,000 euros ($19,500) for organizing Friday street prayers on 34 occasions without first informing city or prefecture officials of its plans.  The UAMC had been conducting the street prayers as a protest in front of the mayor’s office in Clichy-la-Garenne, after the town declined to renew the UAMC’s lease on a space it had been using as a mosque and expelled the group from the site in 2017.  The UAMC had rejected as inadequate an alternative space offered by the town.

According to the Ministry of Justice, as of August 2017 the penitentiary system employed the following number of chaplains:  695 Catholic, 347 Protestant, 224 Muslim, 76 Jewish, 54 Orthodox Christian, 170 Jehovah’s Witness, and 19 Buddhist.  In detainee visiting areas, visitors could bring religious objects to an inmate or speak with the prisoner about religious issues but could not pray.  Prisoners could pray in their cells individually, with a chaplain in designated prayer rooms, or, in some institutions, in special apartments where they could receive family for up to 48 hours.

On June 19, the administrative court of Nice ordered the Mayor of Cannes to refund a fine levied on a woman for violating an “anti-burkini order” at the beach.  In August 2016, municipal police had fined the woman and told her she could not remain at the beach while wearing a burkini.  After the terrorist attack in Nice in 2016, Cannes and several other coastal cities banned burkinis on the beaches.  However, later that same year, the Council of State ruled that these decrees were illegal.

On August 10, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC) criticized a 2014 Supreme Court ruling upholding the 2008 dismissal of a woman from a private nursery in the town of Chanteloup-les-Vignes for refusing to remove her veil at work.  The council stated that prohibiting a person from wearing a headscarf in the workplace interfered with her right to manifest her religion.

On October 23, the UNHRC found the country violated the human rights of two women by fining them for wearing niqabs in two separate cases in 2012.  The committee received the complaints in 2016 and issued the decisions in the two cases concurrently.  The government had 180 days to report to the committee action taken to respond to the violation and to prevent similar violations in the future.  On October 23, the government issued a statement declaring “the total legitimacy of a law [prohibiting concealment of the face in public spaces] whose goal is to uphold the conditions for living together harmoniously while fully exercising one’s civil and political rights,” and adding, “Everyone is free to appear in public wearing clothing that expresses a religious conviction, so long as it allows the face to be seen.”  The statement cited a ruling by the country’s Constitutional Court that the law complied with the constitution and a European Court of Human Rights ruling that the law did not infringe upon freedom of conscience or religion and was not discriminatory.  In its statement, the government said it would convey its views in a follow-up report to the UNHRC.

On December 11, the senate adopted a resolution reaffirming the importance of the 2010 law prohibiting the concealment of the face in public spaces and calling on the government to maintain the legal framework “relative to the wearing of the full-face Islamic veil in the public space.”

UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism Fionnuala Ni Aoilain expressed concern that counterterrorism legislation enacted in 2017 restricted freedom of religion, movement, and expression in the country.  After a weeklong visit in May, Ni Aoilain said, “the scope of these measures constitutes a de facto state of qualified emergency in ordinary French law.”  She said the government treated Muslims as a “suspect community” through the “broad application” of counterterrorism law and called the closure of mosques a restriction on religious freedom.

Pursuant to the 2014 agreement between France and the United States on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs, the United States established the Holocaust Deportation Claims Program.  Under the agreement, which entered into force on November 1, 2015, France provided a lump sum of $60 million to the United States for distribution to eligible claimants.  At year’s end, payments to claimants from this fund totaled $30,028,500.

Speaking on March 19 at the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced the broad outlines of a three-year national action plan, covering the 2018-2020 period, to combat racism and anti-Semitism in the country, with a strong focus on countering online hate content.  Accompanied by seven other ministers and the head of the Interagency Delegation to Counter Racism, Anti-Semitism and Anti-LGBT Hatred (DILCRAH), Philippe stated the action plan would have four key targets:  countering online hate content; improving victim protection services; anti-racism education; and developing new areas of mobilization against hate.

The plan would encompass specific measures, including:  advocating for an EU-level law to require social media platforms to more quickly remove hate content on their servers; imposing heavy fines on social media companies that failed to remove hate content within 24 hours; increasing the capacity and staffing of the government’s Pharos online platform to register and remove online hate content; creating a national anti-racism prize named after Ilan Halimi, a young Jewish man killed in 2006, to recognize the efforts of youth fighting racism and anti-Semitism; and launching a campaign to increase awareness of racism in sport.  The prime minister said a three-person committee would develop the details of the action plan and submit it to the government for review and implementation.

In a July 5 speech before the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF), then-Interior Minister Collomb announced the extension of law enforcement’s online “precomplaint” system to racist and anti-Semitic acts in order to facilitate action and “prosecute anti-Semitic offenders even more effectively.”  The system previously was restricted to property crimes.  Grievants may submit their identity and contact information, the location of an incident, and other relevant facts on a government website and, after filling out the precomplaint, go to a police station to sign and validate the complaint to initiate an investigation.

On May 15, the Observatory for Secularism, a body comprised of 15 senior civil servants, parliamentarians, legal experts, and intellectuals who advise the government on the implementation of the “principle of secularism,” released its fifth annual report evaluating secularism in schools, public spaces, and hospitals.  According to the report, the subject of secularism remained a sensitive one, although “direct attacks on secularism” were not widespread.  The report stated there was a need for training and education to overcome “deep ignorance” of the law.

President Macron delivered his New Year’s greetings to the country’s religious communities at the Elysee Presidential Palace on January 4.  He welcomed two representatives each from Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist groups.  Prime Minister Philippe and then-Interior Minister Collomb also attended.  Macron’s speech focused mainly on secularism, which he underlined as a fundamental pillar of the country, before highlighting the essential place for religion in society and the importance of teaching theology.  The president hailed the role played by Christian charitable organizations in assisting refugees while recalling the “ethical tension” between the right of asylum and “the reality of our society, its capacity to welcome.”  Macron also said he would meet religious community leaders on a regular basis behind closed doors to consult on various topics.  He cited the need to “structure” Islam in the country and to train imams to fight radicalization.  “I will help you,” he said.

On June 12, then-Interior Minister Collomb attended an iftar hosted by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the official government structure responsible for relations with the country’s Muslim community.  Collomb, whose ministry oversees government relations with religious communities, strongly defended secularism and stated the government “will never accept … the stigmatization of a religion” nor “to reduce Islam to Islamism.”  He said the country must focus on the preventing radicalization, training for imams, sources of financing of mosques, and structuring the administration of Islam in the country.  “It is up to the Muslims of France to address these issues in the long-term,” he said.  Attendees at the event included Muslim community leaders, interfaith leaders, other government officials, and ambassadors.

On June 25, then-Minister Collomb announced a nationwide consultation process with the Muslim community to reform the organization and the funding of Islam in the country.  Prefects in each department would hold listening sessions with local representatives from the Muslim community on issues related to institutional representation, financing of Islamic places of worship, and training of imams.  He stated the dialogue would strive to include all the diversity of the Muslim community, including younger and female voices, as well as civil society members, according to an administrative circular he sent to prefects.  The government said it expected to release the results of the dialogue in 2019.

Speaking before the Conference of Catholic Bishops of France (CEF) on April 9, President Macron said he supported “repairing” ties between the state and the Catholic Church.  Macron was the first sitting president to speak at a CEF event.  He stated the Catholic Church should engage in the political debate on key issues important to the Church, such as treatment of migrants, possible legislative changes concerning bioethics, and medically assisted reproduction for single women and lesbian couples, and generally encouraged Catholics to engage more in politics.  His appearance generated criticism from left-wing politicians, including Jean-Luc Melenchon, Alexis Corbiere, and Olivier Faure, who said it flouted the strict separation of church and state mandated by the law on secularism.

President Macron met with Pope Francis at the Vatican on June 26 to discuss immigration and other challenges facing Europe.  The Vatican described the meeting as “cordial” and said it highlighted the “good existing bilateral relations” between the two nations.  Speaking later to the press, Macron described the meeting as “intense” and said he told Pope Francis that the “progressive way to handle the migrant crisis was through a true policy of development for Africa.”

On January 9, Prime Minister Philippe, then-Interior Minister Collomb, Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet, and government spokesperson Benjamin Griveaux attended a memorial ceremony outside a Paris kosher supermarket, where two years earlier a gunman had killed four Jews and held 15 other people hostage.  Former President Francois Hollande and former Prime Ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve also attended the event.

On July 22, Prime Minister Philippe held a ceremony in Paris honoring the victims of the Velodrome d’Hiver roundup of July 1942 in which 13,000 French Jews, including 4,000 children, were deported to extermination camps.  “There is one area in which we must do better, that of the restitution of cultural property,” stolen during the Nazi occupation, Philippe said.  A Ministry of Culture report submitted in April to Culture Minister Francoise Nyssen criticized the current policy of restitution as inefficient and lacking ambition, coordination, leadership, and visibility.  As a result, the Commission for the Compensation of the Victims of Spoliation was to examine all cases of restitution and transmit its recommendations to the prime minister, according to an official statement released by the Ministry of Culture.  In addition, the Ministry of Culture said it would take a more active role in the search and restitution of stolen properties.  The report identified 2,008 cultural works with no identified owner.

Recalling his plan to fight racism and anti-Semitism launched in March, Prime Minister Philippe reiterated his “absolute desire to change French law and European law to remove hate content on the internet, to unmask and punish its authors.”

President Macron and government ministers condemned anti-Semitism and declared support for Holocaust education on several occasions including the March 7 annual CRIF dinner; the March 19 commemoration of the sixth anniversary of the killings of three Jewish children and their teacher by Mohammed Merah in Toulouse; the April 30 Holocaust Remembrance Day commemoration; and the June 1 French Judaism Day observance.

In a November 9 Facebook post, Prime Minister Philippe announced the number of anti-Semitic acts committed in the first nine months of the year rose by 69 percent compared to the same period in 2017.  Philippe did not quote the exact numbers of anti-Semitic acts or their nature, such as physical attacks, threats, or vandalism.  Underlining that his announcement coincided with the 80th anniversary of the Kristallnacht pogrom by the Nazis against Jews, PM Philippe wrote, “Every aggression perpetrated against one of our citizens because they are Jewish echoes like the breaking of a new crystal…. We are very far from being finished with anti-Semitism.”  Referencing Elie Wiesel’s “danger of indifference,” Philippe pledged the government would not be indifferent and recalled recent acts taken to combat anti-Semitism.  Acts he cited included toughening of rules against hate speech online; mobilizing a national rapid-response team from the Ministry of Education and DILCRAH to support teachers reporting cases of anti-Semitism; and the trial use of a network of investigators and magistrates specifically trained in the fight against hate acts, which could later be extended nationwide.

On December 20, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanqer announced the launch of an online platform that teachers could use to report cases of anti-Semitism and racism to the education ministry.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

As part of an established exchange program, the government continued to host the visit of 30 Moroccan, 120 Algerian, and 151 Turkish imams to promote religious tolerance and combat violent extremism within Muslim communities.  The imams’ countries of origin paid their salaries.  During Ramadan, when there was an increased number of worshippers, between 250 and 300 imams came to France temporarily.

On June 11, the Diocese of Vannes moved a 25-foot-tall statue of Saint Pope John Paul II from public land in Ploermel in Brittany to a Catholic school in the same town.  In 2017, the Council of State had ruled the statue could remain on public land but ordered the removal of the cross on the statue within six months because it violated the law separating church and state.  Rather than removing the cross, the diocese elected to move the entire statue to Church-owned land.  Some Christians and politicians criticized the decision, calling it another example of efforts to erase the country’s Christian heritage.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to the latest government estimates available, the MOI reported registered crimes targeting Muslims (threats or violence) totaled 100, down from 121 in 2017; there were an additional 45 acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship and six acts of desecration against Muslim cemeteries.  The reported anti-Semitic crimes (threats or violence) increased to 541, compared with 311 in the previous year.  Despite an overall increase resulting from a significant rise in threats, violent acts against Jews fell from 97 to 81.  Anti-Semitic threats rose from 214 in 2017 to 358, and acts of vandalism totaled 102.  The government also reported 1,063 anti-Christian incidents, most of which involved vandalism or other acts against property, compared with 1,038 in 2017.  The government did not provide a detailed breakdown of anti-Muslim or anti-Christian acts registered during the year.

On March 23, Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll, aged 85, was found dead in her Paris apartment.  An autopsy revealed she had been stabbed at least 11 times before being burned in a fire, which was ruled to be arson.  Authorities arrested two individuals in connection with the killing and placed them in pretrial detention.  The Paris prosecutor’s office was investigating the killing as a hate crime.  After the incident, thousands of people participated in a “white march,” a silent gathering to commemorate the victim, in Paris.  On May 27, President Macron stated Knoll was “murdered because she was Jewish.”

In February unknown individuals placed acid in the stroller of a rabbi’s baby daughter in Bron.  The child suffered burns on her back and legs.  According to an ongoing police investigation, anti-Semitic motives were involved.

In March police arrested four teens suspected of beating a Jewish boy with a stick and taking his kippah outside a synagogue north of Paris.  The suspects reportedly called the boy and his siblings “dirty Jews.”

On August 24, a man attacked two male worshippers with a bicycle chain as they were leaving a mosque in the town of Lens, near Calais.  The Mayor of Lens, Sylvain Robert, condemned the attack in a statement.  According to the mayor, during his court hearing, the accused cited “ideological and racist” justifications for his act.  On September 26, the Lens Court sentenced the accused to an 11-month prison sentence for aggravated assault, referencing the racist nature of the attack.

In July a psychiatric evaluation of Kobili Traore, charged with killing his 65-year-old Jewish neighbor, Sarah Halimi, in 2017, determined Traore was not responsible for his actions and therefore unable to stand trial.  Authorities were planning to conduct a third psychiatric evaluation of Traore, who remained incarcerated at year’s end.  On February 27, reversing a previous decision, the judge presiding over the case added the charge of anti-Semitism as a motive for the crime.  The magistrate made this decision after hearing testimony from Traore.  In a statement, CRIF hailed the judge’s decision and expressed “satisfaction” and “relief.”

Authorities scheduled a new trial for March 2019 in Paris Criminal Court for Abdelkader Merah on the charge of complicity in the killing by his brother, Mohammed Merah, of seven persons outside a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012.  In November 2017, prosecutors appealed the 2017 acquittal of Abdelkader Merah on the complicity charge; the court had convicted him on the lesser charge of criminal terrorist conspiracy.

By year’s end authorities had not set a date for the trial of five individuals arrested in November 2017 and charged with carrying out an attack on a Jewish family in Livry Gargan earlier that year.

On July 6, a court in Val-de-Marne sentenced three young men who carried out a rape and robbery of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Creteil in 2014.  Abdou Salam Koita and Ladje Haidara, who committed the rape, were present in court.  Houssame Hatri, who made anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, remained at large and was convicted in absentia.  The three, who were sentenced to eight, 13, and 16 years in prison, respectively, bound and gagged their victims before carrying out the rape and stealing jewelry and bank cards.  “Jews do not put money in the bank,” one of them reportedly said.  During the attack Hatri also reportedly said that the attack was “for my brothers in Palestine” before suggesting the perpetrators should “gas” their victims.  Two accomplices received sentences of five and six years in jail.

On June 29, the Paris prosecutor’s office opened an investigation into anti-Semitic letters received by at least six Jewish associations, including CRIF.  The letters, signed by “The Black Hand,” were posted June 18 and referred to the killing of Mireille Knoll, according to press reports.  The letters read in part, “Dear Jews, you bitterly mourn the death of an old Jew murdered for her money.  We think you pay little for the number of crimes you commit every day.  Enjoy it, because the day of punishment will come.”

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 3,869 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of France responded to the online survey.  Twenty-two percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 27 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  One-fifth of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 93 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.

The annual report of the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights, an advisory body to the prime minister, released in March, included the results of a poll conducted in November 2017 by the Ipsos Institute, a research and consulting company, involving face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,003 residents over the age of 18.  According to the poll, 38.2 percent of the respondents (2 percent fewer than in 2016) believed Jews “have a particular relationship with money,” and 19.7 percent thought Jews had too much power in the country.  The same poll found 29.5 percent of respondents had a negative image of Islam and 43.9 percent (2.1 percent fewer than in the previous year) of them considered it a threat to national identity.  The report also cited what it said was persistent societal rejection of Islamic religious practices, such as of prayer and women wearing a veil.  According to the report, there was a decrease in anti-Semitic and racist acts compared with 2016, “despite a general context favorable to the rejection of the other, notably marked by terrorism, the arrival of migrants, unemployment, the importance of security issues reported in the media, and the rise in populism in Europe.”

In May Maryam Pougetoux, aged 19, the leader of the Sorbonne chapter of the French National Students’ Union, set off a debate by wearing a hijab on national television.  Laurent Bouvet, a secularist and member of Le Printemps Republicain (Repulican Spring), a group created to defend secularism, stated in a Twitter post, “We aren’t hunting anyone but merely pointing to the inconsistency” of Pougetoux wearing a hijab, arguing it contradicted her support for abortion rights and other “feminist principles.”  Then-Interior Minister Collomb called her appearance “shocking,” while Marlene Schiappa, the junior minister for gender equality, said she saw in Pougetoux’s act a “form of promotion of political Islam.”  Hijabs are permitted on college campuses.

According to media reports, on June 28, a judge fined a tobacco shop owner in the town of Albi 1,000 euros ($1,100) for refusing goods and services to a Muslim woman who was wearing a jilbab.  The woman had come to the merchant’s store to pick up a parcel she had delivered there.  The woman’s face was visible when she presented her identity card to the shop owner, and she offered to remove her veil in a setting where no men were present, according to reports.  The judge also ordered the shop owner to pay to each of the four women who accompanied the plaintiff to the store 800 euros ($920) for moral damages and 500 euros ($570) for legal fees, as well as 800 euros ($920) in damages each to the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism and the Movement Against Racism and Friendship Between Peoples, and one euro ($1) to the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).

On Easter Monday (April 2), unidentified individuals vandalized the church of Fenay, near Dijon.  According to the parish priest, the attackers broke the door of the sacristy with an ax, then threw down and trampled the consecrated hosts.  “This is a deliberate act of desecration,” said the priest, who filed a complaint, according to press reports.  The investigation continued at year’s end.

On January 26, unknown individuals painted a large swastika at the entrance to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg.

On June 17, Strasbourg celebrated the 11th anniversary of its interfaith dialogue initiative, which continued to bring together religious leaders from Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.

In July, for the second consecutive year, young Christians and Muslims from across the country, Europe, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and the Middle East participated in a three-day “weekend of friendship” event at the Taize Ecumenical Community in the Department of Saone-et-Loire.  The approximately 200 participants addressed a series of questions from the organizers on prayer, religious freedom, and fasting.

In December 80 civil society representatives from 25 countries attended the ninth annual Muslim-Jewish Conference in Paris, exchanging best practices and discussing ways to combat anti-Semitism and anti-Islamic sentiment.  The organizers said interfaith dialogue was more important than ever and committed to supporting Jewish and Muslim communities in the country and around the world.

The Council of Christian Churches, composed of 10 representatives from the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic Churches, continued to serve as a forum for dialogue.  One observer represented the Anglican Communion on the council.  The council met twice in plenary session and twice at the working level.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other staff from the U.S. embassy, consulates general, and APPs discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with relevant government officials, including at the religious affairs offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Foreign Affairs.  Topics discussed included religious tolerance, anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in lessening violent extremism, the BDS movement, Holocaust-related compensation, and bilateral cooperation on these issues.

In June embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met MFA Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights Francois Croquette regarding the 2014 Agreement on Compensation for Certain Victims of Holocaust-Related Deportation from France Who Are Not Covered by French Programs between France and the United States.

The Ambassador met in Paris with Grand Rabbi of France Haim Korsia, Rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris Dalil Boubakeur, Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Luigi Ventura, Rector of Notre-Dame Cathedral of Paris Patrick Chauvet, CRIF president Francis Kalifat, and Joel Mergui of the Central Consistory (the leading Jewish institution administrating Jewish religious affairs), to discuss their views on religious freedom and tolerance.  In these meetings, the Ambassador stressed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting freedom of religion, the benefits of interfaith dialogue in promoting peace and countering radicalization, and the importance of collectively countering anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment.

Staff from the embassy, consulates general, and APPs met regularly with religious community leaders, activists, and private citizens throughout the country to discuss issues of discrimination and to advocate tolerance for diversity.  Embassy officials discussed religious freedom, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and interfaith dialogue and tolerance with senior Christian, Muslim, and Jewish representatives and NGOs such as Coexister and AJC Europe.  They also hosted meetings with CRIF, the Consistory, the CFCM, Catholic priests, and Protestant representatives working on interfaith dialogue.

The Ambassador and embassy officials engaged regularly with senior Israeli embassy representatives on efforts and best practices to counter anti-Semitism in France.  U.S. embassy officials closely monitored and reported on anti-Semitic incidents in the country and the official government position on the BDS movement.

In September the embassy hosted a conference in partnership with the German Marshall Fund on inclusive leaders, including those promoting interfaith collaboration and dialogue, from NGOs Coexister, Sparknews, The Next Level, and the Ariane de Rothschild Fellowship, which focused on developing leaders and creating stronger networks across sectors, including interfaith relations.

The embassy awarded small grants to various NGOs across the country to support projects that aimed to advance religious tolerance and integration.  One grant for $17,500 to Coexister was to fund a documentary film based on the group’s 2019-2020 Interfaith World Tour, a yearlong voyage around the globe centered on the theme of material and immaterial religious heritage and designed to observe interfaith initiatives and gather best practices to share with youth organizations across the country.

In April the embassy identified and funded the travel of three imams to the two-day conference for European imams in Rabat organized by the U.S. NGO Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (CECF) in partnership with the U.S. embassy in Rabat and the Imam Training Center in Rabat.  The conference focused on interfaith relationship building, radicalization prevention, and countering violent extremism in each imam’s home community.

In April the embassy funded a program in the United States for four NGO leaders.  Representatives from Parle-moi d’Islam (Speak to Me about Islam), focused on the prevention of youth radicalization, Coexister, which promotes diversity, social cohesion, and peaceful coexistence across faiths, and the Hozes Institute, dedicated to training imams in French language and culture, participated.  The program included meetings with the Islamic Community Center of Phoenix and with a panel of female religious leaders in New York City that examined how U.S. religious groups function in the context of a democratic society and illustrated U.S. approaches to interfaith dialogue.

On September 28, the Consulate General in Strasbourg hosted an interfaith lunch to discuss issues affecting religious communities, including the separation of church and state, state funding of religion, and the official status granted to four religions (Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Judaism) in Alsace-Moselle by the Alsatian Concordat of 1801.

On September 19, staff from APP Bordeaux joined faith leaders, elected Bordeaux officials, members of the academic community, and various social organizations at a gathering to promote interfaith dialogue and support nondiscrimination initiatives.  As part of the event, participants attended a screening of the short-film “Ramdam,” produced by Bordeaux-based film director Zangro, which depicted the trials and tribulations of a fictional imam living in Mont-de-Marsan.

Germany

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion.  The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters.  Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits.  The federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups.  Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members.  Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees, particularly teachers and courtroom officials.  While senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, some members of the federal parliament and state assemblies from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party again made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements.  The federal and seven state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, following a recommendation in a parliament-commissioned 2017 experts’ report to create a federal anti-Semitism commissioner in response to growing anti-Semitism.  The federal anti-Semitism commissioner serves as a contact for Jewish groups and coordinates initiatives to combat anti-Semitism in the federal ministries.  In July the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 75 million euros ($86 million) in 2019.  In March Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture, and that the country was characterized by Christianity.  In May the Bavarian government decreed that every public building in the state must display a cross in a clearly visible location near its entrance.

There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents.  These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism.  Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts.  Jews expressed security concerns after several widely publicized anti-Semitic attacks, coupled with reports of anti-Semitic bullying in schools.  Final federal crime statistics cite 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, including 69 involving violence, an increase of 20 percent compared with 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, in 2017.  The federal crime statistics attributed 93 percent of the 2017 crimes to the far right.  A study covering 2007-2017 by the Technical University of Berlin found online anti-Semitism was at its highest level ever recorded.  There were demonstrations expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment and protests against what participants described as radical Islam.  The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) continued to make public statements opposing the COS.

The U.S. embassy and five consulates general monitored the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance and expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim acts.  Embassy representatives met regularly with the newly appointed federal government anti-Semitism commissioner at the Ministry of Interior.  The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 29 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and 27 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches.  Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, combined account for less than 1 percent of the population.  Orthodox Christians represent 2.4 percent of the population.

According to government estimates, approximately 6.3 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder identifies simply as “Muslim.”  According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 25 percent of Muslims are recent immigrants; between 2011 and 2015, an estimated 1.2 million refugees arrived from predominately Muslim countries.  Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 200,000.  The Central Welfare Office for Jews in Germany reported that Jewish communities had approximately 100,000 members at the end of 2017.  According to Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), a secular, religious studies NGO, groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (222,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (15,000); and COS (5,000-10,000).  All of REMID’s estimates are based only on members who have registered with a religious group.  According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 36 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in the government’s statistics.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution (also known as the basic law) prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed and to practice one’s religion.  The constitution also prohibits an official state church.  It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts.  The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools and that parents have the right to decide whether their children shall receive religious instruction.  It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools.  The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and states groups may organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint.  It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and provide religious services in the military, at hospitals, and in prisons.

The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence or arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members or inciting hatred against them.  Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison.  It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare.  The prohibition and the penalties apply equally to online speech.  The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.  The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.

The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects,” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public.  The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups.  Several court decisions have ruled the government must remain neutral towards a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.

Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register.  State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review.  Religious groups applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence through their statutes, history, and activities that they are a religious group.

A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution.  Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes on members (averaging 9 percent of income tax) that each state collects on its behalf, separately from income taxes, but through the state’s tax collection process.  PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service.  PLC status also allows for tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations, for example, requiring employees in hospitals, kindergartens, or NGOs run by a religious group to be members of that group.  State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status providing public services, such as religious schools and hospitals.  Due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to before the Weimar republic, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.

According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level.  Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals.  An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists.  Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status.  The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.

According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply.  Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis.  Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Bremen do not prohibit headscarves for teachers.  Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality.  A law in Berlin bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, law enforcement staff, and primary and secondary public school teachers.  The Berlin law permits teachers at some categories of institutions, such as vocational schools, to wear headscarves.  Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.

In April the Bavarian Parliament amended its legislation to prohibit judges, prosecutors, and judicial trainees from wearing religious symbols in court.

Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving.  Infractions are punishable by a 60 euro ($69) fine.

Some federal and state laws affect religious practices.  Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices.  However, there are exceptions.  Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.

According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months.  After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.

All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools.  Religious communities with PLC status (or without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state that grants them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to set the curriculum for religious education in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries.  Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary state to state) express an interest.  The states of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam, with the teachers provided by the religious community or by the government, depending on the state.  In Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state provides this instruction; in the other federal states, Muslim communities or associations do.  In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction for all students is offered by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.

In Bavaria, teachers provide Islamic instruction to approximately 15,000 students in 219 primary schools and 118 middle and secondary schools under a pilot program expiring in 2019.  In the fall, NRW began providing Islamic religious instruction in 20 occupational (vocational) schools.

Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states those who opt out may substitute ethics courses.  State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements.  Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all the states.

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

Government Practices

In January the federal government created the new position of commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism.  The new commissioner, Felix Klein, started work in May.  The appointment followed federal parliament enactment of a resolution entitled “Resolutely Combating Anti-Semitism” on January 18.  The resolution called for creation of an anti-Semitism commissioner and expressed appreciation for the government’s 2017 decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) working definition of anti-Semitism.  It also called for deportation of foreigners that incite anti-Semitic hatred, “determined” countering of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, continued punishment for persons who denied or trivialized the Holocaust, and further financing – including with Muslim organizations and mosques – for projects to combat anti-Semitism, as well as continued financial support for Jewish communities and memorials of the Holocaust.  A 2017 report on anti-Semitism in the country by independent experts had also called for the appointment of a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism, as well as improved documentation and punishment of anti-Semitic crimes and better advisory services for those affected by anti-Semitism.

In October Klein announced that he planned to implement a nationwide system of recording anti-Semitic incidents below the threshold of criminal offenses.  During a visit to Israel, he announced cooperation with the Israeli government in encouraging third party states to apply the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and to develop codes of conduct for governments’ interactions with social media companies to combat online anti-Semitism.  On December 20, Klein announced the 2019 launch of a nationwide online platform for reporting anti-Semitic incidents.  The platform will be run by the Research and Information Center for Anti-Semitism (RIAS), a nonprofit organization that receives some federal and state funding.  The Ministry of Interior also announced it would establish a separate anti-Semitism department and add experts on Jewish life to the religious department.  Klein repeatedly encouraged the federal states to establish their own anti-Semitism commissioners.

Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, Bavaria, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt and NRW established anti-Semitism commissioners.  The responsibilities and functions of the position varied by state, but generally included developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs.  In November the federal and state level anti-Semitism commissioners met for the first time to discuss best practices and identify areas of cooperation.

In November Baden-Wuerttemberg opened an anti-discrimination office.  The state government said it would serve as a point of contact for those experiencing any form of discrimination, including religious discrimination.

In March NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet advocated granting PLC status to Muslim organizations.  In January the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat requested PLC status in NRW, and the application was pending at year’s end.

In November Rhineland-Palatinate announced it was planning to sign a state agreement with the Muslim Alevite community.  According to the state chancellery, the agreement would outline conditions for Alevi holidays and religious instruction in schools.  At year’s end, four Rhineland-Palatinate elementary schools offered Alevi religious instruction.  The government was scheduled to sign the agreement in March 2019.

In August the state of Rhineland-Palatinate announced it would stop negotiations to establish a “religion treaty” with the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and three other Islamic organizations, Schura Rheinland-Palatinate, Ahmadiyya, and the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers.  Such an agreement would have been a precondition for introducing state-wide Islamic religious education in public schools, but the state followed two expert opinion reports that had questioned DITIB’s independence from the Turkish government and the organizations’ “constitutional adequacy” as official partners for the state.  State authorities also classified DITIB and Schura as “suspicious.”

In December media reported the Hesse State criminal police office started an investigation of a possible neo-Nazi network in Frankfurt’s police force after a group of police officers allegedly sent a threatening letter to a German lawyer of Turkish origin.  In August investigators said they had found police officials used a work computer to look up the lawyer’s personal information without an official reason, and also found a group of five police officers had been sharing neo-Nazi images and content.  Authorities suspended the five officers from duty, and the case remained under investigation at year’s end.

According to reports from the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC) – the domestic intelligence service – and state OPCs and COS members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Thuringia continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution.  In September following the opening of new representational COS offices in Stuttgart, a Baden-Wuerttemberg state OPC spokesperson said state and national COS membership had decreased by one third since 1997, and suggested that the OPC’s monitoring of the COS deterred membership.  COS leadership disputed the state OPC’s statement that membership had declined.  At least four major political parties (the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Federal Democratic Party (FDP)) continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership.

Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor a number of Muslim groups, including Salafist movements, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkish Hezbollah (TH), Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), the Muslim Brotherhood, and Milli Gorus.  The website of NRW’s OPC stated the Muslim Brotherhood “rejects democracy.”

Groups under OPC observation continued to say their status as meriting OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.

In January the Hamburg Regional Court acquitted 12 alleged members of the banned Salafist group Millatu Ibrahim.  The Hamburg state attorney’s office charged that the men had, among other offenses, stormed a mosque in Luebeck, Schleswig-Holstein in 2013 and threatened to kill those who did not adhere to Millatu Ibrahim’s convictions.  The state attorney’s office stated it was convinced of the defendants’ guilt but that it had failed to prove the allegations.

In July Hamburg began to record hate crimes in a more detailed manner.  Hamburg Justice Senator (the city-state’s minister of justice) Till Stefen told the newspaper Welt in June the statistics would improve sentencing and make sociopolitical developments more visible.  Stefen added, “We need new sources to make anti-Semitic crimes visible.”  Hamburg State Attorney General Jorg Frohlich stated that collecting the new statistics would require significant additional work but that “every progress is worthwhile” when combating hate crime.

In September Bavaria established a hotline for reporting anti-Semitic incidents, according to the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner.  Bavarian authorities said the hotline would begin operations in spring 2019.

In May federal statistical data on the number of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hate crimes became available for the first time.  Police had added the categories to their criminal statistics in 2017.  Anti-Semitism was already a category of hate crime in federal crime statistics.

In February Baden-Wuerttemberg announced the state would start organizing training for Muslim chaplains at correctional facilities, rather than rely on outside organizations to conduct the training.  In the same month media reported the state OPC had barred three of 16 imams who were graduates of a third-party training course from serving as prison chaplains because of what the OPC said were the imam’s contacts with radical Islamist organizations.

In May Bavarian Minister-President Markus Soeder announced a decree requiring public offices to display a cross in a visible place at the entrance area of the building where they were located.  According to Soeder, the decree was intended to highlight Bavaria’s cultural and historical roots.

In March the Federal Constitutional Court dismissed the suit of a woman who wanted to drive wearing a niqab.  The court stated the woman had not sufficiently demonstrated how the law prohibiting driving with a face covering restricted her religious freedom.

In March the Koblenz police district completed a disciplinary review of a male Muslim police officer who in 2017 refused to shake the hand of a female colleague, citing religious reasons.  Police officials disciplined the officer, and ordered him to pledge his allegiance to the constitution in writing and pay a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,100).  They also instructed the officer, on penalty of dismissal, not to refuse to shake the hands of women in the future when acting in an official capacity.

In May the Berlin Labor Court ruled against a teacher in Berlin who had sued the school system in 2017 for transferring her from a primary school to a school for older children because state law barred women who wore a headscarf from teaching younger children.  The court decided the state administration had the right to transfer its teachers to any other post of the same salary level.

In November the State Labor Court of Berlin and Brandenburg awarded approximately 5,000 euros ($5,700) to a job applicant in compensation for discrimination on the grounds of religion.  The job applicant, trained in information technology, said the school where she applied to work as a teacher had rejected her because she wore a headscarf.  In May the local labor court had ruled that, because teachers served as a model for young students, the school was justified in limiting her religious freedom and asking her to teach without a headscarf.  The state court, however, saw no indication that a teacher wearing a headscarf would have threatened “school peace,” and quoted the Federal Constitutional Court’s 2015 decision that such a threat was a necessary condition for prohibiting teachers from wearing headscarves.

In April the NRW integration ministry announced it would examine legal requirements for a headscarf ban for girls younger than 14, the age of so-called “religious majority.”  The state integration minister stated in an interview that wearing a headscarf was a personal decision, but children lacked the self determination to decide and should not be pressured.  Critics of the proposed ban, including some teachers, asked how the ban would be enforced.  The federal integration commissioner and the chairwoman of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency spoke against the ban while federal FDP Party Chair Christian Lindner and CDU Party Vice Chair and federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Kloeckner supported it.  By year’s end, the NRW state government had not decided on the proposed ban and said it expected to continue debating the issue through the end of 2019.

In April a Muslim woman wearing a niqab left a reception by Heiner Bernhard (SPD Party), the mayor of Weinheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg, after she refused a request by a town employee to show her face.  The mayor stated he wished “to greet all citizens of his town face to face,” and that he considered it a “citizen’s duty” to show one’s face in a democratic state.  Shortly before the incident, the municipality had refused to process a pending passport application for the woman’s child because, according to Mayor Bernhard, the mother declined to show her face for identification purposes, as required by law, while applying for the passport on behalf of her child.  Bernhard told the newspaper Welt, “For identity verification, we had to see the woman’s face.  She could have gone to a separate room in our town hall.”

In September the city of Pforzheim announced it had reversed a regulation requiring Muslim women wishing to wear a headscarf in their driver’s license photograph to present evidence of their faith through a certificate from their mosque or religious community.  Earlier in the year, a Muslim woman’s tweet about the requirement had generated strong criticism of it on social media.  The new policy required certificates of faith only in cases where there was reasonable doubt about the religious motivation of those seeking to wear a headscarf in the photograph.

In February the AfD put forward a motion requesting the government to introduce legislation in parliament to prohibit full-face veils in public.  Citing the individual rights of Muslim women, the AfD motion stated that wearing a full-face veil was “an expression of the oppression of women” and of conscious distancing from “Western liberal society.”  At year’s end parliament was still debating the motion in committee.

In March the Bavarian Administrative Court rejected the complaint of a judicial trainee in Augsburg who in 2014 had sued to contest a Bavarian Ministry of Justice rule denying judicial trainees the right to wear a headscarf in court.  A lower court had previously sided with the plaintiff in 2016.

In July a majority of the citizens of Kaufbeuren, Bavaria voted in a referendum against leasing (for a symbolic fee) municipal real estate to the local DITIB organization on which to build a mosque.

In March the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster, NRW ruled that an event venue owner could not rent his venue for a Muslim circumcision celebration scheduled for Good Friday.  The ruling reaffirmed a December 2015 ruling by the Administrative Court in Cologne.  The circumcision itself had taken place several weeks before the scheduled celebration and the court ruled that the jubilant nature of the event contradicted the quiet nature of the Christian Good Friday observance, which several federal states, including NRW, legally enforced.

In February the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court in NRW banned outdoor amplification of the call to prayer via speakers by a local mosque.  Following legal action by nearby residents in 2015, the Muslim community had to stop amplifying the prayer call outside of the mosque’s premises pending a court decision.  The court justified its decision in this specific case with the lack of citizen involvement and dialogue in the city’s first decision to grant the permit for the call to prayer but did not prohibit the call to prayer altogether.  In March the city announced it would appeal the decision prohibiting the amplification.  The city’s lawyer compared the call to prayer with the ringing of church bells and said the court had not respected the religious freedom of the Muslim community.

In October the Federal Labor Court ruled on new guidelines for the rights of religious communities as employers, ruling on a case in which the EKD-owned charity organization Diakonie denied employment to a social worker because she was not a member of a religious community.  Although the job description required applicants to belong to a Christian church, the court ruled that Diakonie could not deny her employment solely on that basis.  The court’s decision stated religious communities could no longer require applicants to belong to a religious community as a condition of employment unless religious communities could demonstrate that membership was required to perform the job.

In March the European Court of Human Rights unanimously held that the country’s courts’ decisions in 2013 to take Twelve Tribes Church children living in Bavaria into state care because of reports that Church members punished their children by caning had not violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In March Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned rising anti-Semitism at schools after Muslim immigrant children bullied a Jewish girl at a Berlin elementary school.  The bullying reportedly included death threats.

In May the NRW Ministry of Schools and Education distributed resources on countering anti-Semitic bullying in schools to all schools and education authorities in the state.  The action followed reports indicating that bullying of Jewish students rose in 2017.  Politicians from the CDU/CSU called for action, including that schools pay more attention to communicating religious tolerance.

In December Hamburg’s parliament passed a resolution to strengthen preventive work against anti-Semitism.  The parliament allocated an additional 300,000 euros ($344,000) for school programs to combat anti-Semitism, including educational visits to former concentration camps, adult education, and anti-discrimination counseling.  The parliament said it would cooperate with Hamburg’s Jewish community and organizations to support their efforts to combat anti-Semitism, and that its efforts would target right-wing extremist groups.

In May the education ministry of Brandenburg, and the education ministries of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate in June, signed declarations of intent with Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel to collaborate on Holocaust education in the states’ schools.  In November Hamburg’s education ministry introduced educational materials on Jewish life from Yad Vashem as part of a broader effort to combat anti-Semitism in schools.  Yad Vashem said it had concluded such agreements with 15 of 16 states in the country.

In June the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government announced plans to reorganize Islamic religious education in public schools.  Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann said that, because of the absence of a single Islamic partner organization, he proposed establishing a Sunni Muslim educational foundation that would serve as a mediator between the state and various Islamic associations.  The state government did not reach a decision on a new model for Islamic religious education and announced it would continue the existing system for an additional school year.

The Alevi Muslim community continued to offer separate religious lessons in schools in eight states for approximately 1,400 students.

In June Berlin Humboldt University, a public university, created an institute for Islamic theology and said it would begin training imams and religion teachers in 2019.  The state of Berlin pledged to provide 13.8 million euros ($15.83 million) in funding for the institute through 2022.  Humboldt University created the institute in cooperation with three Muslim associations – the Central Council of Muslims, Islamic Federation, and Islamic Association of Shia Communities – and the associations were to have a voice in selecting the institute’s professors.  Critics, including student organizations and the Berlin CDU, said they disapproved of the extent of the associations’ control over the institute’s board, or of what they described as the associations’ conservative orientation.

During campaigning for the October Bavarian state elections, the Bavarian AfD distributed posters calling for “Islam-free schools,” which the party explained as a call to end “Islamic education and headscarves in schools.”

The COS continued to report governmental discrimination.  “Sect filters,” which were signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors.  According to the COS, in September a Munich school refused to hire a teacher due to his membership in the COS.  The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members.  According to the COS, Hamburg city officials asked one COS member to sign a “sect filter” when he attempted to purchase land from the city for his company.

In April the Berlin Administrative Court dismissed a suit that the mosque association Neukoellner Begegnungsstaette (NBS) had brought against the Berlin OPC in 2017.  NBS had sought to have the Berlin OPC remove the association’s name from its annual report and to stop stating NBS had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.  The court ruled that the Berlin OPC’s statements that NBS had had contacts with the Islamic Community in Germany and that the latter group organized followers of the Muslim Brotherhood were valid.

In May the NRW state chancery spokesperson told media the state government stopped cooperation with DITIB due to the Turkish government’s influence over the group.

In July the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 75 million euros ($86 million) of government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 405 million euros ($464.45 million) in 2018 to 480 million euros ($550.46 million) in 2019.  According to the commission, the increased funds would finance additional home care, food support, medicine, and transportation services for Holocaust survivors.

The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups.  Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government increased its yearly support from 10 to 13 million euros ($11.47 to $14.91 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage, restore the Jewish community, and support integration and social work.  In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international research group on the history and culture of German Jewry.

State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts, for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues.  The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries.  State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

In September the NRW government announced a ten-year plan totaling 44 million euros ($50.46 million), beginning in 2018 and ending in 2028, for the modernization and new construction of Jewish facilities and institutions.  The state said funding would begin at three million euros ($3.44 million) and be increased by 200,000 euros ($229,000) annually until reaching the maximum funding level of five million euros ($5.73 million) in 2028.  Separately, NRW again provided three million euros ($3.44 million) to support and upgrade security in Jewish buildings.

On November 8, the city of Dessau-Rosslau in Saxony-Anhalt presented the Jewish community with a piece of land to build a new synagogue in the center of town.  The community received 195,000 euros ($224,000) from the city and 300,000 euros ($344,000) from the state’s lottery commission for the construction of the building, as well as 700,000 euros ($803,000) from the federal government.  The Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Hasselof, welcomed the new synagogue, stating it would increase the visibility of Jewish life in the city.

According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD amounted to approximately 538 million euros ($616.97 million).  The union said it calculated its estimate based on the federal states’ budgets.

In June the NRW state government’s Center for Political Education organized six one-day information programs in six cities entitled Diverse Islam versus Violence-Prone Salafism:  Opportunities for Intervention and PreventionThe stated goals were to help teachers and educators distinguish between Islam as a religion and what the organizers described as violent Islamist extremists, and to engage with youths vulnerable to religiously based extremism.  Presenters were Muslim and non-Muslim academics, members of NGOs, and state government employees.  Muslim religious leaders did not participate in the programs.

In July the NRW Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees, and Integration awarded 160,000 euros ($183,000) to the Central Council of Muslims in support of its Hands-on Diversity:  Students against anti-Semitism project.

In January the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the 2016 acquittal by the Wuppertal Regional Court of seven members of a self-declared “Sharia Police” on charges of violating the prohibition on wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion.  Dressed in yellow vests marked “Sharia Police,” the men patrolled Wuppertal in September 2014 to counter “non-Muslim behavior.”  The Constitutional Court remanded the case back to the lower court and stated the latter had failed to consider whether the uniforms caused intimidation or were otherwise threatening to the public.  At year’s end the lower court had not scheduled a new trial date.

On July 9, the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and anti-Semitism, in conjunction with several other Jewish organizations in the country, published a “declaration of principles on the fight against anti-Semitism.”  While applauding several “well-intentioned” federal- and state-level public statements and initiatives over the previous months, the declaration called on the government to back up policies with concrete action.  It cited the need to take victims seriously, distinguish anti-Semitism as a specific form of discrimination, and apply the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.  The signatories called upon the newly appointed federal and state commissioners on anti-Semitism to develop more effective preventative measures to combat it and to learn from the experiences of victims to develop more effective preventive measures.  They also called on federal and state government agencies and publicly funded institutions to explicitly distance themselves from all form of anti-Semitism, including campaigns such as BDS.

Frankfurt Deputy Mayor and City Treasurer Uwe Becker targeted the BDS movement against Israel on numerous occasions and called for a ban of BDS in Germany.  In April Becker said “Frankfurt will, in the future, only work with banks which do not maintain business relations with the anti-Semitic BDS movement.”  In June he added that artists who supported the BDS movement were not welcome in Frankfurt and festivals or organizations in Frankfurt supporting BDS or providing a platform to its supporters risked losing city funding.

In September the NRW State Parliament condemned the BDS movement and its calls to boycott Israeli products and companies, as well as Israeli scientists and artists in NRW.  The parliament also requested that all NRW government organizations deny BDS requests to use city, municipality, and county spaces.

In December Jewish community leaders in Duesseldorf said they believe NRW could still do more to combat anti-Semitism, and they found state-level responses to the BDS movement to be insufficient and weak.

On January 1, the government implemented procedures for registering complaints and violations of the law barring hate speech enacted in late 2017.  The procedures stipulated operators of social networks with more than two million users in the country, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, must delete or block “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours after notification or, in more complex cases, within seven days.  Operators must name a representative in the country able to react to complaints within 48 hours.  Operators failing to comply systematically with the requirements were subject to fines of up to 50 million euros ($57.34 million).  By year’s end the government had not penalized any companies under the law.  Anti-Semitism Commissioner of Baden-Wuerttemberg Michael Blume reported the new law had had little effect on the spread of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech, as groups simply chose to use other, less public social media forms such as WhatsApp groups and video game chat rooms not covered by the law.

In March federal Interior Minister Seehofer stated the phrase “Islam is part of Germany,” which former President Christian Wulff and other politicians had popularized, was wrong.  “No.  Islam is not part of Germany,” he said.  Seehofer added that Muslims in the country “are, of course, part of Germany,” but that he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture.  The minister’s statements led to a public debate on the role of Islam and Muslims in the country.  Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that, while the country was shaped by its Judeo-Christian heritage, “Now there are four million Muslims living in Germany” who “can live their religion here, too.”  Several Muslim associations criticized the minister’s statements.  Gokay Sofuoglu, chair of the advocacy group Turkish Community in Germany, said, “At a time when there are more and more attacks on mosques and Muslims, it is not a good start if the minister of the interior begins with such a statement.”  He also stated that “it is not his [Seehofer’s] job to decide who belongs to Germany and who does not.”  Addressing Seehofer’s remarks, Islamic Council Chair Burhan Kesici said, “He does not have the decency to withhold his opinion.…It would be better to recognize reality and see Muslims as part of society.  Only then could prejudices be reduced.”  Ayman Mazyek, Chair of the Central Council of Muslims, commented, “Against the backdrop of the mosque fires and the increased Islamophobic attacks, I would have expected the new interior minister to stand behind German Muslims.”

In September Hans Peter Stauch, an AfD state parliament member in Baden-Wuerttemberg, posted a video on Facebook entitled “The Power of the Rothschilds.”  The video included statements that the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking family, were responsible for World War II and the Holocaust.  Baden-Wuerttemberg’s state commissioner for anti-Semitism and the heads of the state-level Green, SPD, and FDP parties criticized Stauch, saying that he was spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  Stauch responded that he had only posted the video without commentary and said he was exercising his freedom of speech.

In January AfD Bundestag (federal parliament) member Beatrix von Storch tweeted that Cologne police were appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping, Muslim hordes” when the police tweeted a New Year’s Day greeting in Arabic.  Twitter briefly suspended von Storch’s account.  Thomas Held, spokesman for the Cologne police, confirmed to media that the Cologne police initiated a criminal report against von Storch for suspicion of inciting hatred, stating that this was “a completely normal procedure” which they were “legally obliged” to start upon the suspicion of a criminal offense.  Additionally, approximately 100 private individuals reported von Storch’s tweet to police.  Twitter also deleted a tweet by AfD Parliamentary Caucus Chief Alice Weidel, defending her colleague by using the phrase “imported, marauding, grabbing, beating, knife stabbing migrant mobs.”

In May Weidel argued in a parliamentary debate that the uncontrolled immigration of Muslims endangered the wealth of the country, stating, “Burquas, headscarf girls, subsidized knife men, and other good-for-nothings will not secure our wealth, the economic growth, and most of all our welfare state.”  Representatives of all other parties present in parliament reacted with interjections and booing.  Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble called her to order for “discriminating against all women who wear a headscarf.”

In July a group of AfD party members from Weidel’s Bodensee electoral district in Baden-Wuerttemberg visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial in Brandenburg State as part of a trip to Berlin sponsored by the federal press office.  According to the memorial site’s staff, some participants continuously interrupted the guided tour with inappropriate comments, including speech that trivialized Nazi crimes and questioned the existence of gas chambers.  The federal press office stated one participant made anti-Semitic statements.  Neuruppin public prosecutor Wilfried Lehman was investigating the case, and stated in November that his office hoped to complete the investigation by year’s end, and he already had sufficient evidence for one case of Holocaust denial.

On April 26, the Bundestag condemned the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks in the country, and emphasized its support for Israel’s right to exist.  “It is intolerable when Jewish life in Germany is not possible without fear,” said SPD party leader Andrea Nahles.  Volker Kauder (who at the time was CDU/CSU parliamentary caucus leader), said “Everyone has a place in this society,” but that there was no place for anti-Semitism.

In May the Rostock District Court upheld a lower court’s 2016 finding that AfD state Member of Parliament (MP) Holger Arppe was guilty of hate speech against Muslims for comments he wrote on the right-wing website Politically Incorrect in 2010, while using a pseudonym.  The court increased Arppe’s fine from 6,300 to 9,000 euros (from $7,200 to $10,300).

On February 8, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court found the creator of the banned Altermedia neo-Nazi website guilty of leadership in a criminal association and inciting racial hatred and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison.  Three women, charged with supporting the website and incitement, were convicted and received suspended sentences ranging from eight months to two years.  The court declared the platform a criminal organization.  It had published content that denied the Holocaust and targeted Jews, immigrants, and foreigners; the federal interior minister closed it in 2016.

According to the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD), political parties continued to distance themselves from Islamic associations because they were concerned foreign nations and organizations could influence Muslims with money and by sending radical imams to mosques in the country.

As part of the coalition agreement between the ruling CDU/CSU and SPD parties, the government agreed to continue the German Islam Conference dialogue between representatives of the government and Muslims in the country, which began in 2006.  The conference’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population in the country, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and, in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country, further develop partnerships between the government and Islamic organizations.  In November the government held its fourth German Islam Conference, a two-day conference with 240 participants.  Conference attendees included representatives of Muslim associations, communities, scholars, and activists.  Interior Minister Seehofer called on Muslim communities to cut their ties with sources of foreign funding and influence, develop their own training systems for the country’s imams, and increase their cooperation with the country’s government.  Federal Integration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz, reiterating concerns about the foreign financing of the country’s mosques, said, “Those who want to be part of Germany as a Muslim organization cannot remain part of Ankara.”

In January Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator of Palestinian heritage, proposed the government require that “everybody living in this country” visit Nazi concentration camp memorials at least once.  She added that newly arrived immigrants should visit the memorials as part of programs to integrate them into society, in order to sensitize them to Nazi crimes against Jews and combat anti-Semitism.  The country’s Central Council of Jews and the World Jewish Congress endorsed the proposal.  Council President Josef Schuster told Deutschlandfunk Radio that migrants who had fled or been expelled from their home countries could develop empathy by visiting such memorials.  The proposal generated debate and was not adopted.  Critics said such visits should be voluntary and preceded by prior education about the Holocaust.  Gunter Morsch, Director of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation and head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, said, “It seems to me an illusion to believe that such a visit can help to counter a strongly entrenched prejudice.”

In March NRW Minister-President Laschet hosted an iftar at the state chancery, the first NRW minister-president to do so.

The government created the position of federal commissioner for worldwide religious freedom within the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and in April it appointed MP Markus Gruebel as the first commissioner.  Gruebel stated the government wanted to send a clear signal on the importance it places on religious freedom and the strengthening of common values.

The country is a member of the IHRA.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism.  Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts.  According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes committed during the year – including 69 incidents involving violence – a 20 percent increase over the 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, reported in 2017.  The interior ministry attributed 93 percent of the incidents in 2017 to the far right but stated its methodology was not exact.

The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents decreased from 31 in 2016 to 28 in 2017.  It noted membership in neo-Nazi groups remained steady at approximately 6,000 persons.

NGO RIAS, to which victims can report anti-Semitic incidents independently of filing charges with police, reported 527 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of the year, including 18 involving violence or attempted violence, compared with 514 incidents over the same period a year earlier.  RIAS used different categories than official police statistics and counted anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense, such as “hurtful behavior.”

According to the anti-Semitism commissioner in Bavaria, incidents of anti-Semitism were increasing in the state.  He said perpetrators were from both the extreme left and right, as well as the Muslim community.

In 2017, the first year in which authorities maintained a tally of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian incidents, the Ministry of Interior registered 1,075 incidents against Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers, including 56 attacks involving bodily harm.  Other recorded infractions included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street.  The ministry also recorded approximately 90 demonstrations against the “Islamization of Germany.”

The Ministry of Interior counted 129 incidents against Christians in 2017, including 34 cases involving violence.  It classified a majority of these incidents as motivated by religious ideology.  In at least 14 cases, the victims were refugees.  Media reported that refugees who had converted from Islam to Christianity experienced aggression from Muslim refugees, especially if they were housed in the same refugee shelter.

In February an unknown perpetrator fired shots with an air gun from a high-rise building towards a mosque in Halle and injured a Syrian man.  Federal Immigration Commissioner Aydan Oezoguz (SPD) visited the site to talk to members of the Muslim community.  In June one or more unidentified individuals fired shots from an air gun near the same mosque that hit a man of Syrian origin.  Police investigated, but by year’s end had not identified a suspect in either incident.

On June 3, according to RIAS, three men accosted four teenagers listening to an Israeli song on a cell phone at a subway station in Berlin.  The men asked the cell phone owner if he was Jewish.  When he said yes, they told him they were from Gaza City, that Jews had been killing children for 70 years, and that if he showed up again they would slit his throat, calling him a [expletive] Jew.  The men then tried to push the cell phone owner onto the subway tracks and injured one of the other youths with broken glass.  The attackers fled when police appeared.  There were no arrests.

In September the president of the Jewish amateur sports club Makkabi Germany, Alon Meyer, said club members increasingly faced anti-Semitic abuse from other competitors during sporting events, ranging from insults to physical violence and knife attacks.  According to Meyer, insults included “filthy Jew” and “Jews into the gas.”  He added, “It’s not stopping at insulting, it will be fisticuffs, it will be knife attacks.”  Meyer attributed the attacks mostly to an increase in migrants and refugees with a Muslim-Arab background.

In February the regional court in Traunstein, Bavaria sentenced an Afghan man to life in prison.  The court found the man guilty of stabbing a woman to death in 2017, in part because she had converted from Islam to Christianity.  According to the court, the attacker killed the victim, who was also from Afghanistan, in front of her young sons.

On August 31, the Dresden District Court convicted a man charged with bombing a mosque in 2016 of attempted murder, arson, and causing a bomb explosion and sentenced him to nine years and eight months in prison.

In June police reported three men with extreme far-right views attacked a Jewish man from Dortmund, attempting to punch him in the head and insulting him.  The victim said he encountered the attackers for a second time that same day, and they again insulted and threatened him and made the Nazi salute.  The Dortmund police intelligence service published a call for witness accounts and launched an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end.  Three days earlier, the victim said one of the three men had pushed him and directed anti-Semitic insults at him.  At that time, police had verified the identities of alleged perpetrator and victim and were investigating the former for possible charges, including incitement to violence.

In July in Bonn, a 20-year old citizen of Palestinian descent assaulted a visiting Israeli professor from Johns Hopkins University.  The attacker, upon seeing the professor, shouted “No Jews in Germany!” and then knocked the yarmulke off his head.  When police arrived, the attacker fled the scene.  The police mistakenly believed the victim to be the attacker and used force to detain him.  Police later apprehended the alleged perpetrator and charged him with incitement of hate and causing bodily harm.  They later released him.  The Cologne police opened an internal investigation of the Bonn police actions in the incident, and the police officers involved were assigned to desk jobs pending the investigation’s results.

In April a group of three men reportedly insulted two men wearing yarmulkes across a street in Berlin.  In court, the victims stated their attackers had shouted insults at them in Arabic.  A video then showed one of the perpetrators, a Syrian refugee, crossing the street towards one victim, hitting him with a belt, and screaming the Arabic word for Jew.  The victim was an Arab-Israeli who had received the yarmulke as a gift.  In June the local court in Berlin-Tiergarten sentenced the attacker to four weeks in jail.  Since the man had been in pretrial detention for two months, authorities set him free immediately, as they considered the sentence served.  The man sought monetary compensation for the excess time he had served in prison, but authorities denied his claim.  While his lawyer initially announced in July he would appeal the decision not to compensate him, the lawyer withdrew the appeal in October.

On August 26, the AfD and the group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) organized a peaceful rally in Chemnitz after the killing of a citizen, reportedly by two refugees from Syria and Iraq.  Later that day, approximately 800 persons marched in another demonstration in downtown Chemnitz and reportedly shouted anti-immigrant slogans, attempted to attack persons who appeared to be migrants, and clashed with police.  On August 27, a group of 12 individuals who yelled “Get out of Germany, you Jewish pig” attacked the Jewish owner of the Schalom restaurant in Chemnitz, throwing rocks and bottles at the restaurant and injuring the owner, before running away.  At year’s end Chemnitz police were still investigating the case.  Saxony Minister-President Michael Kretschmer strongly condemned the attack, which occurred after social unrest in the city.  The same day, according to press reports, approximately 6,000 right-wing demonstrators and 1,500 counterdemonstrators marched in Chemnitz.  Newscasts showed demonstrators shouting anti-immigrant slogans and making the Nazi salute.  Two police and 18 demonstrators were injured.  Because ethnicity and religion are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize the demonstrations as being solely based on religious identity.

In May a 67-year-old man allegedly hit a woman wearing a headscarf in the face at a bus stop in Berlin.  The man had asked the woman about the headscarf, and she had told him she was a Muslim and liked to wear it.  Police identified a suspect and opened an investigation.

In August the Berlin-Tiergarten local court convicted a 68-year-old woman of committing deliberate bodily harm and insult for hitting a Muslim woman in the face and trying to rip off her headscarf in an incident in January.  The victim and her daughter managed to detain the perpetrator until police arrived.  The court fined the perpetrator 2,400 euros ($2,800).

In separate incidents during one week in March, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Berlin, at a Turkish club in Meschede, and at a Turkish greengrocer in Itzehoe.  The newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that, between mid-January and mid-March, individuals carried out 26 attacks on mosques, of which 18 belonged to DITIB.  According to the same newspaper, after an attack with Molotov cocktails on a building belonging to the Muslim group Milli Gorus in Laufen-am-Neckar in March, what appeared to be anti-Turkish Kurds said in an online video the attacks were in retaliation for Turkish army raids against the northern Syrian city of Afrin.  In a joint statement, DITIB, the Central Council of Muslims, and the Islamic Council expressed the Muslim community’s perception that politicians and the public were not taking their concerns about their safety and that of their mosques seriously.  At year’s end authorities continued to investigate these incidents and had made no arrests.

A Berlin-based Jewish-Israeli restaurant owner who appeared in a 2017 video that received widespread online attention showing him as the target of verbal anti-Semitic aggression received death threats and hate mail, and individuals threw firecrackers at his restaurant.  According to a media report in September, hate mail he received filled 31 pages.  Police investigated but could not identify any of those sending death threats.  In July the man who had initiated the original diatribe against the restaurant owner in 2017 received a seven months’ suspended prison sentence.

The Duesseldorf Jewish Community said attendance at two Jewish schools it sponsored in the city had spiked up due to increased anti-Semitism in schools around Duesseldorf.  According to the group, the schools, which the NRW government funded, had been established to enable Jewish students to strengthen their Jewish identity.  Most students, however, were enrolling because they sought a safe haven from increased bullying due to their Jewish faith.  According to NRW Ministry of Education officials, much anti-Semitism in schools came from students’ parents and media, and anti-Semitism among Muslim children was particularly difficult to change.

The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly.  “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church investigated “sects and cults” and publicized what they considered to be the dangers of these groups.  On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views warned the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing these groups.

A study on discrimination against migrants in the labor market by the Scientific Center Berlin for Social Research released in June reported that Muslims experienced discrimination when looking for a job.  According to the study, which included more than 6,000 fictitious job applications, Muslim job applicants were 7 percent less likely to receive a positive answer than Christian applicants with the same qualifications.

In April the Center to Combat Antidiscrimination and Counselling on Racism and Anti-Semitism (SABRA) held an all-day conference on Anti-Semitism and Refugees.  The Duesseldorf Jewish Community established SABRA in 2017 as a new service to combat anti-Semitism.  SABRA is part of a network of state government-supported organizations throughout NRW that provide services to immigrants to help them integrate into society.  Conference participants stated that, although anti-Semitism had always been present in the country, the influx of a large number of mostly Muslim refugees exacerbated anti-Semitism.  The program focused on supporting individuals who were victims of anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination by providing counseling and legal services and helping to resolve cases of discrimination; sponsoring prevention programs in schools; and monitoring incidents of anti-Semitism throughout the state.  SABRA also provided support for victims of anti-Semitic incidents that did not meet the threshold for filing criminal charges.

In November Abraham Lehrer, Vice President of the Central Council of Jews, told media that he expected anti-Semitism among Arab or Muslim immigrants to increase and called for combating anti-Semitism through education.  Lehrer said, “Many of these people were influenced by regimes in which anti-Semitism is part of the rationale of the state and the Jewish state is denied the right to existence.”  As a remedy, Lehrer proposed integration courses tailored to immigrants’ country of origin, with intensive teaching of such values as democracy and the treatment of women in society.

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 1,233 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Germany responded to the online survey.  Twenty-nine percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 41 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  Thirty-seven percent said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief.  Eighty-nine percent said anti-Semitism had increased during the previous five years.

According to a survey of more than 2,000 German-speaking residents released in September by the Social Science Institute of the Protestant Church, 54 percent did not agree with the statement that “Islam fits into German society,” and 31 percent agreed.  While 69 percent agreed that Muslims were part of everyday life in the country, only 27 percent said they were well or very well informed about Islam.  A third of respondents approved of Islamic religious instruction in schools.

PEGIDA continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden.  Journalists said PEGIDA supporters pushed and threatened them when they were reporting on the demonstrations.  On September 3, police detained a PEGIDA demonstrator who had allegedly attacked a journalist, according to Deutschlandfunk online.  On September 24, several PEGIDA demonstrators attacked two journalists, hitting one reporter in the face and kicking the other, while other PEGIDA supporters stood nearby and cheered, according to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.  Some members of the crowd then reportedly helped the perpetrators escape.  Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.

The number of participants at PEGIDA marches remained constant at approximately 1,500-2,000 protesters per rally, according to several media reports.  An exception was the October 21 rally in Dresden, when 4,500 supporters marked the group’s fourth anniversary.  On the same day in Dresden, approximately 10,000 persons marched in support of tolerance and against PEGIDA.  Among the participants in the counterdemonstration were Saxony Minister-President Kretschmer, Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert, and several state ministers.  The October 21 demonstrations were largely peaceful, but police reported five incidents of assault.  Early in the year AfD parliamentarians gave multiple speeches at PEGIDA rallies.  In January the magazine Der Spiegel cited AfD Bundestag member Siegbert Droese as stating that in Saxony there was close cooperation between his party and PEGIDA.

In what organizers said was a sign of solidarity with Jews in Germany, hundreds of persons wearing yarmulkes demonstrated against anti-Semitism in several cities around the country, including in Berlin, Cologne, Erfurt, Magdeburg, and Potsdam, in April and May.  During the Berlin demonstration, where there were approximately 2,500 participants, authorities reported incidents in which counterprotesters spit on demonstrators, called them terrorists, and violently removed an Israeli banner.

Between May and August Realitaet Islam (Reality Islam), a group that said it aimed to strengthen the Islamic identity of Muslims in the country, campaigned in Frankfurt and other cities in Hesse against a headscarf ban.  The group said it targeted young Muslims and had collected more than 140,000 signatures from throughout the country.  The Hesse state OPC stated to media on August 29 that, while the campaign itself was not illegal, the group rejected the country’s liberal democratic order and was striving for a theocracy, and a “high Islamic radicalization potential” for the group “could not be excluded.”

On January 17, approximately 300 persons demonstrated against the construction of a mosque by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt.  The AfD leadership in Thuringia supported the demonstration, and state AfD Chairperson Bjoern Hoecke said the mosque’s construction was “part of a long-standing land grab project.”  Mosque opponents subsequently organized a series of smaller demonstrations against the construction.  For example, in June David Koeckert, who press reported was a former member of the National Democratic Party, widely described as a neo-Nazi group, organized an event at an Erfurt market where protestors staged a fake execution, shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and pretending to cut a woman’s throat using imitation blood.  Left Party state MP Steffen Dittes called the act disgusting.  According to police, authorities filed charges against the organizers for insult and damage to property.

In September demonstrators against the construction of the mosque wore masks depicting what they considered to be stereotypical Middle Eastern faces and “Arab” garb.  Numbering fewer than 20 participants, the demonstrators also marched in front of Green Party state MP Astrid Rothe-Beinlich’s home.  Rothe-Beinlich criticized local authorities for authorizing a demonstration directly in front of her house, which she described as a personal threat.  Authorities permitted the masks’ use, stating there was no violation of the ban on face coverings during demonstrations, because protestors could be identified with their identification documents.  Critics stated there was no exception to the ban on face coverings during demonstrations.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt moved forward with the construction and celebrated the laying of the foundation stone on November 13.  The ceremony was accompanied by loud protests from approximately 60 opponents of the mosque, as well as a counterdemonstration by persons calling for religious freedom and tolerance.

Construction of a mosque in Sulzbach, Saarland was ongoing at year’s end.  The citizen’s group Sulzbach wehrt sich (Sulzback Fights Back) continued to protest the construction of the mosque.  In April the group organized a protest as well as a concert with the band Kategorie C/Hungrige Wolfe that the OPC said it was monitoring for its connection to right wing extremists.  The city tried to prevent the concert in a municipal building, stating the group had misled it in registering the event without the band’s name.  The Saarland Higher Administrative Court ruled in April the city had to allow the concert to take place since it could not show sufficient cause for cancelling it.  Approximately 200 representatives of political parties, trade unions, and churches protested against the concert.

In June Ruhrtriennale, a cultural festival receiving state financial support in NRW, invited the Scottish band Young Fathers to play a concert.  The private company Kultur Ruhr GmbH organizing the festival said it cancelled the appearance when it learned the band supported the BDS movement.  The organizers stated they later reversed their decision and reinvited the band so they could publicly explain their views, but the band declined.  State Minister of Culture and Science Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen criticized the organizer’s reinvitation of the band in a press statement, and the minister-president cancelled his attendance.  Jewish organizations criticized the scheduling of a panel discussion at the festival about the BDS debate because it took place on the Sabbath and featured Jewish artists who supported BDS.  A Jewish activist, Malca Goldstein-Wolf, organized a demonstration headlined “No support for BDS with taxpayers’ money.”  The demonstration took place in Bochum on August 18, and there were approximately 250 participants.

In August the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for a boycott of the Berlin Pop-Kultur Festival, and several artists from the United Kingdom and the United States cancelled their appearances.  The Israeli embassy had supported the festival with 1,200 euros ($1,400) and appeared on the festival’s website as a “partner.”  During the festival, the BDS movement put up posters in Berlin that mimicked the festival’s logo, stating “pop culture – sponsored by apartheid.”  BDS activists also disrupted the festival’s opening event.

According to a study the Technical University of Berlin issued in July, anti-Semitic online hate speech reached record levels on social media, blogs, websites’ comment sections, and thematically unrelated websites and online forums.  The researchers stated that, since online communication was becoming more important, acceptance of anti-Semitism could increase.  The study, which distinguished between anti-Semitism and political criticism of Israel, evaluated 30,000 German language online statements made between 2014 and 2018 on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of mainstream media outlets.  The study also evaluated 20,000 emails sent to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany.  According to the report authors, between 2007 and 2017, anti-Semitic content in the texts had tripled “in some instances.”  The study identified an increased use of comparisons of Israel to Nazis; fantasies of violence targeting Jews, e.g., references to asphyxiating Jews in pig excrement and to hunting and killings Jews; and dehumanizing or demonizing characterizations of Jews, such as “pest,” “cancer,” or “filth.”  Almost half of the texts used centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as portraying Jews as strangers, usurers, exploiters, vindictive intriguers, blood cult practitioners, robbers, and murderers.  According to the authors, anti-Semitism related to Israel was encountered in a third of all texts.

In April the German Music Federation awarded rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah, whose songs include anti-Semitic lyrics, the country’s Echo music award based on high record sales.  Civil society groups, artists, politicians, and Jewish groups criticized the award.  Several musicians who were past recipients of the Echo, returned their awards in protest, and singer Peter Maffay and Foreign Minister Maas both said awarding the prize on Holocaust Remembrance Day was “shameful.”  After the award ceremony, 11 persons reported the rappers to police for “incitement of hatred.”  In June the Duesseldorf public prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute them.  The Duesseldorf prosecutor stated that, while their songs contained anti-Semitic and misogynist lyrics, the lyrics were characteristic of their genre and a form of protected artistic freedom.  Following the controversy, the federation revoked the Echo prize given to Farid Bang and Kollegah, and the organizers announced they would discontinue the award.

In April a satirical play based on Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf was performed in Constance, Baden-Wuerttemberg.  The play’s organizers promised free entry to spectators who wore the swastika, and those who paid for a ticket had to wear a Star of David “as a sign of solidarity with the victims of Nazi barbarism.”  Several legal complaints were filed against the theater.  Although the law prohibits the public display of Nazi symbols and several legal complaints were reportedly filed against the theater, local prosecutors allowed the theater to present the play and allow free entry for those wearing swastikas, citing free speech laws that permit artistic performances.  The region’s German-Israeli Society called for a boycott of the play.

On April 20, approximately 1,300 neo-Nazis gathered in the town of Ostritz in Saxony to commemorate Hitler’s birthday.  Thorsten Heise, chairman of the National Democratic Party of Germany, organized the event.  On the same date, also in Ostritz, opponents held a peace festival, a counterrally of approximately the same size.  Police were present in force, and both events were largely peaceful.  According to press reports, one person was slightly injured during scuffles between the opposing groups, and police detained one man for making the Nazi salute.  The same organizers organized a neo-Nazi Shield and Sword (SS) rock festival in Ostritz on November 1-4.  In another peace festival, approximately 3,000 opponents protested again.  Police stopped another right-wing rock concert in Ostritz on December 1, after neighbors reported hearing the participants yell the Nazi slogan, “Sieg Heil.”  Authorities were investigating the incident at year’s end.

On September 21, an estimated 100 neo-Nazis rallied in Dortmund, NRW, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, such as, “He who loves Germany is anti-Semitic,” and carrying symbols such as the “Reich” flag.

At a Unification Day demonstration on October 3 in Berlin with approximately 2,000 participants, media reported a few participants performed the Nazi salute, and several dozen displayed neo-Nazi tattoos, inscriptions on their clothes, or posters.  Several counterdemonstrations with a similar total number of participants took place in Berlin at the same time.  All the demonstrations were peaceful.

In May authorities arrested 89-year-old Ursula Haverbeck after she failed to appear to serve her prison sentence for Holocaust denial.  In 2017, the Regional Court Verden sentenced Haverbeck to two years’ imprisonment after convicting her on eight counts of incitement of hate.  In February the Celle Higher Regional Court rejected her appeal.  In August the Federal Constitutional Court refused to accept her complaint that Holocaust denial was covered by the protected constitutional right of freedom of expression and not a punishable offense.  At year’s end, Haverbeck was serving her sentence and publishing messages from prison on her website, Freedom for Ursula.

In May unknown perpetrators spray-painted a swastika on a house in the town of Kirchhain in Hesse and covered commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) with black paint.

According to state authorities and local media, religious establishments in Ulm in Baden-Wuerttemberg experienced increased vandalism over the course of the year.  In September unknown individuals painted swastikas and other pro-Nazi symbols or writing on the door and pews of the Protestant cathedral in Ulm.  State authorities said they had found similar anti-Semitic graffiti in Ulm and the surrounding area in the preceding months, including at a local synagogue and a Turkish mosque.

In September unknown persons targeted the Al-Nour Mosque in Hamburg, just before its opening, with anti-Muslim graffiti.  The mosque was converted from a former Protestant church.  According to a mosque official, the mosque had held open days for city residents in an effort to engage with non-Muslims and be as transparent as possible with the project.

In February the Duesseldorf Memorial and Education Center, a museum, research center, and archive of the Holocaust, started a research project aimed at identifying the number of victims in NRW of the November 1938 Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, as well as how the victims had died.  The center published a report of its findings on the 80th anniversary of the pogrom, on November 9.  The report detailed the cases of the approximately 127 persons from NRW who lost their lives as a result of the pogroms.

According to local officials, legal proceedings against a bus driver in Emden, Lower Saxony for refusing a pregnant woman wearing a full-face veil onto his bus on three occasions, were continuing at year’s

In May Hamburg’s Jewish Community ordained five rabbis, its first ordination since World War II.  Hamburg Mayor and Minister-President Peter Tschentscher (SPD) attended the ceremony.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. embassy and the five consulates general continued to engage closely with the government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance.  Embassy officials regularly met with the Ministry of Interior’s federal government commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism.  Consulate general officials in Frankfurt and Munich met with the Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria commissioners for anti-Semitism to express concern about anti-Semitism and discuss ways of ensuring anti-Semitic incidents were correctly recorded.

Embassy and consulate general representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to freedom of worship.  Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism through the country’s changing political landscape (for example, the cooperation of the AfD with extreme right groups, especially in Chemnitz), the rise of the BDS movement, and concern that refugees and other migrants might be bringing concepts of anti-Semitism into the country.  Embassy and consulate general representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; COS; ZMD; Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; Alevi Muslims; Council of Religions Frankfurt; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.

In January the Charge d’Affaires met with the head representative of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Jewish Claims Conference) in Frankfurt am Main to discuss the status of claims negotiations.

In March the embassy sponsored the visit of 11 young Muslim leaders from Berlin and Heilbronn to participate in a program in the United States on community outreach and engagement.  Program topics included community efforts to combat violent extremism, particularly of Muslim youth, strengthening civil society and citizen participation, combating hate speech, and developing leadership skills to connect with and engage Muslim youth.

The embassy funded the participation of a U.S. photographer in a photography project titled A World of Faith – 4 Perspectives on Religion, in which four photographers presented pictures highlighting aspects of the beliefs of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  A display of the project at a Berlin art gallery in January and February encouraged interreligious dialogue among visitors and media.  During a visit to the exhibition, the Charge d’Affaires stressed to organizers the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and commended the gallery and participating photographers for their efforts to promote understanding among people of different faiths.

To commemorate Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Charge d’Affaires visited the photography exhibition Religion behind Bars that discussed religiosity in prison.  The embassy supported the exhibition with a travel fund for one of the photographers.  During the visit, the Charge stressed the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of religion.

On April 18, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a Celebrate Diversity Month reception for approximately 100 religious, government, and civil society leaders from a variety of backgrounds to encourage them to find common ground and engage in productive dialogue over shared values.  In his remarks, the Charge spoke of religious diversity and freedom.

In June the Ambassador discussed Jewish life in the country and the community’s concerns about anti-Semitism and intolerance with Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Street in Berlin and Rabbi Joshua Spinner, Executive Vice President of the Ronald Lauder Foundation in the country.

In July the Ambassador met with the Kreuzberger Initiative against anti-Semitism (KIGA), a Berlin-based NGO that trains students from Kreuzberg (a neighborhood with a high number of Muslim immigrants) to work with students and talk to school classes to promote tolerance and combat anti-Semitism.

In September the Ambassador hosted a screening of Yezidi activist Duezen Tekkal’s documentary Hawar – My Journey to Genocide, which focused on the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yezidi people in Iraq in 2014.  The Ambassador delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and commended the work that Tekkal and fellow Yezidi activist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad have done to highlight abuses by ISIS.  The Ambassador said the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government’s efforts to resettle approximately 2,500 Yezidi women and children were “courageous,” and cited it as an example of Germany’s commitment to defend religious freedom.

In October the Ambassador hosted a 20th anniversary celebration in honor of international Jewish NGO AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute.  In his speech, the Ambassador highlighted the significance of religious freedom and efforts to combat anti-Semitism.  He stressed the importance of German government restitution of Jewish property seized in World War II, compensation for Holocaust survivors, and promotion of Holocaust education.

In October the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited Berlin and Magdeburg and met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss how to best combat anti-Semitism.  In Magdeburg, the special envoy attended a board meeting of the German Lost Art Foundation, which focused on provenance research for art and cultural assets the Nazis confiscated from Jews.

On November 9, the 80th anniversary of the Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, the Ambassador met with the head of Deutsche Bahn’s (German Railway’s) historical section at the Track 17 memorial, one of three deportation points for Berlin Jews during World War II, and toured the memorial.  Embassy officials also cleaned defaced commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) throughout Berlin.

In November the Ambassador participated in a roundtable with KIGA peer trainers and program participants to discuss the importance of tolerance and religious freedom.  The Ambassador also listened to the participants’ views on KIGA’s training, as well as their experiences with combatting anti-Semitism in their communities.

On November 13, the U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and State Secretary at the German Ministry of Finance Rolf Bosinger hosted a discussion at the AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute on the U.S. Treasury’s role in assisting Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, as well on Germany’s contributions to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

In November the Charge d’Affaires delivered remarks on religious freedom and the importance of restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs at the German Lost Art Foundation’s Conference.  On the margins of the conference, the German government signed a joint declaration with the U.S. government that reaffirmed both governments’ commitment to find just and fair solutions for the return of stolen artwork to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.

On December 2, the Ambassador gave remarks on religious tolerance and nondiscrimination at an embassy reception to mark Hanukkah, in advance of an annual menorah lighting ceremony in central Berlin.

The embassy and consulates general provided small cash grants to support programs promoting religious tolerance, such as the Jewish Cultural Days in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Jewish Week in Leipzig, Saxony, and Yiddish Summer in Weimar, Thuringia.  These events featured music, dancing, film screenings, exhibitions, and speakers that raised awareness about the Jewish community and Jewish culture.

Hong Kong

Executive Summary

IN THIS SECTIONCHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG (BELOW) | MACAU


The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), as well as other laws and policies, states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public.  The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).  Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly, however, they reported harassment from groups they said were connected to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and difficulty renting venues for large events, including from the SAR government.  Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in October to raise awareness of what they said was 19 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in the Mainland.

Some Hong Kong pastors’ exchanges with Mainland counterparts reportedly were negatively affected by changed regulations on the Mainland.  Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities, such as a local mosque and a Jewish synagogue maintaining regular interaction between religious leaders of each community.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with the government.  The Consul General and consulate general officials met regularly with religious leaders and community representatives to promote religious equality.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Buddhism and more than one million followers of Taoism; 480,000 Protestants; 379,000 Roman Catholics; 100,000 Hindus, and 12,000 Sikhs.  According to the World Jewish Congress, about 2,500 Jews live in Hong Kong.  According to a 2017 South China Morning Post article, there are approximately 25,000 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints residing in Hong Kong.  SAR government statistics estimate the SAR has approximately 300,000 Muslims.  Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR.  Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems.  The Falun Gong estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong.

There are dozens of Protestant denominations, including Anglican, Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, the Church of Christ in China, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Seventh-day Adventists.  The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong recognizes the pope and maintains links to the Vatican.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong SAR has autonomy in the management of religious affairs.  The Basic Law calls for ties between the region’s religious groups and their mainland counterparts based on “nonsubordination, noninterference, and mutual respect.”  The Basic Law states residents have freedom of conscience; freedom of religious belief; and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public.  The Basic Law also states the government may not interfere in the internal affairs of religious organizations or restrict religious activities that do not contravene other laws.

The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the ICCPR, which include the right to manifest religious belief individually or in community with others, in public or private, and through worship, observance, practice, and teaching.  The Bill of Rights Ordinance states persons belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities have the right to enjoy their own culture, profess and practice their own religion, and use their own language.  The ordinance also protects the right of parents or legal guardians to “ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.”  These rights may be limited when an emergency is proclaimed and “manifestation” of religious beliefs may be limited by law when necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, or the rights of others.  Such limitations may not discriminate solely on the basis of religion.

Religious groups are not legally required to register with the government; however, they must register to receive government benefits such as tax-exempt status, rent subsidies, government or other professional development training, the use of government facilities, or a grant to provide social services.  To qualify for such benefits, a group must prove to the satisfaction of the government that it is established solely for religious, charitable, social, or recreational reasons.  Registrants must provide the name and purpose of the organization, identify its office holders, and confirm the address of the principal place of business and any other premises owned or occupied by the organization.  If a religious group registers with the government, it enters the registry of all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), but the government makes no adjudication on the validity of any registered groups.  Religious groups may register as a society and/or tax-exempt organization as long as they have at least three members who hold valid SAR identity documents; the registration process normally takes approximately 12 working days.  is not classified as a religious group under the law, as it is registered as a society, under which its Hong Kong-based branches are able to establish offices, collect dues from members, and have legal status.

The Basic Law allows private schools to provide religious education.  The government offers subsidies to schools built and run by religious groups, should they seek such support.  Government-subsidized schools must adhere to government curriculum standards and may not bar students based on religion, but they may provide nonmandatory religious instruction as part of their curriculum.  Teachers may not discriminate against students because of their religious beliefs.  The public school curriculum mandates coursework on ethics and religious studies, with a focus on religious tolerance; the government curriculum also includes elective modules on different world religions.

Religious groups may apply to the government to lease land at concessional terms through Home Affairs Bureau sponsorship.  Religious groups may apply to develop or use facilities in accordance with local legislation.

The only direct government role in managing religious affairs is the Chinese Temples Committee, led by the secretary for home affairs.  The SAR chief executive appoints its members.  The committee oversees the management and logistical operations of 24 of the region’s 600 temples and provides grants to other charitable organizations.  The committee provides grants to the Home Affairs Bureau for disbursement, in the form of financial assistance to needy ethnic Chinese citizens.  The colonial-era law does not require new temples to register to be eligible for Temples Committee assistance.

An approximately 1,200-member Election Committee elects Hong Kong’s chief executive.  The Basic Law stipulates that the Election Committee’s members shall be “broadly representative.”  Committee members come from four sectors, divided into 38 subsectors, representing various trades, professions, and social services groups.  The religious subsector is comprised of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, the Chinese Muslim Cultural and Fraternal Association, the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Hong Kong Taoist Association, the Confucian Academy, and the Hong Kong Buddhist Association.  These six bodies are each entitled to 10 of the 60 seats for the religious subsector on the Election Committee.  The religious subsector is not required to hold elections under the Chief Executive Election Ordinance.  Instead, each religious organization selects its electors in its own fashion.  Each of the six designated religious groups is also a member of the Hong Kong Colloquium of Religious Leaders.

Government Practices

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported generally being able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited elsewhere in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), such as distributing literature and conducting public exhibitions.  In August, in an ongoing Falun Gong lawsuit against the Hong Kong government to contest a requirement to obtain government approval for the display of posters, a court overturned government decisions to confiscate Falun Gong banners.  Falun Gong practitioners said they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at public events.  Practitioners also reported continuing difficulties renting venues for large meetings and cultural events from both government and private facilities.  According to Falun Gong practitioners, the Hong Kong government, which controls a significant number of large venues in the city, denied Falun Gong members’ applications to rent venues, often telling practitioners that the venues were fully booked.  Private venues also refused to rent space to the Falun Gong, which Falun Gong practitioners attributed to concerns about harassment by anti-Falun Gong groups that they believed were linked to the central government.

Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on October 1 to raise awareness of what they said was 19 years of CCP persecution of the Falun Gong in the Mainland.  The Falun Gong reported that many local political leaders spoke at the rally to support their cause.

The Home Affairs Bureau functioned as a liaison between religious groups and the government.

Senior government leaders often participated in large-scale events held by religious organizations.  The SAR government and Legislative Council representatives participated in Confucian and Buddhist commemorative activities, Taoist festivals, and other religious events throughout the year.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some religious groups expressed concern that new PRC religious affairs regulations that entered into force in February had a negative impact on exchanges and interactions with counterparts in the Mainland.  Media reported that Hong Kong Christian churches provided underground churches on the Mainland with monetary support, Bibles, blacklisted Christian literature, theological training, and assistance in founding new churches.  Under the new regulations in the Mainland, however, many Hong Kong pastors were suspending or canceling their work with Mainland churches to avoid endangering people there, according to media reports.

Religious groups, some of which received government funding, provided a wide range of social services open to those of all religious affiliations including welfare, elder care, hospitals, publishing services, media and employment services, rehabilitation centers, youth and community service functions, and other charitable activities.

Religious leaders reported hosting and participating in interfaith activities.  For example, a local mosque and a local Jewish synagogue maintained regular interaction between religious leaders of each community.  Jewish leaders also hosted public events to raise Holocaust awareness.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with government officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives.  The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, and Sikh religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the Mainland.

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples.  The Consul General hosted an annual iftar at his residence, and consulate officers participated in other festival celebrations with the Buddhist, Confucian, and Muslim communities.  Consulate general officials also participated in Holocaust commemorations.  At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.


IN THIS SECTION: CHINA | TIBET | XINJIANG | HONG KONG (ABOVE) | MACAU

Hungary

Executive Summary

The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.”  It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities.  In December parliament amended the law that had stripped hundreds of religious entities of their legal status.  The amendment enters into force in April 2019; it establishes a four-tier system of churches and makes them eligible for donations from income tax and state funding.  In May the Supreme Court ruled a 2017 government raid on the Church of Scientology (COS) headquarters was lawful; the government continued its criminal investigation of the COS.  Jewish groups expressed concern that the House of Fates museum, which the government said it would open in 2019, would obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust.  There were reports of senior government officials and politicians using anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic speech.  Jewish groups expressed concern about praise by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban and other government officials for World War II (WWII)-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies and public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism.  PM Orban reiterated “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”

There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including assaults.  Muslim leaders said anti-Muslim incidents were at approximately the same level as in 2017.  The Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) a nongovernmental organization (NGO), recorded 32 anti-Semitic crimes, including three assaults, compared with 37 in 2017.  A business magazine’s picture of an article about a prominent Jewish leader was condemned as anti-Semitic.  A Jewish news outlet poll said two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem; 48 percent reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year.  An Ipsos Mori poll reported 51 percent of residents believed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian.”

U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met with the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) to discuss religious freedom, Holocaust commemoration, and heirless property restitution, and to urge the government to amend the religion law.  U.S. officials expressed concern about government officials’ anti-Muslim rhetoric and the COS investigation.  Embassy officials met a range of religious groups to discuss issues affecting them.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists.  Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the COS, Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, and Muslims.  The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census.  According to estimates from the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish population numbers between 35,000 and 120,000 persons.  The overwhelming majority of Jews live in Budapest, while other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance.  It prohibits religious discrimination as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.

The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country.  The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious groups.  According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.

In an administrative reorganization following parliamentary elections in April, the government transferred most responsibilities for religious affairs from the MHC to the PMO.

In the system valid through the end of the year, religious organizations could acquire incorporated church status through an application submitted to the office responsible for religious affairs in the PMO and, if found eligible, by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament.  The religious group was then by law entered onto a list of incorporated churches.  The PMO ha 60 days following the initial application to assess whether the group fulfills all the administrative criteria, which included a variety of documentation and qualification requirements.  To qualify for incorporated church status, a religious group must have existed as a religious organization in the country for 20 years, in which case it must have had a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population (approximately 10,000 persons) or been registered as a religious organization and have existed for at least 100 years internationally, in which case its foreign affiliation must have been certified by at least two other churches of “similar doctrine” recognized in foreign countries.  Its activities must not have conflicted with the constitution or other laws or violate the rights and freedoms of other communities.  A group must also have proven its primary purpose was to conduct religious activity; have a formal statement of faith and rites, bylaws and internal rules, and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies; and officially declared its activities were not in violation of the laws or the freedom of others.  The PMO was obligated to consult with a qualified lawyer, historian of religions, scholar of religions, or sociologist with an academic degree prior to issuing its decision.  Applicants could appeal the PMO’s decision to the Budapest Public Administration and Labor Court and, ultimately, to the Curia, the country’s highest judicial authority.

Following a favorable PMO decision on the applicant’s eligibility, the PMO submitted the application to parliament’s Judiciary Committee, which had 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit an assessment to parliament on the group’s compliance with additional criteria.  These criteria included an assessment that the group poses no threat to national security (provided by parliament’s National Security Committee), that it did not violate the right to physical and mental health or the protection of life and human dignity, and that the group was suitable for long-term cooperation with the state in promoting community goals based on its founding documents, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.

Approval of a request for incorporated church status required a two-thirds majority vote by parliament, to take place within 60 days of a motion by parliament’s Judiciary Committee.  If a religious group received such parliamentary approval, the state was required to grant specific licenses to the group to support its participation in tasks to achieve community goals.  If parliament rejected the application, a detailed explanation was required, and the applicant could challenge parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court within 15 days.  The law did not prescribe any consequences if parliament did not act within the 60-day period, nor was there opportunity for appealing parliamentary inaction.

A 2011 law on religion automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had had incorporated church status.  Those organizations must reapply if they wish to regain incorporated church status.  Their applications are also subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament.

The 2011 law listed 27 incorporated churches, including the Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, three Jewish groups, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization.  The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups, bringing the total number on the registered list of incorporated churches to 32.

Incorporated churches have certain privileges not available to religious organizations, such as greater access to state funding and exemption from state oversight of their financial operations connected to religious activities.  Incorporated churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities”) that provide public services, such as healthcare, education, or other social services, are automatically eligible for full state subsidies (a subsidy based on the number of persons receiving services coupled with a supplementary subsidy) for all their public service activities.  Religious organizations may take over or establish public service institutions and receive a per capita state subsidy to cover the wages of the staff employed by these institutions.  They may also apply for additional funding from an additional budgetary allocation.

The law authorized the Budapest Metropolitan Court to register a group as a religious organization if it had at least 10 founding individual members whose primary objective was to conduct religious activities that do not violate the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities.  The organization’s membership could consist only of individuals; no “legal persons” such as corporations or other associations could be members.  The court was required to approve applications meeting all of these criteria.  Applicants had to submit the name and address of the organization, names and addresses of founding members, identifying information on the group’s legal representative and the term of his or her appointment, the founding documents of the group, and a statement that the primary objective of the organization was to conduct religious activities.  If the court rejected an organization’s application, the decision was subject to appeal to the Budapest Metropolitan Court of Appeals.

By law taxpayers may allocate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to an NGO, including one affiliated with a religious organization or incorporated church, and could allocate an additional 1 percent to an incorporated church (but not to any other religious organization or NGO).  The government matched the 1 percent funds that only incorporated churches were eligible to receive.

Both incorporated churches and NGOs affiliated with religious organizations were free to use taxpayer donations as they wished.  Only officials of incorporated churches were exempt from personal income tax under certain conditions.  Both religious organizations and incorporated churches were prohibited from purchasing agricultural land.  Incorporated churches, but not religious organizations, could acquire new agricultural land as a gift or an inheritance.  Agricultural land (as opposed to other land holdings) owned by a religious group deregistered in 2011 could be retained by the religious organization that is the deregistered group’s legal successor.

If incorporated churches or religious organizations cease to exist (e.g., by dissolving themselves) and have no legal successor, their assets become state property that must be used to finance public services.  This may also occur if, upon the initiative of the government, the Constitutional Court issues an opinion that the activity of the incorporated church violates the constitution, and parliament confirms the decision by a two-thirds majority vote.  The Constitutional Court also issues opinions upon the request of the Budapest Metropolitan Court on whether a religious organization is in violation of the constitution.

Every registered (but not unregistered) religious community may use the word “church” in its official name regardless of whether it is officially recognized by parliament as an “incorporated church.”  Officials from both incorporated churches and registered religious organizations not recognized by parliament (but not unregistered religious groups) are not obligated to disclose information shared with them in the course of their faith-related service, such as during rites of confession.  Unregistered religious groups, since they lack legal status, may not purchase property in their name.  The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) reports that unregistered religious organizations enjoy protection for faith-related services.

On December 12, parliament enacted an amendment to the 2011 religion law, scheduled to enter into force on April 15, 2019, that will extend the existing two-tier system of “incorporated churches” and “religious organizations” into a four-tier system of registered religious entities, consisting of “incorporated churches,” “registered churches,” “listed churches,” and “religious associations.”  The categories will be applicable to any religious group, not just Christian organizations.  All four categories under the new law will have “legal personality,” giving them legal rights such as the right to own property.  The amendment will eliminate the restriction that taxpayers may donate 1 percent of their tax liability only to incorporated churches and allows donations to all religious entities with legal personality.  The amendment will also allow the government to negotiate individual agreements with all four categories of religious entities to fund their social service activities.  The duration of these agreements will depend on the type of church status, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to unlimited duration for incorporated churches.  With the exception of religious associations, religious groups falling under one of these categories will be required to publish these agreements and publicly account for social service spending.

Under the new system, all currently incorporated churches will retain their status in the new system, and incorporation of new churches will still require a two-thirds approval by parliament.  The Budapest-Capital Regional Court will rule on registration applications for the other three tiers.  Religious association status will require a church to have at least 10 members.  Listed church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 1,000 individuals on average over three years and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally.  Registered church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 4,000 individuals on average over five years and have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally.  Churches that agree they will not seek government or EU funding for their religious activities will be able to qualify as listed or registered churches without receiving individual donations.  A religious entity will not be allowed to apply for any of the three categories if it is a criminal defendant, has been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, is under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or is considered a national security threat.

Religious entities that do not register will still be able to function and conduct worship, and the amendment specifies constitutional protections for freedom of religion apply to them as well as to those with legal personality.

By law, no state office may determine or supervise a registered religious community’s faith-based activities.  Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement.  Their names, symbols, and rites are protected by copyright law, while buildings and cemeteries are protected by criminal law.  Unregistered groups, according to HCLU, enjoy copyright and at least some other protections, but the law is unclear about the extent of those other protections.

The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsman).  The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy.  These measures do not have the force of law.

Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era.  These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements.  The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.

Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties.  The Catholic Church, Reformed Church, Lutheran Church, and Jewish congregations receive automatic authorization to provide chaplain services to the military.  Other incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission.

Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals.  All incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission to offer pastoral services in prisons.  Rejection of access requests may be appealed to the National Prison Service, the prosecutor’s office, or the ombudsman.  Detainees have the right to participate in communal religious services three times a week and to contact without supervision representatives of incorporated churches or religious organizations having permission to access the facility.  Detainees in special security regimes may only receive individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs.  In the case of pretrial detainees, during the course of the criminal investigation, a public prosecutor or judge may restrict personal interaction with a religious representative but not participation in communal religious services.

Incorporated churches receive automatic authorization to provide pastoral services in hospitals, while religious organizations must seek permission.

One-hour-per-week faith-and-ethics or ethics-only education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school.  Students and their parents choose between the faith-and-ethics class provided by an incorporated church of their choice or a generic ethics course taught by public school teachers.  Religious groups are entitled to provide their own teachers, prepare their own textbooks, and determine curricula for their faith-and-ethics classes.  Private schools are not required to introduce faith-and-ethics or ethics classes.  Unincorporated religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents.

Incorporated churches and religious organizations have the right to open their own schools.  For incorporated churches and religious organizations operating their own schools, the state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee wages, but only incorporated churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses.  According to the law, religious organizations may apply to the MHC for a supplementary operational subsidy covering approximately 30 percent of their total costs for schools, and the MHC decides on a case-by-case basis whether to grant it.

The law also affords incorporated churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal agreement with the PMO.  In these cases, the government continues to fund the schools.  Religious communities, school teachers, the affected parents, or the operator of the school may initiate such transfers, but only if the designated religious community is able to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school.  Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class.  The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.

The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community.  The law includes a prohibition of “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.  The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion.  Abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by up to three years in prison.

Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or suspected religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison.  Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is similarly punished with a prison sentence of one to five years.  Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.

The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison.  The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the arrow cross in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by detention for a period ranging from five to 90 days.

The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes.  No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.

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

Government Practices

As in previous years, parliament failed to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporated church status, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action after a ministerial referral and a December 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution.  The explanatory notes to the December 12 amendment to the religion law, which the government is expected to use as a guide in implementing the amendment, state that those religious groups will be given preferential consideration for (the lesser) listed or registered church status.

In a case involving the MET’s home for the elderly, the Constitutional Court ruled October 5 that parliament had violated the constitution by failing to act on MET’s 2014 pending application for incorporated church status.  The Constitutional Court ruled parliament should fulfill its legislative duty and vote on the application by the end of the year; parliament did not comply, although the new amendment provided a procedure for the MET and other churches to regain a lesser status.  MET representatives said its shelters for homeless, elderly, and refugees, hospital, schools, and other social services should be eligible for the same support the state gave to similar activities conducted by incorporated churches.  The government rejected this argument.  The Constitutional Court did not rule on the issue of funding of MET’s home or other social services, but only that parliament should vote on the group’s application for incorporated status.  The Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling on December 20, 2017, ordering parliament to vote on MET’s application, but parliament failed to act by that ruling’s March 31 deadline.

In May the Supreme Court overturned the February decision of the Buda Central District Court of Budapest that the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) 2017 raid of the COS headquarters and seizure of its materials was unlawful.  The Supreme Court ruled the seizure did not violate the principle of proportionality and did not obstruct the free practice of religion.  The NBI raid followed the initiation of an investigation of the COS by the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) and a DPA complaint against the COS alleging criminal abuse of personal data.  The government recognized the COS as a religious organization.  The government’s investigation of the COS was continuing at year’s end, but the government did not provide any information on the status of the case.

The COS’s appeal of the denial of a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and eviction order issued by Budapest’s 13th District remained pending at year’s end.  According to the COS, courts blocked the eviction order until the Supreme Court could decide the appeal.

The government continued its public campaign of billboards and posters against a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen businessman.  Some of the placards stated the businessman wanted to settle migrants from the Middle East and Africa in the country.  In May PM Orban demanded “respect” from Jewish leaders and blamed the same businessman and his NGO for growing European anti-Semitism.

In April online news service Index.hu and daily newspaper Nepszava reported that in the previous eight years the government had transferred 34 buildings to churches in a nontransparent manner.  The report stated the buildings were not properties seized under the Communist regime and had not previously belonged to the religious groups to which they were given.

Prominent national and international Jewish groups expressed concern about the September 7 announcement that in 2019 the government would open the House of Fates, a Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest focusing on the efforts of non-Jewish Hungarians to rescue Jews during the Holocaust.  The government had put the museum on hold in 2014 due to intense opposition from national and international groups.  These organizations criticized the project as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the country and WWII Regent Miklos Horthy in the Holocaust.  According to a September 21 statement by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, the House of Fates museum’s plans ignored the country’s anti-Jewish laws during that era and gave the false impression that, “except for a tiny, criminal and fanatic minority, the citizens of Hungary were essentially blameless.”  On September 27, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder expressed disappointment that the House of Fates museum concept “ignored the role played by Hungarian society and its authorities in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry.”

There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels.  For example, a January interview in the German newspaper Bild quoted PM Orban as saying most migrants should not be considered refugees but “Muslim invaders.”  In a March 15 speech, PM Orban said, “We must fight against an opponent which is different…they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.”  Media outlets such as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Times of Israel, and The Guardian reported these comments as referring to Jews.

In November private television broadcaster Hir TV made public a recording it said it had obtained of opposition Jobbik party MP Istvan Szavay talking to a fellow party member at Jobbik’s electoral congress about “knocking out” a woman he presumed to be Jewish at a downtown club in August.  Szavay said the woman recognized him and said, “I feel Nazi stench here.”  Szavay said he called her a “filthy Jew,” punched her in the face  , and “slightly twisted her schnozzle.”  On December 3, Szavay announced he would give up his parliamentary seat.

Jewish groups expressed concerns about praise by government officials, including PM Orban, for the country’s WWII-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies as well as about public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism.  On September 2, the Fidesz (governing party)-administered village of Kenderes held a Horthy Memorial Day.  Fidesz MP Sandor Kovacs stated at the event it was thanks to Regent Horthy and others that the country managed to survive after World War I.  The Director of the government-funded Veritas Research Institute, Sandor Szakaly, said anti-Jewish laws signed by Horthy did not deprive Jews of their rights but only limited them, and that, despite these limitations, the lives of Jews in the country were safe until the Nazi occupation in 1944.  He added that Horthy did not need rehabilitation because he was never convicted of any crime.

On July 16, state television broadcaster MTVA appointed Beatrix Siklosi to run its cultural channel M5.  When Siklosi previously was nominated as chief editor of religious programming for national public television in 2014, media reported she had made racist and anti-Semitic comments on social media.  The Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Jewish communities published a letter stating Siklosi was unacceptable to them.  Siklosi resigned from the religious programming position due to the protests but remained in charge of nationalities programming.  TEV sent a letter asking the MTVA leadership and Media Council to reconsider her appointment.

In March Fidesz Party members of the local municipality and progovernment media criticized the opening of a Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) cultural center and prayer house in 2017.  In addition, media reported that, prior to the April parliamentary elections, Fidesz Party call centers told voters opposition Jobbik Party leader Gabor Vona “prays to Allah,” referring to an undated video where he spoke to Turkish students and referred to God as “Allah.”

The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) cited the government’s anti-migration and anti-Muslim rhetoric as the biggest challenges Muslims had to face in the country.  It also said Muslims faced indirect administrative barriers when trying to obtain building permits for mosques, open or expand Muslim cemeteries, or buy or rent land or homes.  HIC and OMH leaders said lack of sufficient cemetery space for Muslims was one of the most pressing problems for the Muslim community.

On July 19, PM Orban visited Israel and met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.  After their meeting, Orban stated Jews could feel safe in Hungary and that his government had zero tolerance for anti-Semitic statements.

According to a major survey of Jews in the country, issued in December by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), 74 percent of Jews found anti-Semitism to be a problem in political life.  Eighty-three percent said the government was ineffective in combating anti-Semitism, and 55 percent assessed the government’s efforts to respond to the security needs of Jewish communities were inadequate.

The government provided 118.1 billion forints ($421.53 million) to incorporated churches during the year, of which 96.7 percent went to what the government and media called the country’s four “historical” religious groups:  the Catholic Church, which received 94.2 billion forints ($336.22 million);  Hungarian Reformed Church, 13.7 billion forints ($48.9 million); Lutheran Church, 3 billion forints ($10.71 million); and the Jewish community, consisting of Mazsihisz, 2.6 billion forints ($9.28 million), the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, 304.4 million forints ($1.09 million), and the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community, 227 million forints ($810,000 million).  According to the government, more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.

These four religious groups and the other incorporated churches that received the balance of the government’s contribution used the funds for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and employee wages.  Government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings.  The government allocated additional funding from other budget accounts for churches providing public educational and social services and for registered religious organizations, but data on the extent of this support were unavailable.

According to press reports, on October 3, the government distributed 2.76 billion forints ($9.85 million) from the annual budget for religious community programs.  On December 23, the government awarded an additional 21 billion forints ($74.95 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations.

Some incorporated churches continued to express concern that, if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two-thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.

According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, 988,000 citizens donated their 1 percent personal income tax to one of the incorporated churches during the year.  Similarly to previous years, the church bodies receiving the most donations were the Catholic, with 526,339 persons contributing 2.5 billion forints ($8.92 million); Reformed, 209,109 persons contributing 996.8 million forints ($3.56 million); and Lutheran, 60,036 persons contributing 308 million forints ($1.1 million).  The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 46,198 persons contributing 250 million forints ($892,000).  Effective January 1, tax declarations did not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but remained valid until the taxpayer changed them.

According to the PMO, of elementary and secondary schools, 15 percent were operated by incorporated churches (compared with 14.3 percent in 2016-17) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2017-18 school year.  Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.5 percent were operated by incorporated churches (7.2 percent in the previous year) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations.  There were 214,243 students studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared with 207,600 in the previous school year.  Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.

According to the PMO, religious entities provided government-funded social services to 116,440 persons and child protection services to 10,506 persons during the year (27.2 percent by the Catholic, 24.2 percent by the Reformed, and 21.3 percent by the Hungarian Pentecostal Church).

The government made statements in defense of a Christian Europe and operated a dedicated state secretariat within the PMO to assist persecuted Christian communities throughout the world, including with financial assistance.  In his annual state of the nation speech in February, PM Orban stated the West “opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and…Islamic expansion,” while his government “prevented the Islamic world from flooding us from the South.”  On November 13, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen said it was striking that Europe’s Christian civilization was in danger again, not from the Ottoman Empire, but from the threat of Islamization.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest on October 8-9 and, with PM Orban, attended the opening ceremony of the renovated tomb of Gul Baba.  Baba was a Muslim dervish and member of the Bektashi order, who died in Budapest in 1541 and whose burial place became a pilgrimage site for Muslims.  The government cofinanced the renovation with the government of Turkey.

The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The government did not publish statistics on religiously motivated crimes or other incidents.  According to its annual report, TEV registered 32 anti-Semitic hate crimes, compared with 37 in the previous year.  These were 19 cases of hate speech (24 in 2017), 10 of vandalism (13 in 2017), three of assault (one in 2017), and none of threats (none in 2017).  Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data and said many members did not bother to report incidents because they did not believe doing so would lead to any effective action by authorities.  Muslim leaders stated they believed anti-Muslim incidents remained at approximately the same level as in 2017.

On April 5, according to TEV, a man struck a Canadian rabbi without warning and knocked off his kippah at a store in a Budapest shopping mall.  On June 13, TEV reported a Budapest bus driver said he “wished gas to the Jews” when someone asked him for directions to a synagogue.  In April a Facebook user shared a photograph of a Budapest bus stop defaced with the text, “death on … Jews.”

The November 29 edition of weekly business magazine Figyelo stated Mazsihisz could not account for funds the government had allocated to the organization for a new museum.  The issue’s cover showed Andras Heisler, Mazsihisz President and World Jewish Congress Vice President, surrounded by money.  Its lead article stated that, while Heisler criticized other proposed museums (such as the House of Fates) for not disclosing details of their planned exhibits, he had so far failed to publish the concept of his own government-funded project, the House of Coexistence.

In a published statement, Mazsihisz condemned the Figyelo article and cover as an incitement against a religious leader unprecedented since the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, adding that they “revived centuries-old stereotypes against our community.”  According to Israeli press reports, the Israeli PM’s diplomatic adviser raised concerns over the issue with the Hungarian Ambassador to Israel and called on the Hungarian government to condemn the magazine’s anti-Semitism.  The American Jewish Committee called the Figyelo piece an “anti-Semitic attack.”  Figyelo rejected the criticism and, in response to a statement supporting Heisler by the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, stated, “This form of diplomatic pressure … constitutes a violation of the freedom of the press and of Hungarian sovereignty.”  World Jewish Congress President Lauder said the cover “is one of the oldest and vilest caricatures of the Jewish people and it places not just the magazine, but all of Hungary in a very bad light.”

In January the Association of Christian Intellectuals organized a Mass to be held in a downtown Budapest Catholic church to commemorate former Regent Horthy’s 150th birthday on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day – five months before his actual birthday on June 18.  Fidesz MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, former PM Peter Boross, and Veritas Institute Director Szakaly were scheduled to attend and speak at the Mass.  The Catholic Church canceled the event following intense domestic and international criticism.  Mazsihisz President Heisler publicly opposed the Mass and stated in an open letter addressed to Lezsak that his official participation “tramples on the memory of all the Hungarian victims.”  In 2017, Heisler raised concerns about Horthy for what he said was his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Jews and tens of thousands of soldiers and the era of anti-Semitism associated with his name.  The Miklos Horthy Association then organized a small service in honor of Horthy on February 11 in the Homecoming Reformed Church, where Horthy’s bust is also placed.

The Organization of Muslims in Hungary reported that early in the year an older woman used her walking stick to strike a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf.  The two women engaged in an altercation, but neither pressed charges.  The organization reported several incidents in which individuals verbally insulted members of their community, mostly women and girls wearing headscarves on streets or in schools by shouting “Allahu akbar” at them or telling them to “go back to Africa.”  The organization also said that on several occasions unknown persons sprayed litter bins and mobile toilets in the neighborhood of the ongoing renovations of its headquarters with the texts, “Allah,” “Muhammad,” and “migrant.”

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 590 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Hungary responded to the online survey.  Twenty-seven percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 23 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  Eight percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 71 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.

According to a survey published in June by the country’s leading Jewish news outlet, Szombat, two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem, and 48 percent of respondents reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year.

In a poll of residents of the country by UK-based market research company Ipsos MORI published in June, 51 percent agreed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian” and 59 percent said immigrants could not be regarded as Hungarians, even if they were legal residents or had lived most of their lives in the country.  A poll of residents by think tank Political Capital found almost half said Muslims were stealthily trying to enforce their culture, and 45 percent believed Muslim leaders had a secret plan to capture Europe and transform it into an Arab continent.  According to a Pew Research Center poll of residents published in October, 21 and 57 percent, respectively, said they would accept a Muslim or a Jew as a member of their family.

A 2017 survey the Median Public Opinion and Market Research Institute conducted for TEV, found approximately 37 percent of the population (33 percent in 2016) held anti-Semitic views.

In June online news site 888.hu published an article about what it called the negative influence of the six million Muslims in France.  The same article announced a new column, “the White Man,” with a stated aim of drawing attention to the threats Islam posed to Western society and civilization.  Ahead of the April parliamentary elections, media widely described as government-friendly (online sites origo.hu, pestisracok.hu, and ripost.hu) ran stories calling opposition party Jobbik prime ministerial candidate Gabor Vona a closet Muslim.

During a soccer match between the country’s Ferencvaros club and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in July, former Ferencvaros player and club coach Istvan Toth was honored by the club, Mazsihisz, and the World Jewish Congress.  In 1944, Toth saved hundreds of Jews as a member of the Hungarian anti-fascist resistance.  Nazi collaborators executed him in 1945.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In meetings with government officials, including in the PMO, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), and the MHC, U.S. embassy representatives continued to advocate religious freedom and discussed Holocaust commemoration, provisions of the religion law that resulted in discrimination against minority religious groups, the House of Fates, and the COS investigation.

The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country in November and, accompanied by embassy officials, met with Prime Minister Orban, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, other government officials, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom.

The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited the country in June and, accompanied by embassy representatives, met with officials at the PMO and MFAT, representatives of Jewish communities, the Holocaust Memorial Center, and Jewish cultural organizations.  The Special Envoy encouraged government officials to agree on a timetable to conclude negotiations on the value of now-heirless property seized from Jews during the Holocaust and to consider another interim payment to Holocaust survivors while these negotiations were ongoing.

Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss anti-Semitism and the challenges of promoting tolerance education and historical truth, the community’s relationship with the government, the House of Fates, restitution issues, and commemoration of the Holocaust.

Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders of religious communities, including the four “historical” groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the COS, and with religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law and anti-Islamic rhetoric.

In February and June senior embassy representatives hosted interfaith breakfasts to discuss religious freedom and the importance of interfaith dialogue with Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Baptist, and MET leaders.

Senior embassy officers attended seders in March, and the Ambassador and a senior embassy officer attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in September held by various Jewish congregations.  At all these events, the embassy representatives reiterated U.S. government support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.

In April an embassy officer spoke about the lives of the Reverends Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their messages rejecting intolerance and prejudice at an event organized by the Hungarian Baptist Church.  Government officials and leaders of other churches attended the event.

In June an embassy official attended and delivered a welcome speech at the “Empty Desks” conference organized by the Jewish cultural organization Mazsike and the Holocaust Memorial Center.  The project commemorated pupils killed during the Holocaust.  The speech focused on the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, solidarity, and universal human rights.

In August the Ambassador delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance at a commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation of the country in 1944.

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion.  It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia.  The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”  The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.  The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs.  The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.”  The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8.  Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes.  International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody.  The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing.  The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian.  Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.  According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week.  According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity.  Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities.  The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials.  There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down.  On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country.  The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities.  Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds.  In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece.  In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.”  During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.”  The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur.  The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.  The following sanction accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 83 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population; 90-95 percent are Shia and 5-10 percent Sunni (mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest, respectively).  Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable.  There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis.  The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to HRW data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians, although some estimates suggest there may be many more Christians than actually reported.  While the government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians, Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates that there could be between 300,000 and one million Christians.  The majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan.  Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000.  There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers.  Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestants and other converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) estimates there are up to two million.  Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while a British media report estimated their number at 18,000-20,000.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion.  The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia.  The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas, and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.”  The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam.  Apostasy from Islam is a crime punishable by death.  Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims.  These activities are considered proselytizing and punishable by death.  In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross.  Some exceptions are made for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (enmity against God), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophets” or “insulting the sanctities”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi schools of Islam are “deserving of total respect” and their followers are free to perform religious practices.  It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities.  “Within the limits of the law,” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies.  They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon.  Any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups, or who cannot prove that his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, is considered Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, since the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution.  The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though the Sabean-Mandaeans state that they do not consider themselves as such.  The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahle Haq or Kakai).  Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia in order to obtain government services.  The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with the authorities.  Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes.  Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers fail to register or unregistered individuals attend services.  Individuals who convert to Christianity are not recognized as Christian under the law.  They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The supreme leader oversees extrajudicial Special Clerical Courts, not provided for by the constitution.  The courts, headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities.  The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curriculum of public schools.  All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course in order to advance to the next educational level through university.  Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

Recognized religious minority groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools.  The MOE supervises the private schools operated by the recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements.  The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts.  These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well.  Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi so the authorities can review them.  Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion.  This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the government interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding their own educational institutions.  A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known.  Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is.  To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian).  To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader, the country’s head of state.  To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation.  The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

The constitution bans the parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities.  There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of the codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money” or diyeh as restitution to families for the death of Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities.  Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive diyeh.  This law also reduces the diyeh for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (separate from regular armed forces), or as public school principals.  Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirement.  Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system.  Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property.  A religious fatwa from the supreme leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate, which allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.  Baha’i activists report this often leaves women without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution.  In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad.  The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation.  The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces.  Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

According to Amnesty International (AI) and other international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda.  According to AI and CHRI, authorities executed Zaniar Moradi and Loghman Moradi, two Kurdish minority prisoners, at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8 after they were convicted on charges of moharebeh and murder, despite concerns of AI, CHRI, and other human rights NGOs regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  Prior to the executions, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions released a joint statement writing, “We urge the Government of Iran to immediately halt their executions and to annul the death sentences against them.  We are alarmed by information received that Zanyar and Loghman Moradi suffered human rights violations before and during their trial, including torture and other ill-treatment and denial of access to a lawyer.”

Media outlets reported that on September 3, authorities hanged three Baluchi prisoners whom the Zahedan Revolutionary Court had sentenced to death in November 2017 on charges of moharebeh for allegedly participating in a firefight with police forces that led to the death of a police officer.  According to HRANA, “the three wrote an open letter detailing mistreatment and torture at the hands of their interrogators.”

International media and human rights organizations reported that the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, on June 18 for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations, including AI, CHRI, and HRANA, decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  According to AI, “Mohammad Salas’ trial was grossly unfair.  He said he was forced under torture to make a ‘confession’ against himself.  This ‘confession,’ taken from his hospital bed, was…used as the only piece of evidence to convict him.  He was not allowed access to his chosen lawyer.”

Human rights organizations widely reported the detention of Zeinab Taheri, a human rights lawyer, who was defending Salas.  Authorities arrested Taheri one day after Salas was executed.  On June 19, the Prosecutor’s Office for Culture and Media summoned Taheri and detained her on charges of “disturbing the public opinion,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “publishing lies.”  Tehran prosecutor Jafari Dolatabadi subsequently said during a press conference that Taheri had “incited the public opinion and mobilized the counterrevolution against the judiciary,” and that “the hostile media used her remarks to published reports against the judiciary.”

Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects.  The March report by UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran Asma Jahangir highlighted the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni Kurdish prisoners.  The report stated authorities often detained Sunni Kurds “on charges related to various activities such as environmental activism, eating in public during the month of Ramadan, working as border couriers engaged in smuggling illicit goods, or for celebrating the results of the referendum held in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan,” among other political or security-related charges.

Human rights NGOs, including HRANA, reported throughout the year on the extremely poor conditions inside Ardabil Prison, including reports of Shia guards routinely torturing Sunni prisoners.  In March CHRI reported that Mohammad Saber Malek-Raeisi, a Baluchi Sunni Muslim, who had been imprisoned since 2009, was suffering from serious injuries as a result of repeated beatings by guards during the four years he has been held in Ardabil Prison.  According to CHRI, prison authorities severely beat and tortured Malek-Raeisi in December 2017 after he went on a hunger strike to protest conditions.  Since then, his mother reported him ill and unable to see in one of his eyes.

HRANA also reported increased pressure on Sunni inmates at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj and Dizal Abad Prison in Kermanshah.  According to HRANA, on August 7, approximately 30 MOIS agents and 50 Special Forces raided a ward at Rajai Shahr housing minority Sunni inmates, beating the prisoners and taking their belongings.  The security forces reportedly insulted the Sunni prisoners’ religious beliefs during the raid.  Authorities reportedly denied medical treatment to those injured from the beatings.  The Rajai Shahr incident was reportedly retribution for the inmates’ religious and political activities.

In February HRANA reported seven Sunni prisoners in Rajai Shahr Prison detained since 2009 continued to await a new trial after the Supreme Court rejected the death sentences handed down to them in 2015.  The prisoners denied engaging in violence and said the authorities arrested them because of their religious beliefs and activities, including attending religious meetings and disseminating religious material.

According to Baluchi rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination as both Sunni religious practitioners and an ethnic minority group.  Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists.  Baluchi rights activists reported that authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.  HRANA reported that on June 17, authorities arrested Sunni Baluchi civil rights activist Abdollah Bozorgzadeh for joining a gathering in support of the 41 “Iranshahr Girls,” whom a group of well-connected men reportedly raped in the southeastern city of Iranshahr, located in the predominately-Sunni province of Sistan and Baluchistan.  Upon his arrest, authorities transferred Bozorgzadeh to an IRGC-run Zahedan detention center, where Bozorgzadah said he was tortured.  In July CHRI reported that authorities arrested at least 10 Baluchi activists for protesting the alleged rapes.  At his sermon on June 15, Iranshahr’s Sunni Friday Prayer Leader Mohammad Tayyeb Mollazehi reportedly stated that a suspect in custody had confessed he and several other men had raped 41 women.  However, according to CHRI, officials denied either that the rapes happened or claimed elements of the case had been falsified.  According to Iran Wire, the country’s prosecutor general threatened legal action against the Sunni prayer leader because the alleged perpetrators belonged to some of the city’s most influential families, including connections to or membership in the IRGC, Basij, military, and police.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion.  According to the Iran Prison Atlas, a database of political prisoners compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  Of the total number of prisoners in the database, at least 165 were imprisoned on charges of moharebeh, 34 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 21 for “insulting Islam,” and 20 for “corruption on earth,” a term according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam meaning in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions, caused by unbelievers or unjust people, that threaten social and political wellbeing.”  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest.

Various media outlets and human rights organizations reported incidents of severe physical mistreatment of the Gonabadi Sufi minority.  According to CHRI, guards at the Great Tehran Penitentiary attacked and beat Gonabadi detainees on August 29.  Several of the inmates reportedly were badly injured, suffered broken bones, and were moved to solitary confinement.  HRANA specified that the guards attacked at least 18 dervishes with batons and electroshock weapons in response to the prisoners’ protests of the beating of female Sufis in Gharchak Prison.

International media and NGOs widely reported more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes were detained after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran to protest the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  Authorities held Tabandeh, aged 91, under house arrest in Tehran since at least February and denied him access to urgently needed medical care.  According to HRW, Mohammed Raji, one of those arrested in February, died in police custody.  Authorities told Raji’s family on March 4 that he died from repeated blows to the head.  The family said that Raji was injured, but alive at the time of his arrest.  HRW stated that authorities refused to clarify the sequence and timing of events that led to Raji’s death.

According to CHRI and other human rights organizations, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  Mostafa Abdi received the most severe sentence with 26 years in prison, 148 lashes, two years of internal exile in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, a two-year ban on social activities, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad.  In August HRW reported that authorities had sentenced at least 208 dervishes since May “to prison terms and other punishments that violate their basic rights.”  The courts delivered sentences that included prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups.  CHRI reported that on February 19 Iranian security forces arrested Reza Entessari and Kasra Nouri, reporters with the Sufi news website Majzooban-e-Noor, while they were covering the violent dispersal of protests of treatment of the Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran.

On March 3, according to CHRI, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the spiritual doctrine Interuniversalism and the Erfan-e Halgheh group, to five years in prison for a second time, on charges of “spreading corruption on earth.”  This sentence followed the Supreme Court’s rejection of Taheri’s prior death sentence in December 2017.  According to press, the Supreme Court ordered Taheri retried, citing a faulty investigation.  The case of Taheri, imprisoned since 2011, drew widespread international condemnation, including from human rights organizations, NGOs, and the UN special rapporteur.

On August 19, according to CHRI, a court sentenced journalist and satirist Amir Mohammad Hossein Miresmaili to 10 years in prison for “insulting sacred tenets and the imams,” “insulting government and judicial officials,” “spreading falsehoods to disturb public opinion,” and “publishing immoral and indecent matters.”  Authorities had arrested him in April after he posted a tweet criticizing the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and referencing a Shia imam.

On October 25, according to CHRI, the government arrested journalist Pouyan Khoshhal and charged him with “insulting the divinity of Imam Hossein and other members of the prophet’s blessed household” after he used the word “demise” instead of “martyrdom” in referring to Imam Hossein in an article.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants.  In February CHRI reported government officials banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi , the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  According to a July Radio Farda report, Member of Parliament (MP) Mahmoud Sadeghi, along with 20 other legislators, called upon the intelligence minister to lift the travel ban imposed on “Iran’s most prominent Sunni clergyman.”  The MPs questioned the government’s reason for the travel restrictions and reiterated the right to freedom of movement.

On September 22, HRANA reported the Special Clerical Court of Hamedan arraigned Sunni preacher and activist Hashem Hossein Panahi, “presumably for participating in the funeral of executed political prisoner Ramin Hussein Panahi.”  After he delivered a sermon at the funeral, MOIS filed charges against Hashem Hossein Panahi with the Special Clerical Court, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader.  The charges included “propaganda against the regime” and “disturbing public opinion.”

In response to the September 22 terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Khuzestan, a region with a sizeable Sunni Arab population and where international media report longstanding economic and social grievances have led to sporadic protests, international press and human rights organizations reported domestic backlash against Arab Sunnis.  AI and the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization reported the authorities arrested hundreds of Ahvazi political and minority activists in the aftermath of the September 22 attack.

CHRI reported that authorities detained Sunni rap artist Shah Baloch, whose real name is Emad Bijarzehi, on June 20 in the southeastern port city of Chabahar for singing about state oppression against ethnic and religious minorities in Sistan and Baluchistan Province.  According to CHRI, authorities did not permit Baloch access to legal counsel.

Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians for their religious affiliation or activities, including members of unrecognized churches for operating illegally in private homes or on charges of supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries.  Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscations of religious property.  News reports stated that authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement.

CHRI reported that on January 6 the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Shamiram Isavi, the wife of Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, to five years in prison.  The judge convicted her on charges of “acting against national security by organizing home churches, attending Christian seminars abroad, and training Christian leaders in Iran for the purpose of espionage.”  Authorities arrested Isavi and her husband in their home in Tehran on December 26, 2014, along with their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, and 12 Christian converts.  In June 2016, the revolutionary court judge sentenced Victor Bet Tamraz and Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi to 10 years in prison each, while convert Amin Afshar Naderi received a 15-year prison sentence.  In February 2018, the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, on the situation of human rights in Iran, on minority issues, and on the right to health issued a joint public statement expressing concern at the lengthy sentences for Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Naderi, as well as reports of their mistreatment in prison, and, broadly, the targeting of religious minorities, particularly Christian converts.  Authorities released Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Mohammadi, and Naderi on bail while they appealed their sentences.

According to international media and various NGOs, including the Christian World Watch Monitor (CWWM) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), on May 2, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, and Mohammad Reza Omidi received notification that the appeals court upheld their 10-year prison sentences for “acting against national security” by “promoting Zionist Christianity” and running house churches.  Instead of utilizing the customary summons procedure, CWWM and CSW reported that authorities took Nadarkhani and the three other sentenced Christians to Evin Prison following a series of violent raids on their homes in late July, which included beatings and electroshock weapons.  According to NGOs, the authorities also sentenced Nadarkhani and Omidi to two years internal exile in the southern region of the country, far from their homes in the country’s north near the Caspian Sea.  As of May Omidi, Mossayebzadeh, and Fadaie still awaited the outcome of the appeal of their September 2016 sentence of 80 lashes for consumption of communion wine.  According to CSW, the government sentenced Fadaie to an additional 18 months and another Christian, Fatemaeh Bakhteri, to 12 months in prison for “spreading propaganda against the regime.”  Fadaie also received two years in internal exile in a remote area near the Afghanistan border after his prison sentence.

On November 16, according to NGOs and media reports, security forces arrested Christian converts Behnam Ersali and Davood Rasooli in separate raids and took them to unknown locations.  Six security agents arrested Ersali at his friend’s home in Masshad and two security agents arrested Rasooli at his home in Karaj.

Mohabat News reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian whom authorities initially arrested in December 2017 after participating in student protests at Arak University.  Vartanian faced a number of political charges, including “promoting Christianity and anti-Islamic activities.”  According to Mohabat News and local media, Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse, lost at least 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.

According to a December 5 article in World Watch Monitor, citing information from the NGO rights group Article 18, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month.  The authorities asked them to write down the details of their Christian activities and told them not to have any more contact with Christians or Christian groups.  The authorities released most of them after a few hours or days, but kept the suspected leaders in detention.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness raising regarding government practices or discrimination.  In March the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported authorities arrested Yarsani activist Seyyed Peyman Pedrood.  According to KHRN, Pedrood disappeared in late December 2017 after leaving home, and his family later received unofficial information that security forces had arrested and transferred him to an unknown location.

According to the BIC, approximately 90 Baha’is were in prison as of November.  The BIC stated that all arrests and detentions were directly linked to the individual’s professed faith and religious identity.  Charges brought against Baha’is included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” espionage and collaboration with foreign entities, and actions against national security.  Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution the government considered illegal.  According to the BIC, in many cases, the authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRW reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  According to Iran Press Watch (IPC), MOIS officials on September 15 and 16 detained six Baha’i environmental activists, Sudabeh Haghighat, Noora Pourmoradian, Elaheh Samizadeh, Ehsan Mahboub Rahvafa, Navid Bazmandegan and his wife Bahareh Ghaderi, on unknown charges in Shiraz.  Human rights organizations and media reported agents searched the home of Basmandegan and Ghaderi and took the couple to an unknown location away from their five-year-old daughter Darya, who suffered from cancer and required care post-treatment.

On November 23, BIC reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  The government also sentenced up to a dozen Baha’is, including nine Baha’is in Isfahan, who received a combined sentence of more than 40 years in prison on charges of “membership in the unlawful administration of the perverse Baha’i sect for the purpose of action against internal security” and “engaging in propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic.”

CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days in September for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council

According to CHRI, on April 23 authorities returned to Rajai Shahr Prison Afif Naeimi, one of the seven leaders of the Yaran, a former group that tended to the social and spiritual needs of the Baha’i community and that was formed with the knowledge and approval of the government.  He had been on medical furlough due to life-threatening ailments.  CHRI reported, however, that upon return to prison, his condition was still poor and the judiciary’s own medical experts had ruled him too ill to be incarcerated.  In 2008, authorities arrested the seven individuals and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for “disturbing national security,” “spreading propaganda against the regime,” and “engaging in espionage” before the sentences were reduced to 10 years each on appeal.  Since September 2017, authorities released the other six leaders – Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – upon completion of their sentences.  According to BIC, authorities targeted these individuals because of their religious affiliation.

In May BIC reported a series of arrests of Baha’is.  On May 1, authorities detained Baha’i Kaviz Nouzdahi at his home in Mashhad and took him to the city’s Vakilabad Prison.  BIC also reported that the next day MOIS agents arrested a man identified only as “Motahhari” at his home in Isfahan.  According to Iran Wire, on May 6, Ministry of Information agents conducted an orchestrated raid of the residences of four Baha’is, during which they arrested three Baha’is, Nooshin Afshar, Neda Sabeti, and Forough Farzaneh, and took them to an unknown location.  Authorities reportedly searched their homes and confiscated their mobile phones, computers, and religious books.  BIC reported that the May arrestees faced charges because of their religious beliefs.  In a May 25 statement, BIC said the “systematic nature” of the arrests in a number of provinces suggested “a coordinated strategy on the part of government authorities.”

According to CHRI, on July 22 an appeals court in Kurdistan upheld a one-year sentence for Zabihollah Raoufi, whom authorities accused of proselytizing his Baha’i Faith.  The court upheld Raoufi’s conviction on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security by promoting Baha’ism.”  According to Iran Wire, on October 31 the 70-year-old Raoufi reported to prison to start serving his sentence.

According to Iran Wire, on January 28 a court sentenced Fataneh Nabilzadeh, a Baha’i resident of Mashhad, to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda against the regime.”  MOIS officials had arrested Nabilzadeh in 2013 for administering tests to her son and another Baha’i student on behalf of the BIHE.

According to January reports by CWWM and CSW, authorities sentenced two Christians, Eskander Rezaie and Soroush Saraei, in Shiraz to eight years in prison for “action against national security,” proselytizing, and holding house church meetings.  Authorities also charged Saraei, the pastor of the Church of Shiraz, with “forgery” for providing letters for students who did not want to attend Islamic studies classes.  The advocacy group Middle East Concern reported both men appealed their sentences.  During the same court hearing, a Christian woman, Zahrar Nourouzi Kashkouli, received a one year prison sentence, for “being a member of a group working against the system.”

According to the World Watch Monitor website, Article 18 reported Christian convert Ali Amini remained in Tabriz Prison following his arrest by authorities in December 2017 and had his laptop and cell phone confiscated.  He remained in a Tabriz Prison as of February.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and the arrests of teachers associated with the program.  Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation.  BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh remained in prison serving a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution.  Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a five-year sentence.  According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while visiting his wife at Evin Prison.  Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced them on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”  CHRI reported that on January 3 Evin Prison authorities told Rafizadeh she would only be considered for furlough if she apologized for teaching online classes to members of her faith.  Authorities reportedly said she must sign a statement to repenting for her work and promising she would not work there again.

Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detention, and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGO reports.  Numerous Christians remained imprisoned at year’s end on charges related to their religious beliefs.  Prison authorities reportedly continued to withhold medical care from prisoners, including some Christians, according to human rights groups.  According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.

According to Mohabat News, the Revolutionary Court of Bushehr on June 20 sentenced Christian convert Payam Kharaman and 11 other Christians to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda” activities against the government and promotion of “Zionist Christianity” through house meetings, evangelism, and proselytizing.  Authorities initially arrested the 12 Christians in Bushehr in April 2016.  CWWM reported that on March 2 authorities arrested 20 Christians in a workshop near the city of Karaj when security forces raided the premises.  Among those detained, authorities reportedly permitted Christian convert Aziz Majidzadeh to contact his family in April; he informed them that he and the others were being held at Evin Prison awaiting formal charges.  He reportedly said his interrogators focused on activities related to his Christian faith.  Article 18 reported on May 20 that authorities had released Majidzadeh pending a full investigation and trial.

Various media outlets and NGOs reported that on June 25, authorities released Mohammadali Yassaghi, a Christian also known as Estifan, from prison following a hearing at the Revolutionary Court in Babolsar, in which the presiding judge dismissed the charges against him.  The authorities arrested Yassaghi on April 10 on accusations of “spreading propaganda against the establishment” and later transported him to Babol Prison in Mazandaran Province.  According to CSW, Yassaghi was a member of the Church of Iran and converted to Christianity more than 20 years ago.

International media reported that on March 6 government officials detained Shia cleric Hossein Shirazi, the son of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi.  Both Hossein Shirazi and his father, a senior cleric in the Qom Seminary, were reportedly critical of the government.  Authorities detained Hossein Shirazi in Qom after he attended an Islamic theology class.  During a lecture in February, Hossein Shirazi reportedly likened the country’s principle of Velayat Faghih – or the rule of a single jurist – to the “regimes of pharaohs in Egypt.”  He also reportedly accused the country’s leaders of tyranny.  Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi’s opponents have accused him of promoting “British Shiism” and receiving funds from Britain and Saudi Arabia.

In January HRANA reported that security forces arrested Shia cleric Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam, son of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekounam, a senior cleric detained in October 2017.  According to HRANA, authorities also raided Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam’s home and seized all communication devices, including cell phones and laptops, without providing an arrest warrant.  Authorities arrested his father, Ayatollah Nekounam, in 2015 and sentenced him to five years in prison and an undisclosed number of lashes.  The court also stripped Ayatollah Nekounam of his right to clerical office.  The court reportedly said it would not disclose any details about either case to “protect” the status of the clergy.  Sources stated the arrests were related to Nekounam’s indirect criticism of other clerics.  Reportedly he indirectly criticized Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s opposition to fast internet services and also criticized an incident in Isfahan in which individuals threw acid on women to punish them for improper hijabs.  In an interview, Nekounam stated, “The one who throws acid [at others] is the most violent person.”  HRANA reported in January of Ayatollah Nekounam’s ailing health following a stroke in the Qom Prison, but said authorities denied him access to his medications.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they had temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though businesses could legally close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year.  In November BIC reported that authorities shut down more than a dozen Baha’i businesses in Khuzestan Province after the owners closed their businesses temporarily in observance of two Baha’i holidays.  According to IPC, on July 28 authorities shut down a Baha’i-owned business in the city of Kashan.  HRANA reported that the “Kashan Office of Properties refused to issue a business permit for optician shop of Javad Zabihian, due to his Baha’i Faith.  The Office of Properties then shut down and sealed Mr. Zabihian’s business.”  According to HRANA, the Superior Administrative Court on August 16 denied a petition to open 24 shuttered Baha’i-owned businesses in Urmia.  From July 9 through mid-August 2017, authorities reportedly sealed the businesses for closing in observance of a Baha’i holy day.  In August HRANA reported three Baha’is, Sahba Haghbeen, Samira Behinayeen, and Payam Goshtasbi, were fired from their jobs in Shiraz in a “continued effort to put economic constraints on Iranian Baha’is.”  HRANA also reported that on May 10, the MOIS office in Maku summoned Shahin Dehghan, a Baha’i citizen, and informed him that he had 10 days to sell his business or it would be confiscated and he would be sent to prison.  According to BIC, the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers.  The government also continued to prevent Baha’is from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition.  According to HRANA, security forces in Kerman prevented the burial of a Baha’i from Kerman, Hussein Shodjai, who died on August 26, and forced his family to bury the deceased in the city of Rafsanjan.  The authorities’ demand contravened Baha’i burial laws, under which the distance from the place of death to the burial place should not exceed one hour, according to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the central holy book of the Baha’i Faith.  IPC also reported that on March 16 authorities sealed the Baha’i cemetery of Kerman (known as the Eternal Garden) without specific justification.

In August BIC reported continued instances of the desecration and destruction of Baha’i property and holy sites.  Many government offices, including the City Council, the governor’s office, and the deputy governor’s office refused to take any action.  In November CHRI reported local authorities relocated the buried body of a Baha’i woman without the permission of the family.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices.  Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.”  Christian community leaders stated that if the authorities learned Armenian or Assyrian churches were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches.  Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed them to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, had eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages.  Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services.  In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret.  Other nonrecognized religious minorities such as Baha’is and Yarsanis were also forced to gather in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to curb Christian practices at cemeteries, and authorities confiscated properties owned by Christian religious organizations.  CHRI reported that on March 7 a group controlled by the supreme leader issued an eviction order for Sharon Gardens, a Christian retreat center occupying 2.5 acres of land in in the Valadabad District of Karaj, 32 miles west of the capital.  The center was owned by the country’s largest Christian Protestant organization, the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council, also known as the Iran Assemblies of God, since the early 1970s; the eviction reflected a 2015 revolutionary court order for its confiscation.

The government continued to monitor the statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders.  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views reportedly continued to face intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment on charges related to religious offenses.

Critics stated the government used extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics, as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – a manteau (overcoat) and a hijab (headscarf) or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes).  Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment.  The government continued to crack down on other public displays it deemed counter to its interpretation of Shia Islam laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.  In June security agents arrested a female teenager, Maedeh Hojabri, for posting videos of herself dancing without a hijab on Instagram.  Authorities then aired on state television a video of Hojabri, who acknowledged breaking moral norms while insisting that she was not encouraging others to follow her example, according to a report by Radio Farda.  International media widely reported her arrest, as well as an outpouring of social media support for Hojabri from fellow citizens.  According to a February report by HRW, authorities arrested at least three women protesting the country’s dress code/hijab laws in January and February.  Officials arrested Nargess Hosseini on January 29 when she took off her headscarf in a public protest against the hijab laws.  They arrested Azam Jangravi on February 14 and Shaparak Shajarizadeh on February 21 in similar circumstances.  On June 13, authorities arrested Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights attorney who had represented the women, telling her husband that authorities were taking her to prison for a sentence she had received in absentia.  Authorities sentenced Hosseini in March to 24 months in prison, suspending 21 months of her sentence.  On social media, Shajarizadeh stated on July 9 that a court had sentenced her to 20 years in prison, suspending 18 years of the sentence.

HRW also reported that on July 27, state TV’s “20:30” program featured an interview with the sister of anti-hijab activist Masih Alinejad, denouncing Alinejad’s advocacy against compulsory hijab laws.  In a post on social media and in a New York Times op-ed piece, Alinejad stated that, despite her sister’s statements that she had appeared on the program of her own free will, authorities pressured her family to denounce her on state television.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities access to higher education and government employment unless they declared themselves as Christian or Muslim, respectively, on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known.  In September BIC and IPC reported that at least 60 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs and despite passing the entrance exam “under the false pretenses that they had ‘incomplete files’ or that their names were not in the registration list.”  The report also stated that officials told many Baha’i students who passed the grueling National University Entrance Exam, known as “Konkur,” that they might be able to study, but that they would need to write a letter and disavow their faith in order to do so.

CHRI reported that from March to September authorities expelled at least 50 Baha’i students from universities because of their religious beliefs.  In July CHRI reported a Baha’i woman, Sarir Movaghan, was expelled from the Islamic Azad University in Isfahan.  Movaghan declared she was Baha’i on the university enrollment form and was accepted, but four years later and just before her final exams, she was expelled.  According to CHRI, the university contacted Movaghan in May and told her that, as a Baha’i, she should have known that she could not be at the university.  Many Baha’is reportedly did not try to enroll in state-run universities because of the Baha’i Faith’s tenet not to deny one’s faith.

According to BIC, government regulations continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed them “unclean.”

According to Mazjooban Noor, the official website of the Gonabadi dervishes, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and bar them from university studies for affiliation with the Sufi order.  CHRI reported that authorities expelled Sepideh Moradi Sarvestani, a member of the Gonabadi dervishes, from Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University on February 3 “for refusing to formally pledge not to engage in activities deemed unacceptable by officials.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority stating there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country.  Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces.  International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented any new Sunni mosques from being built in Tehran.  Sunnis reported the number of mosques in the country did not meet the demands of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, to practice their faith.  Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.  In August international media reported police dispersed Sunni worshipers who had gathered outside a prayer hall in Tehran’s eastern Resalat neighborhood.  Authorities barred the worshipers from entering the venue to hold communal prayers on Eid al-Adha.  The Sunni congregation had reportedly obtained an official permit from the Ministry of Interior and the Tehran governorate’s political deputy.

MOIS and law enforcement reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders.  Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored anti-Christian propaganda to deter the practice of or conversion to Christianity.  According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity, published in 2017.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems.  They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names.  A March report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests and torture of community leaders.  The report provided “accounts of individuals being fired after it is discovered that they are Yarsan, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, for example when undertaking military service.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two kindergartens continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim.  The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.  The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of books about Christianity already on the market, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly existed.  Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature, and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations.  Books about the Yarsan religion remained banned.  Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas.  Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses for the students.  Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools after the government reviewed and authorized their content.  Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

In July Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, was restored to his position on the Yazd City Council following a ruling that constitutionally recognized religious minorities could run in local elections.  According to CHRI, on July 21, by a two-thirds majority, the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between state branches, voted to amend the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils, thereby affirming the right of constitutionally recognized religious minorities to run in local elections.  In September 2017, local and international media reported that the Yazd Court of Administrative Justice called for the suspension of Niknam.  After being re-elected to the council in May 2017, the court forced him to step down after issuing a ruling that as a member of a religious minority, Niknam could not be elected to a council in a Muslim-majority constituency.  The ruling was in response to a complaint lodged by his unsuccessful Muslim opponent.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions.  In January CHRI observed that while there were 21 Sunni representatives in the 290-member parliament, no Sunni had served in a ministerial position since the founding of the Islamic Republic despite comprising a significant percent of the population.

Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representatives such as Siamak Morsadegh, the sole Jewish member of parliament, as stating that there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but that there was little interference with Jewish religious practices.  According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country.  Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books.  During remarks on June 15, Supreme Leader Khamenei said, “the Zionist regime, which has a legitimacy problem, will not last… and through Muslim nations’ vigilance, be certainly destroyed.”  Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “death to Israel” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel.  Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic in nature, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region, including the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  The May 15 edition of the newspaper Tasnim carried a cartoon that portrayed Israel as a snake intent on devouring Jerusalem.  On February 13, the website Javan published an article, entitled “The Use of Corrupt Jewish Women by Secret Spy Services to Trap Important World Figures,” that claimed that Jewish religious law allowed Jewish women to use their gender and femininity to gather intelligence for Mossad.

According to human rights activists, the government maintained a legal interpretation of Islam that required citizens of all faiths to follow strict rules based on the government’s interpretation of Shia jurisprudence, creating differentiation under the law between the rights granted to men and women.  The government continued to enforce gender segregation and discrimination throughout the country without regard to religious affiliation.

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

The government continued to allow recognized religious minority groups to establish community centers and certain self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and/or charitable associations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and that perpetrators continued to act with impunity or, even when arrested, faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is in Iran.  BIC continued to report instances of employment discrimination and physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

In October IPC reported “tens of thousands more [Baha’is] experience educational, economic and cultural persecution on a daily basis for merely practicing their faith.”  According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.  In August a BIC report noted the continued harassment, vilification, and psychological pressure children and adolescents known to be Baha’is experience in primary, middle, and high schools throughout the country.

Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued.  They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and shared community facilities.  Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, often faced employment discrimination.  According to reports, Shia preachers often encouraged such social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

Sunni students reported professors routinely continued to insult Sunni religious figures in class.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore, did not have opportunities to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

The U.S. government continued to call for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums.  This included public statements by senior U.S. government officials and reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions.  Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a town hall speech on “Supporting Iranian Voices” and an opinion editorial appearing in USA Today.  In his op-ed, the Secretary of State said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “Many members of Iranian religious minorities – including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims – face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs….The Iranian regime continues its crackdown on Gonabadi Sufis.…Baha’is also face particularly severe ill-treatment.  As with many other minority communities, Iranian authorities reportedly harass, arrest, and mistreat Baha’is on account of their faith, and in May the Baha’i International Community reported an uptick in arbitrary arrests and raids across the country.…The Government of Iran continues to execute dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges brought because of their peaceful religious beliefs or activities.  Blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and efforts to proselytize Muslims are punishable by death, contrary to Iran’s international human rights obligations….We strongly urge the Government of Iran to cease its violations of religious freedom and ensure that all individuals – regardless of their beliefs – are treated equally and can live out their lives and exercise their faith in peace and security.”

During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end to religious persecution in Iran, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi Dervish community.”

The United States again supported an extension of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran in a vote at the UN Human Rights Council.  The United States also voted in December in the General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern over Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State announced the redesignation of Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”  The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites.  Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom.  NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim.  Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area.  Most roads were reopened by year’s end.  Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS.  Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain.  Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members.  They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas.  Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities.  Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.

According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014.  In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”

Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.  In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses.  Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses.  Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.

The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects.  Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities.  The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority.  Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.”  The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16.  On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population, while Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population.  Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkomans the remaining 1 percent.  Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country.  Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR.  The Christian population has declined over the past 16 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons.  Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.  The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants.  There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders report most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced.  Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary.  According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad.  Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.  The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa.  Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians.  According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.  The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 70 to 80 Jewish families reside in the IKR, though he noted that some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution.  According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are fewer than six adult members of the local Jewish community.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of December, nearly 1.8 million persons remained displaced within the country.  Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home.  According to the IOM, as of May, approximately 67 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) population were Arab Sunni, 13 percent Kurdish Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 6 percent Turkoman Shia, 2 percent Arab Shia, 1 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christian, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkoman Sunni, Shabak Sunni, or Kurdish Shia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation.  It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists.  According to the penal code, Jews may not hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.  Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions.  The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and require administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape.  Civil status law allows non-Muslim women to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government:  Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish.  Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property.  All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.  According to the government, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country:  the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan.  The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

Outside of the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition.  The law prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith.  For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’i – including Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA.  To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam.  Eight faiths are registered with the KRG MERA:  Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered 11 evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches:  Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.  The KRG allows new Christian churches to register with a minimum of 50 adherents.

In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by Christian church leaders, which includes six evangelical Protestant churches.  Registration with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders provides Christian churches and leaders with access to the KRG MERA and to the KRG’s Christian endowment.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other six registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups.  The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings.  The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (26 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia.  The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj.  The council, attached to the Prime Minister’s office, organizes a lottery process to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas.  Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel:  3.5 million dinars ($3,100) for Hajj travel by land, and five million dinars ($4,400) for travel by air.  In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution guarantees minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages.  While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.”  In the IKR, there are 56 Syriac and 21 Turkoman language schools.  The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars.  The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and endowments.  Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith.  The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court.  In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between Muslims, and the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

New national identity cards do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information.  The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim.  There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations.  Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian.  Without an official identity card, one may not register one’s marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services.  Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.

The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, and promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups.  It forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of minority communities:  five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit.  Usually one of the COR rapporteur positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other a Turkoman.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities:  five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR.  Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies.  The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law of November 2005 defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.”  Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Observers reported the current antiterrorism law did not allow for the right to due process and a fair trial.  Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links but provided no corroborating evidence.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia.  Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in late 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, displacement, and in some cases, violence from PMF and Iraqi security forces.  Media outlets carried numerous reports of Shia PMF groups invading, looting, and burning the houses of Kurds, Sunni Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk Governorate.  Kurds faced similar violence in Khanaqin, a majority Kurdish city in Diyala Governorate that also passed from KRG to central government control in 2017.  Analysts stated that discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year.  In August four Kurds, including a Peshmerga, were beheaded in Khanaqin by unknown attackers.  The Kaka’i community in Daquq, Kirkuk Governorate, continued to suffer harassment and intimidation, which Kaka’i civil society groups said accelerated under PMF occupation of the area.

The religious status of children resulting from rape became a more prominent issue because of the number of minority children resulting from gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIS.  Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services.  Yezidi sources reported the number of these children range from several dozen to several hundred.  They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers.  According to Christian leaders, in some cases Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented.  Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size.  Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Representatives of minority religious communities said that, while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions.  Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hunain Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District.  The chair of the municipal council of Bartalla made public court documents from several cases involving militiamen charged with theft, harassment, and sexual harassment.  Shabak Sunni leaders in Hamdaniya made similar allegations.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, Shabak parliamentarians, including Qado, with the support of some other Shia elements within the central government in Baghdad, had directed the 30th Brigade to harass Christians to drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population and allow Shabak and other Shia Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers.  Christians in Tal Kayf made similar claims that the nominally Christian but majority Sunni Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively sought to prevent and disrupt the return of the displaced Christian community to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town.

The Ninewa provincial government ordered that all district governments comply with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF martyrs of the war against ISIS as compensation for their loss.  The order included those districts with Sunni and non-Muslim majorities.  In September Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam issued an order suspending such grants in the historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change.  Throughout the year, Behnam successfully resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya.  Iraq’s National Investment Commission, under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, approved the building of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla.  Pointing to a surplus of houses in Christian town centers, Christian community leaders alleged that virtually all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated by politics rather than religious discrimination.  According to various NGOs, central government, and KRG sources, KRG security forces and ISF blocked major roads between the IKR and central government-controlled Iraq, including roads serving minority communities such as the roads between Dohuk and Sinjar, al Qosh and Tal Kayf, and Sheikhan and Mosul.  The closure of these roads forced minorities to take long, circuitous detours, restricted their access to markets for their goods, and left them vulnerable to harassment and extortion at numerous checkpoints.  After lengthy negotiations, the KRG and GOI opened most of these roads during the year, including the al Qosh-Tal Kayf and Shaykhan-Mosul roads in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December.

In June elements of the PMF Imam Ali Brigade refused to allow the Yezidi Sinjar District Council to return to Sinjar City from its temporary location in Mosul, even with an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister.  In October a combination of PMF and popular protest again prevented the Yezidi mayor of Sinjar and the district council from returning to Sinjar.  Christians reported continued harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the Shabak Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf.

According to multiple sources, some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers or family members of suspected members from their homes in several governorates.  For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kataib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province.  According to the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014 3,322 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS had been rescued or released, but 3,015 Yezidis were still missing as of October.  Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times and subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.  The Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission reported in August that 600 Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, none of whom had been reported rescued by the end of the year.  A Turkoman NGO, however, stated in December that more than 1300 Turkomans were still missing and said it had evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkoman women to Chechnya, Turkey, and Syria.  The KRG MERA also reported that 250 Christians were rescued, leaving an estimated 150 missing.

In October the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi Affairs reported the KRG had paid more than $7 million in ransom and payments to middlemen to secure the release of approximately 2,000 Yezidis from ISIS since 2014.  In July the Ninewa Provincial Council established two offices, one in Mosul and the other in Sinjar, responsible for investigating the fate of Yezidis still missing or held captive by ISIS.  Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs.

According to Yazda, a global Yezidi organization, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.  In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.  The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, including evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties in changing their registration from Muslim to Christian if they were converts, or engaged in in proselytizing.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities.  In July ISF forces and local police forcibly entered Mar Gorgees Syriac Catholic Church in Bartalla, cut the internet network of the church and adjacent cultural center, and destroyed the church’s internet server equipment.  While authorities accused the church of unauthorized distribution of an IKR-based internet service to the Christian community in Ninewa Province, Syriac Catholic Church leaders said the action represented an attack on the church, and they accused the security forces of acting on behalf of a rival, politically connected internet provider.

The KRG MERA reduced the number of mosques delivering weekly Friday sermons from 3,000 to 2,000 by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods.  MERA Spokesman and Director of General Relations Mariwan Naqshbandy said MERA was formulating a policy to produce and distribute pre-approved content for Friday sermons in MERA-funded mosques to prevent the spread of extremism.  The KRG MERA banned eight imams from delivering Friday sermons, citing extremist ideology and incitement to violence.  The imams continued to receive MERA salaries and were ordered to undergo a rehabilitation course to regain permission to preach in MERA-approved mosques.  MERA also banned 10 books by well-known Islamic scholars because they encouraged violence and extremism.  MERA also introduced a mandatory training program for new imams that included instruction on religious pluralism and tolerance and against extremist preaching and hate speech.

According to the international human rights NGO Heartland Alliance, KRG law protecting the rights of religious freedom was undermined by vague wording and did not provide implementation mechanisms or penalties for violations.

In September Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf said the central government had not opened an investigation into the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by the archbishop in 2017.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.  Estimates, including those cited by several Christian parliamentarians (MPs), the daily number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22.  A director of an Assyrian NGO reported that four Syriac language schools closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.  Some Yezidis and Christians maintained their own militias.  Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units.  Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.  Other minority leaders in the Ninewa Plain expressed hope that the Ministry of Interior would hire minorities to serve in local police forces to absorb and replace the minority militias in the region.  Some leaders conducted recruitment drives to demonstrate the considerable interest among minority communities in joining police units, including among current members of minority militias; however, no local police positions were available at year’s end.

One of the remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad described the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric from both Muslim and Christian leaders.  Although the sermons did not advocate for violence against the Jewish community, the community member expressed concern that more priests were including anti-Semitic rhetoric in their sermons, comparable to the anti-Semitic rhetoric often heard from some Muslims.  He presented pictures of the continued desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the Shia-majority Sadr City section of Baghdad.  The small community did not file any reports on the desecration with local authorities due to reported fear of retribution.  Despite Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to speak out in favor of the return of Jews in a June 2 response to a follower’s question, the member of the Jewish community said Jews continued to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.

A group of IKR- and Ninewa Plain-based religious leaders from established apostolic Christian churches sent a letter to the IKR MERA director general of Christian affairs stating MERA made it too easy for new Christian groups to become established in the IKR.  The letter accused the newcomers of damaging the churches’ relationship with the Muslim community by proselytizing, and demanded MERA provide the names of adherents submitted by the new churches.  MERA refused to change the requirement for new churches to register but complied with the apostolic churches’ request to compile a list of adherents of evangelical and other Protestant churches.  Apostolic church leaders said the list would allow them to remove from their rolls the names of former members now attending other churches so the apostolic churches would not be blamed for any proselytizing performed by former members now belonging to evangelical or other Protestant churches.

NGOs continued to state constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate them and no legislation proposed to repeal them.  According to a December article on the website Al Monitor, Deputy Justice Minister Hussein al-Zuhairi stated during a dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Baha’i Faith was not a religion, emphasizing the government’s commitment to legislation prohibiting the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays.  Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation.  Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate.  In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students.  Christian religious education was included in the curricula of at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk.  Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school.  To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection.  The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

The government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, but some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates.  Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction.  Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.  By year’s end, schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance.  Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom.  Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for Muslim students.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students.  The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students.  The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies.  The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education partnered with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes.  The curriculum was still under development at year’s end.

The central government extended by one year the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010.  They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in northern Iraq.  For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.  The director general of Christian affairs in the KRG MERA said that of 59 long-pending property dispute cases between Christians and Kurds, the KRG courts had only ruled on five cases, although in four of the five they ruled in favor of Christian plaintiffs.  In one such case in the Nahla Valley area of Dohuk , a court sentenced Kurds convicted of taking Christian-owned land to a three-month suspended sentence, a token fine, and a requirement the Kurds make a written pledge they would not encroach on the land again.  The KRG MERA director general, however, said authorities made no attempt to follow up on the case, and some of the Kurds continued to occupy land the court ruled belonged to the Christian community.  A land dispute dating from 2003 when the KRG seized 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of farmland near Ankawa owned by 220 Christian farmers for the construction of the Erbil International Airport remained unresolved.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects.  The KRG spent approximately 2.5 billion dinars ($2.2 million) on the construction of an Armenian Apostolic church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, and another 500 million dinars ($439,000) on a community center for the Assyrian Church of the East.  The KRG said in 2017 that it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil, a Baha’i religious and cultural center near Erbil, and a Zoroastrian temple in Sulaimaniya.  According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry passed its recommendation for lands to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels, but by year’s end, no land had been allocated for any of the three projects.  The Zoroastrian representative in MERA said Ministry of Municipalities officials had refused to implement the government directives for religious reasons.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM, a situation unchanged from the previous year.  Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels.  Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities.  The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.  Although there are no reliable statistics, minorities stated they believed they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime.  Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime.  Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.  Some Sunnis said Sunnis were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts from the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP has 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law does not restrict who may vote in quota seat races.  Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority voters said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the nine minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government.  Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against Yezidis by closing the Dohuk-Sinjar road and continuing to restrict commercial traffic after opening the road to passenger traffic in December.  Yezidi activists reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care, primarily due to the road closure.  Since the October 2017 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, although not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.  KRG security forces, ISF, and the PMF had closed the road between the neighboring Christian towns of Telskuf and Batnaya, slowing the return of IDPs.  A local priest in Telskuf said KRG security forces refused requests from humanitarian organizations to pass through their roadblock to conduct relief and reconstruction work in Batnaya.  Authorities reopened the Telskuf-Batnaya road in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December, but both roads remained closed to commercial traffic at year’s end.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Shabak Brigade.  Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits.  The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol.  Community sources reported Muslim businessmen sometimes used Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

On March 21, the tomb of a Kaka’i religious leader was destroyed by an explosion in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.  A local Kaka’i NGO said members of the PMF were responsible.

Kaka’i leaders said the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk and converted them into mosques.

In observance of World Religion Day on January 21, the then speaker of parliament hosted 350 government officials, ethnic and religious leaders, and the international community in a celebration to urge interfaith dialogue and promote religious pluralism.  Although representatives from several religious minorities welcomed the event, they said it was unlikely discrimination against their communities would end anytime soon.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Mass graves containing victims of ISIS continued to be found.  According to KRG MERA’s Office of Yezidi Affairs, a total of 87 mass graves containing the bodies of over 2,500 Yezidis had been found in Sinjar District and other predominantly Yezidi areas of Ninewa Province since 2014.  On November 6, UNAMI and the United Nations Human Rights Office released a report documenting the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar and cautioned there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves each held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  On November 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”  Estimates available to the UN ranged from 6,000 to more than 12,000 victims buried in these graves.

According to the KRG MERA director general of Christian affairs, ISIS abducted 150 Christians from the Batnaya, Qaraqosh, and Tal Kayf areas in 2014; their fate remained unclear at year’s end.

In April Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria rescued a young Christian woman kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 from Qaraqosh.  She said she was sold four times to different ISIS fighters, each of whom raped her and subjected her to torture and other forms of mistreatment.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On July 23, three gunmen who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they then killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion before police killed the attackers.

In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime.  Others said the killers wanted to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.

There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but few reports of religious violence in the IKR.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In regular Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses.

During May court proceedings, a judge demanded the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR MERA swear on the Quran before testifying.  She refused and asked to swear on a copy of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathustra, but the judge did not allow it.

In June media continued to report political parties, criminal networks, and some militia groups seized more than 30,000 Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit with impunity, despite pledges by the prime minister’s office to open investigations into the seizures.

In December, in response to the central government’s announcement that Christmas would be an official Iraqi holiday, prominent Sunni cleric and self-proclaimed “Grand Mufti” of Iraq Abdul-Mehdi al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that Muslims should not take part in New Year celebrations or congratulate Christians during Christmas.  Both the central government and the KRG Sunni Endowments rejected his fatwa and posted criticisms of it online.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura.  There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan.  Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment.  According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior.  Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.  According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts helped to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.  Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

In November the Catholic Patriarchs of the East held a four-day conference in Baghdad to bring attention to the challenges threatening the survival of Christian communities in the region.  Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Sako, who hosted the meeting, said the patriarchs wanted to encourage “families to stay in our homeland keeping up our faith, identity, ethics, traditions, and language.”  This was the first time the conference was held in the country.  Catholic rites representatives included Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara al-Rahi, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Monsignor William Hanna Shomali, and Cardinal Sako, who delivered the opening speech.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and his predecessor former Prime Minister Haider Abadi, and through speeches and U.S. embassy coordination groups promoting religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.  Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of jobs, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns.  Efforts included agreeing to recruit minorities in two Emergency Response Battalions, one for Sinjar and one for the Ninewa Plain, and reopening roads connecting persecuted religious communities to economic and urban centers.  The embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards.  U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, and medical supplies.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional Ministries of Education, Justice (which includes the functions of the former Ministry of Human Rights), Labor, and Social Affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.  They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.  On January 15, the Ambassador hosted an event to observe Religious Freedom Day that promoted religious pluralism and reconciliation.  A wide range of representatives from the country’s many religious communities attended, including the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syrian Church, Assyrian Catholic Church, Coptic Church, as well as members of the Yezidi, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, and Islamic faiths (both Sunnis and Shia).  On January 16, the embassy convened an interfaith dialogue with a former participant of two U.S.-sponsored exchange programs that focused on the promotion of religious diversity.  On October 16, the embassy hosted the Deputy Secretary of State for a roundtable with representatives of Iraq’s minority religious communities.

The U.S. government continued to develop, finance, and manage projects to support all religious communities, with special emphasis on assistance to IDPs and returnees.  As part of the continued commitment by the Vice President, Secretary of State, and the USAID Administrator to support ethnic and religious minorities, the United States announced over $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance to support these vulnerable communities in Iraq in October.  This brought total U.S. assistance for this population to nearly $300 million since fiscal year 2017, implemented by both the Department of State and USAID.  These efforts, implemented in close partnership with local faith and community leaders, included USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response program totaling $133 million, funding of approximately $37 million to clear explosive remnants of war, $8.5 million for social, economic, and political empowerment of minority communities, and $2 million for the preservation of historic and cultural sites.  In July USAID also appointed a Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, based in Erbil, to oversee U.S. assistance for Iraq’s minority communities.

Senior advisors to the Vice President accompanied the Ambassador to the Ninewa Plain to discuss with community leaders how the United States could improve support to endangered minorities recovering from ISIS’ genocide campaign against them.  In separate visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the USAID Administrator visited the Ninewa Plain and met with Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak leaders to assure them of the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador, senior embassy officers, Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah, and the USAID Administrator’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs made regular visits to minority areas to meet with minority community leaders, religious leaders, and local and provincial authorities to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

U.S. officials in Baghdad, Basrah, and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection.  Embassy officials met religious leaders on a regular basis to discuss broader religious freedom issues and to demonstrate U.S. interest in and support for resolving issues with the provision of assistance.  In particular, they met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Ireland

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion.  In an October 26 constitutional referendum, 65 percent of voters approved the removal of blasphemy as a punishable offense from the constitution, paving the way for it to be formally removed as a legal offense in 2019 pending legislation from parliament.  Some parents of children not belonging to the denomination of a religious school, usually Catholic, could not enroll their children in oversubscribed schools.  The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage.  Prime Minister Leo Varadkar participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration and in his remarks emphasized the importance of Holocaust education to prevent such horrors happening again.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to lobby for more stringent hate crime legislation, including for incidents motivated by religion, and to ensure prejudice would be taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing criminals.

U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with members of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Education and Skills, and the national police.  Underscoring the importance of tolerance, diversity, and religious freedom, embassy officials met with religious groups and NGOs to discuss their concerns.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (July 2018 estimate).  The 2016 census indicates the population is approximately 78 percent Roman Catholic, 3 percent Church of Ireland (Protestant), 1 percent Muslim, 1 percent Orthodox Christian (including Greek, Russian, and Coptic Orthodox), 1 percent unspecified Christian, and 2 percent other religions, while 10 percent stated no religious affiliation and 3 percent did not specify their religion.  There are small numbers of Presbyterians, Hindus, Apostolic Pentecostals, Pentecostals, and Jews.  The census estimates the Jewish population to be 2,500.  The number of Christians and Muslims from sub-Saharan Africa, Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East, Muslims and Hindus from South Asia, and Orthodox Christians from Eastern Europe continues to grow, especially in larger urban areas.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees the free profession and practice of religion, subject to public order and morality.  The constitution references “the Most Holy Trinity” and “our divine Lord, Jesus Christ,” and stipulates the state shall hold the name of God in reverence and honor and respect religion.  It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief and guarantees not to endow any religion.  The constitution stipulates every religious denomination has the right to manage its own affairs, own and acquire property, and maintain institutions for religious or charitable purposes.  It states legislation providing for government aid to schools shall not discriminate among schools under the management of different religious denominations nor affect the right of a child to attend any school receiving public money without attending religious instruction at that school.

The law makes blasphemy a punishable offense, although the government last prosecuted such a case in 1855.  The law defines blasphemy as uttering or publishing language “grossly abusive or insulting in relation to matters held sacred by any religion,” when the intent and result are “outrage among a substantial number of the adherents of that religion.”  Violations are punishable by a fine of up to 25,000 euros ($28,700).  In an October 26 constitutional referendum, 65 percent of voters approved the removal of blasphemy as a punishable offense from the constitution, paving the way for it to be formally removed as a legal offense in 2019 pending legislation from parliament.  The blasphemy law remains in effect until legislation proposed by parliament is signed into law.

The law forbids incitement to hatred based on race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation and carries a maximum penalty of up to two years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 25,400 euros ($29,100).  The law does not address or define hate crimes other than incitement.

There is no legal requirement for religious groups to register with the government, nor is there any formal mechanism for government recognition of a religious group.  Religious groups may apply to the Revenue Commissioners (the tax authority) and register as a charity or an NGO to receive tax exemptions.  To qualify, groups must operate exclusively for charitable purposes.  Constituted organizations that operate for exclusively charitable purposes and provide a clear public benefit may register as charities.  The law requires all charitable organizations carrying out activities in the country to register with and to provide certain information relating to their organization to the Charities Regulator, a government-appointed independent authority.  The Regulator maintains a public register of charitable organizations and ensures their compliance with the law.  Organizations must apply their income and property solely toward the promotion of their main charitable object, as set out in their governing instruments (such as constitution, memorandum and articles of association, deed of trust, or rules).

Under the constitution, the Department of Education and Skills provides funding to “national” schools, which are privately owned and managed and where most children receive their primary school education.  The government pays most of the building and administrative costs, teachers’ salaries, and a set amount per pupil.  In funding schools, the constitution stipulates the state shall have due regard “for the rights of parents, especially in the matter of religious and moral formation.”

Almost all primary schools and approximately half of secondary schools (vocational schools are state run and nonreligious) are religiously affiliated.  At the primary level, 90 percent of all schools are Catholic, 6 percent Church of Ireland, 2 percent multidenominational, 1 percent other religious groups, and 1 percent not religiously affiliated.  Patrons, who are usually members of the religious groups and affiliated with religious organizations with which the school is affiliated, manage the schools themselves or appoint a board of management to do so.  Patrons often provide land for schools and contribute to building and administrative costs.  The law permits schools with a religious patron to use religion as a basis for admissions, even if it is not oversubscribed.

The government permits, but does not require, religious instruction, faith-based classes, or general religion classes in “national” schools.  Although religious instruction is part of the curriculum of most schools, parents may exempt their children from such instruction.  Religious schools teach about their religion, while multidenominational schools generally teach about religion in a broader context.  Students may opt out and sit in another classroom.  The government funds salaries for those teachers who teach religion classes in “national” schools.

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC), an independent statutory body, hears cases of reported workplace discrimination, including claims based on religion.  The WRC may refer cases for mediation, investigate these cases, or decide the case itself.  If the adjudication officer finds there has been discrimination, he or she can order compensation for the effects of discrimination and/or corrective action.  Litigants may appeal WRC decisions in the courts.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission is an independent public body accountable to parliament, whose stated purpose is to protect and promote human rights and equality and to build a culture of respect for human rights, including religious freedom.  The commission works at the policy level to review the effectiveness of human rights and equality law, as well as public policy and practice.  It also works with communities, including religious groups, and other civil society groups to monitor and report on the public’s experiences of human rights, religious freedom, and equality.

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

Government Practices

On October 26, the government held a constitutional referendum on the question of whether to revoke the constitutional provision making blasphemy a punishable offense.  Voters approved the removal of blasphemy as a punishable offense from the constitution, but it remains an offense in law until legislation is passed by parliament removing it.

The government continued to encourage patrons to open more schools with nonreligious or multidenominational patronage.  School patrons, generally affiliated with religious denominations, continued to define the ethos of schools and to determine the development and implementation of the religious education curriculum in primary schools.  Curricula varied by school and could include teaching about the patron’s religion, the religious history of the country, or an overview of world religions.

In April Minister for Education and Skills Richard Bruton announced plans to establish 42 new schools – 26 at the primary level and 16 at the postprimary level – between 2019 and 2022.  The Department of Education and Skills announced it would respect parental preference for the patronage for those schools due to open in 2019.  Of the 13 primary schools due to open in 2019, the patronage of 12 had yet to be decided.  On October 31, the Department of Education announced the Irish-language schools’ patron body An Foras Patrunachta would be the patron of a primary school due to open in 2019 in Dublin.  The department appointed multidenominational schools’ patron body Educate Together as patron of four new high schools scheduled to open in September 2019.

Parents of unbaptized children continued to report difficulty enrolling their children in some local, religiously based schools that were oversubscribed and gave priority admissions to children of that religion.  In rural areas, parents said finding alternatives to schools with Catholic patrons was especially difficult.  On October 2, the government announced that starting in 2019 primary schools would no longer be allowed to discriminate on religious grounds.

Catholic religious orders remained affiliated with 20 of the country’s 45 hospitals.  Individual medical professionals were able to opt out of certain procedures, such as abortion, on conscience grounds; however, entire institutions did not have that option.  In a May referendum, voters repealed the country’s constitutional ban on abortion, paving the way for its legalization in 2019.  The Health (Regulation of Termination of Pregnancy) Act 2018 became law on December 20.

Several state agencies, including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) and the Garda (national police) Racial and Intercultural Office (GRIO), continued to enforce equality legislation and work on behalf of minority religious groups.  These agencies organized community events to include individuals of diverse faiths.  The IHREC reviewed and made recommendations to draft legislation to ensure drafts met human rights and equality standards.  The GRIO’s liaison officers continued to engage with immigrant minority religious groups on a regular basis to inform them of police services and educate them on their rights.

On January 28, Prime Minister Varadkar, Minister for Justice Charles Flanagan, and other senior government officials participated in the national Holocaust Day Memorial commemoration.  In his remarks, the prime minister emphasized the importance of Holocaust education to prevent such horrors happening again.  The NGO Holocaust Education Trust Ireland, in association with the Department of Justice and Equality, Office for the Promotion of Migrant Integration, and Dublin City Council, organized the event, which included readings, survivors’ remembrances, and music, as well as the lighting of six candles symbolizing the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

NGOs, including the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, Immigrant Council of Ireland, Anti-Racism Network Ireland, National Steering Group Against Hate Crime, European Network Against Racism Ireland, and the government’s independent IHREC, again lobbied for more robust legislation against hate crimes, including religiously motivated hate crimes, and to ensure prejudice was taken into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing criminals.  In September The Irish Times published a letter from a citizen of a Jewish refugee family background that referred to anti-Semitic graffiti in Dublin painted on a city center wall and urged local authorities to remove it quickly.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials discussed issues of discrimination and integration of religious minorities into the community with representatives of religious groups, interfaith organizations, and youth-focused organizations as well as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Human Rights Unit, the Department of Education and Skills, and the national police.

Italy

Executive Summary

The constitution protects freedom of religion and the right of religious communities to establish their own institutions.  The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent, their relations governed by treaties, including a concordat granting the Church a number of privileges and benefits and financial support.  Twelve other groups have accords granting most of the same benefits in exchange for a degree of government monitoring.  Religious groups must register to request an accord.  Unregistered religious groups operate freely but are not eligible for the same benefits as groups with accords or must apply for them separately.  The government did not submit any new accords to parliament for approval despite reports it had negotiated several accords with religious groups in the previous year.  The Muslim community, which did not have an accord, continued to experience difficulties in acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques or keep them open; there were approximately 800 unofficial Muslim places of worship.  Politicians from several political parties, including leader of the League (Lega) Party Matteo Salvini, who in June became deputy prime minister and minister of interior, made statements critical of Islam and against the construction of new mosques.  As chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the country hosted several events promoting religious tolerance.

There were reports of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents, including harassment, discrimination, hate speech, and vandalism.  A Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO) reported 185 anti-Semitic incidents, most involving hate speech on social media, compared with 130 in 2017.  A local Arab NGO reported a 35 percent increase in incidents against Muslims in schools, hospitals, and on public transport in 2017 compared to the previous year.  In April a pig’s head was left in front of a building in Reggio Emilia Province that Muslims planned to convert into a place of worship.  The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters in major cities and elsewhere.  Jewish leaders called for greater vigilance against anti-Semitism.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with national and local government officials to encourage respect for religious freedom and equal treatment for all faiths and discussed the integration of new migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu, and of second-generation Muslims.  Embassy, consulate, and Department of State representatives met with religious leaders and civil society to promote interfaith dialogue and awareness, social inclusion of immigrants, and the empowerment of faith groups through social media and the mobilization of youth leaders among faith groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 62.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to a 2017 survey by independent research center IPSOS, approximately 74 percent of all residents identify as Roman Catholic.  According to government officials, religious groups together accounting for less than 10 percent of the population include other Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Baha’is, and Buddhists.  Non-Catholic Christian groups include Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Assemblies of God, the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and a number of smaller Protestant groups.  The remaining 16 percent report no religious affiliation.  According to estimates by the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an independent research center, of the more than five million resident foreigners, there are almost two million Muslims, 1.7 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, one million Roman Catholics, and 700,000 Protestants.  The government and the Jewish community estimate the Jewish population at 30,000.

According to the Ministry of Interior (MOI) and the national agency for statistics, the Muslim population is composed of native-born citizens, immigrants, and resident foreigners, but most of its growth comes from large numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, the majority of whom live in the north.  Moroccan and Albanian immigrants are the two largest groups.  The MOI reports Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law regardless of religion and are free to profess their beliefs in any form, individually or with others, and to promote them and celebrate rites in public or in private, provided they are not offensive to public morality.  According to the constitution, each religious community has the right to establish its own institutions according to its own statutes as long as these do not conflict with the law.  The constitution stipulates the state may not impose special limitations or taxes on the establishment or activities of groups because of their religious nature or aims.  The constitution specifies the state and the Catholic Church are independent of each other, and their relations are governed by treaties, which include a concordat between the government and the Holy See.

The law considers insults against any divinity to be blasphemy, a crime punishable by a fine ranging from 51 to 309 euros ($58-$350).  The government generally does not enforce the law against blasphemy.

The constitution states all religious groups are equally free and relations between the state and non-Catholic groups are governed by law based on agreements (“accords”) between them.  Representatives of a non-Catholic faith requesting an accord must first submit their request to the Office of the Prime Minister.  The government and the group’s representatives then negotiate a draft agreement, which the Council of Ministers must approve.  The prime minister then signs and submits the agreement to parliament for final approval.  Once parliament approves the implementing legislation, the accord governs the relationship between the government and the religious group, including state support.  Twelve groups have an accord:  the Confederation of Methodist and Waldensian Churches, Seventh-day Adventists, Assemblies of God, Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Orthodox Church of the Constantinople Patriarchate, the Italian Apostolic Church, the Buddhist Union, Soka Gakkai Buddhists, and Hindus.

The law provides religious groups with tax-exempt status and the right to recognition as legal entities, as long as they have completed a registration process with the MOI.  Legal registration is a prerequisite for any group seeking an accord with the government.  A religious group may apply for registration by submitting to a prefect, the local representative of the MOI, a request including the group’s statutes; a report on its goals and activities; information on its administrative offices; a three-year budget; certification of its credit status by a bank; and certification of the Italian citizenship or legal residency of its head.  To be approved, a group’s statutes must not conflict with the law.  If approved, the group must submit to MOI monitoring, including of their budgets and internal organization.  The MOI may appoint a commissioner to administer the group if it identifies irregularities in its activities.  Religious groups that are not registered may still operate legally as NGOs and obtain tax-exempt status, legal recognition of marriages, access to hospitals and prisons, and other benefits, but having an accord with the government facilitates the process.  The Catholic Church is the only legally recognized group exempted from MOI monitoring, in accordance with the concordat between the government and the Holy See.

An accord grants clergy automatic access to state hospitals, prisons, and military barracks; allows for civil registry of religious marriages; facilitates special religious practices regarding funerals; and exempts students from school attendance on religious holidays.  Any religious group without an accord may request these benefits from the MOI on a case-by-case basis.  An accord also allows a religious group to receive funds collected by the state through a voluntary 0.8 percent set-aside on taxpayer returns.  Taxpayers may specify to which eligible religious group they would like to direct these funds.  The government set aside 1.23 billion euros ($1.41 billion) via this mechanism during the year, of which more than 81 percent went to the Catholic Church.

Veneto regional legislation prohibits the use of burqas and niqabs in public institutions such as hospitals.

The concordat provides for the Catholic Church to select teachers, paid by the state, to provide instruction in weekly “hour of religion” courses taught in public schools.  The courses are optional, and students who do not wish to attend may study other subjects or, in certain cases, leave school early with parental consent.  Church-selected instructors are lay or religious, and the instruction includes material determined by the state and relevant to non-Catholic religious groups.  Government funding is available only for these Catholic Church-approved teachers.  If a student requests a religion class from a non-Catholic religious group, that group must provide the teacher and cover the cost of instruction; it is not required to seek government approval for the content of the class.  Some local laws provide scholarship funding for students to attend private, religiously affiliated schools, usually but not always Catholic, that meet government educational standards.

According to law, hate speech, including instances motivated by religious hatred, are punishable by up to four years in prison.  The law applies to denial of genocide or crimes against humanity.

All missionaries and other foreign religious workers from countries that are not European Union members or signatories to the Schengen Agreement must apply for special religious activity visas before arriving in the country.

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

Government Practices

Although in 2017 the government had reportedly negotiated draft agreements governing its relations with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Romanian Orthodox Church, and Episcopal Church, it continued its negotiations with those groups during the year and again did not submit any agreements to parliament for approval.

According to leaders of the Rome Islamic Cultural Center, the government did not make significant progress on an accord in its dialogue with Muslim religious communities.  The MOI legally recognized as a religious entity only the Cultural Islamic Center of Italy, which ran the Great Mosque of Rome.  The government recognized other Muslim Islamic groups only as nonprofit organizations.

Muslims continued to encounter difficulties acquiring permission from local governments to construct mosques.  There were five mosques regional governments and Muslim religious authorities both recognized, one each in Ravenna, Rome, Colle Val d’Elsa in Tuscany, Milan, and Forli in Emilia-Romagna.  In addition, there were many sites recognized as places of worship by local governments but not considered fully-fledged mosques by Muslim authorities because they lacked minarets or other key architectural features.  There were more than 800 unofficial, informal places of worship for Muslims, known colloquially as “garage” mosques.  Authorities tolerated most of these but did not officially recognize them as places of worship.

On March 12, the Latium regional court ordered the closure of a garage mosque in Rome on the grounds that the venue was only authorized to host a workshop.  The Muslim community that worshipped in the garage mosque initiated talks with local authorities to identify a viable alternative.  At year’s end authorities had not identified such a venue.

On July 15, the local Muslim community in Empoli, Tuscany inaugurated a new place of worship with a capacity of 250 worshippers.  While local government authorities had issued a permit for use of the venue as a place of worship, both they and Muslim religious authorities stated it did not meet all requirements of a proper mosque, such as having a minaret.

Local officials, who were entitled to introduce rules on planning applicable to places of worship, continued to cite a lack of zoning plans allowing for the establishment of places of worship on specific sites as a reason for denying construction permits.  Although municipalities could and did withhold construction permits for other religious groups, Muslim leaders – for example, Rosario Paquini Shaykh, Deputy Chairman of the Islamic Center of Milan and Lombardy – said the shortage of formal places of worship was most acute for Muslims.

On June 6, Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala presented a plan on religious infrastructure proposing the regularization of four existing Muslim places of worship that lacked legal status and the allocation of an additional 18 sites to non-Catholic religious groups.  The city was to assign three of these to evangelical churches, and two to Coptic Orthodox churches.  In addition, the city was to assign six sites to the Catholic Church to establish churches in newly built neighborhoods.  Information as to the implementation of the plan was unavailable at year’s end.

Local politicians from conservative parties, including Jacopo Alberti, a Lombardy Regional Councilor of the League Party, expressed concerns over Muslim community proposals to build new mosques.  On September 11, League members of the Lombardy Regional Council and other center-right parties passed a motion urging the regional government to conduct a census of Islamic places of worship, install camcorders in them, and monitor the texts used and sermons delivered therein.  The same regional council members joined with members of the Five Star Movement, a political party, to pass a resolution calling on the regional government to adopt a law prohibiting the regularization of existing unauthorized places of worship.  Neither resolution was binding on the Lombardy government.

On October 8, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy accepted an appeal by the Muslim community of Varese of a denial of a permit to build a mosque in Sesto Calende.  The regional court issued a ruling that did not overturn the denial but requested the Constitutional Court to re-examine the constitutionality of a 2015 amendment to a local law that did not impose any deadline on local authorities to decide where religious communities might open a place of worship.  According to the Lombardy court, the lack of a deadline might violate “the right of freedom of religion” guaranteed by the constitution.  At year’s end the Supreme Court had not decided whether to hear the case on the constitutionality of the local law.

On March 10, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy annulled the 2017 decision of the City Council of Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan, blocking the construction of an Islamic cultural center and mosque on the grounds that the center did not comply with all the requirements agreed to by the city council and the Muslim community.  In April local authorities appealed the regional court’s ruling to the Council of State (Italy’s highest administrative court), which conducted a preliminary review of the case on August 1 but postponed a final ruling until 2019.  At year’s end the construction of the cultural center and mosque remained suspended pending resolution of the case.

In October, according to press reports, League leaders denied the Bergamo Muslim Association permission to purchase a chapel in Bergamo at auction, despite theirs being the highest offer.  The group outbid the Romanian Orthodox Church, which had been using the building for religious services.  Lombardy President and League official Attilio Fontana said the Lombardy Region would exercise its right of first refusal and acquire the chapel instead.  Fontana said there would be no appeal.  League leader Salvini said in a statement, “Centuries of history risk disappearing if Islamization, which up until now has been underestimated, gains the upper hand.”

On August 27, the Regional Administrative Court of Lombardy upheld the September 2017 order of the Mayor of Cantu, Edgardo Arosio, (League Party), barring worship in a warehouse bought by a Muslim association, Assalam, in 2017.  According to the ruling, the association had stated that it would only carry out cultural activities in the facility, but the court verified unauthorized religious activities had taken place.

On July 31, Bologna Mayor Virginio Merola issued a decree granting a Muslim association the right to use a piece of land, on which it had already established an Islamic cultural center, for 99 years.  Leading League politicians, such as League head Salvini, opposed the decision.  On social media, Salvini called the mayor’s decision “crazy.”

A request for authorization to construct a new mosque the Muslim community in Pisa submitted to the local administration in December 2017 remained pending with Pisa authorities at year’s end.  The Muslim community submitted the request after the city’s former mayor refused to hold a referendum on the matter.

Pursuant to a December 2017 agreement between the local Muslim community and the City of Florence, Florence University, and the Catholic Church on the construction of a new mosque in Sesto Fiorentino, the Catholic Church sold a piece of land to the Muslim association to establish a mosque next to a new center for religious activities that the diocese would build.  At year’s end, however, the local Muslim community had not built the mosque and was operating in a temporary place of worship.

The mosque the Muslim community of Thiene had been building since receiving a building permit in 2015 from the Veneto regional government remained unfinished, reportedly because of insufficient funds.

At year’s end the city of Mestre had not authorized the Muslim community to open a new mosque there as the city pledged to do after the municipal government, citing a lack of permits, closed down a garage mosque in April 2017.

Local governments continued to rent out public land at discounted rates to religious groups, usually Catholic, for constructing places of worship.  Government funding also helped preserve and maintain historic places of worship, which were almost all Catholic.

In June the government sponsored the visit by a group of 50 Moroccan theologians and imams to more than 50 Muslim congregations in the Piedmont Region to discuss religious education and ways for Muslim immigrants to interact with, and integrate into, local society while preserving Muslim values.  The Moroccan Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Turin-based Italian Islamic Confederation trained the visiting clerics, in cooperation with the MOI and Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  The visit concluded with a Quran recitation contest in Turin.

Politicians from several political parties, including the League, Brothers of Italy, and CasaPound, again made statements critical of Islam.  On February 7, League leader Salvini said, “The problem with Islam is that it is a law, not a religion, and is incompatible with our values, rights, and freedoms.”  On February 8, Giorgia Meloni, president of the Brothers of Italy Party, concurred with Salvini, adding on social media, “We can’t deny there is a process of Islamization going on in Europe.  Islam is incompatible with our values, civilization, and culture.”  Al Jazeera reported that during the campaign for the March parliamentary election Salvini said, “Islam is incompatible with the constitution.”  The news service cited Mohamed Ben Mohamed, Imam of al-Huda in Centocelle, one of the largest unrecognized mosques in Rome, as stating, “During the election campaign, Salvini said he would close mosques and not allow any new ones to open….There’s no regulation for places of worship, the law remains vague, and every municipality interprets it its own way.”

As chair of the OSCE during the year, the country hosted several events promoting religious and ethnic tolerance.  In January it hosted a conference on combating anti-Semitism that brought together representatives from government, civil society, and religious communities from across Europe.  Conference participants agreed to strengthen their efforts to combat anti-Semitism throughout the continent through government-led public information campaigns, interfaith dialogue, and greater security measures for Jewish communities.  To commemorate the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, President Sergio Mattarella hosted a ceremony in which he stressed the need to remain vigilant against the return of “the ghosts of the past.”  On January 18 and 19, Minister of Education Valeria Fedeli accompanied a group of 100 students to visit Auschwitz in cooperation with the Union of Italian Jewish communities (UCEI).

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Contrary to previous years, the government did not issue statistics on religiously motivated incidents.  The Anti-Semitism Observatory of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center Foundation (CDEC), an NGO, recorded 185 incidents of anti-Semitism, compared with 130 in 2017.  Reports of anti-Semitic incidents published on CDEC’s website included discrimination, verbal harassment, particularly at soccer matches and other sporting events, online hate speech, and derogatory graffiti.  Internet hate speech and bullying were the most common forms of anti-Semitic incidents, according to CDEC, which continued to operate an anti-Semitism hotline for victims of, and witnesses to, anti-Semitic incidents.  The NGO Communities of the Arab World in Italy reported a 35 percent increase in incidents against Muslims in schools, hospitals, and on public transport in 2017, the most recent year for which data were available, compared to the previous year, but it did not provide details on the total number or types of incidents.

Noemi Di Segni, President of UCEI, urged authorities “to pay attention to all forms of radicalization of anti-Semitism.”  During a meeting to mark the 80th anniversary of the Fascist-era “racial” laws, Ruth Dureghello, President of Rome’s Jewish community, stated, “anti-Semitism is resurfacing and should be combated with all means.”

In September Yassine Lafram, who was elected President of the Union of Islamic Organizations and Communities in Italy in July, told Al Jazeera that “On social media, messages, Facebook pages, and groups are increasingly aggressive against migration and Islamic culture,” and expressed concern that “words may turn into the actions of a few people.”

In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 682 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Italy responded to the online survey.  Nineteen percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 25 percent reported being harassed over the same period.  Seventeen percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 81 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.

On April 20, in Veggia di Casalgrande in the Province of Reggio Emilia, unknown persons left a pig’s head in front of the entrance to a facility the Islamic Cultural Association of Sassuolo had purchased for the purpose of establishing a place of worship.  Commenting on the plan to establish a place of worship there, the local Catholic priest said that a mosque “would attract more Muslims,” and result in social tensions.  He added, “Islamic culture is deeply intertwined with religion, it is not like ours.  Let’s build flats for the poor instead.”

On January 25, the National Soccer Federation fined Rome soccer club Lazio 50,000 euros ($57,300) for an October 2017 incident in which far-right Lazio fans placed anti-Semitic stickers depicting Anne Frank wearing the jersey of city rivals AS Roma in Rome’s Olympic Stadium.  The federation did not impose the additional penalty, which the prosecutor had requested, of barring Lazio fans from attending two team games.

In October the press reported the Kempinski Hotel in Venice suspended an employee for anti-Semitic comments made on Facebook, and a hotel in Pavia suspended an employee over the summer for anti-Semitic comments he made in an email exchange with customers.

Amnesty International reported that, of 787 instances of hate speech on social media during the three weeks of the 2018 national electoral campaign in February and March, approximately 11 percent contained anti-Islamic messages.

The press reported examples of anti-Semitic graffiti and posters, including depictions of swastikas on walls, anti-Semitic stereotypes, and praise of neo-Nazi groups in cities such as Rome, Milan, and Pisa.  On September 12, authorities found swastikas and other anti-Semitic graffiti, including insults against Jews, at the entrance of a theater in Pisa.  On September 6, police found a graffito reading, “Jews should burn,” in front of a school in the outskirts of San Benedetto del Tronto.  On February 28, five slogans were discovered on walls in Cesiomaggiore, in the province of Belluno.  One of them read, “Jews, we will reopen the ovens.  Free Palestine.”

According to representatives of the Jewish community, some Jewish residents believed many of the new Muslim arrivals from Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East faced hardships integrating into Italian society and were susceptible to anti-Semitic propaganda, especially in the outskirts of big cities, where they said some far-right groups were already spreading such messages.

On June 12, unknown individuals left a graffito reading, “this is a Jewish shop” on the shutters of a shop owned by a Jewish family in San Maurizio Canavese, near Turin.  In addition, a car was set on fire near the vandalized shop.  Authorities said they believed the two incidents were connected.  On January 25, authorities in Florence found a flagstone commemorating victims of the Holocaust overturned and damaged.  On December 10, authorities in Rome discovered 20 commemorative cobblestones had been stolen from a street in front of a house where Jewish deportees had lived during World War II.  Police had not identified any suspects at year’s end.  Other cases of vandalism included the theft of commemorative stones or plaques dedicated to victims of the Holocaust.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Representatives from the U.S. embassy and consulates general met with representatives of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, the Ministry of Interior, and local government officials in Rome, Sicily, Naples, Milan, Turin, Bologna, Florence, Modena, Reggio Emilia, and Pisa to discuss the establishment of new places of worship as requested by religious groups, relations between the government and Muslim religious communities, anti-Semitic incidents, and assistance in tracing the contents of the Jewish communal library of Rome, which the Nazis looted in 1943.  During these meetings, embassy and government officials also discussed integration of asylum seekers and migrants, many of whom were Muslim, Orthodox, or Hindu.

The U.S. embassy and consulates general and visiting Department of State officials met with the Muslim and Jewish communities to stress the importance of interfaith dialogue and to share U.S. best practices regarding education, integration of second generation Muslims, and social media networking.

U.S. embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet with representatives of civil society groups, including Caritas, Sant’Egidio, and Anolf, as well as Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish leaders in cities throughout the country.  The U.S. officials urged the social inclusion of immigrants, many of whom were Muslim, and dialogue among various religious groups, and monitored groups’ ability to practice their religion freely.

In June the embassy organized a series of meetings for U.S. NGO Welcoming America and U.S. local government officials, who engaged with national and local authorities and ethnic and religious leaders and gave presentations on their activities aimed at engaging local governments, businesses, and civil society groups to support immigrants and refugees of various ethnic backgrounds and religious faiths and promote participation in the development of their communities.

In January the embassy invited a U.S. policy expert to discuss inclusive educational polices in the United States for persons with different religious backgrounds and the role of schools and communities in fostering integration.

Embassy officials met with the president of UCEI and Rome Jewish community leaders to discuss how to support their efforts to counter anti-Semitism among far-right groups and civil society.

In September the embassy sponsored the participation of a Muslim trainee lawyer in criminal law and immigration law in a program in the United States on American Pluralism – Politics, Policy, Economics.  In September the embassy invited a community activist responsible for interreligious dialogue and youth affairs from a provincial Islamic federation to participate in a program in the United States on empowering youth leaders from the Near East and North Africa.

On June 3, the embassy hosted an iftar inviting Muslim communities, including the leaders of the largest religious confederations, young activists, and members of other organizations working on integration programs.  Participants engaged in a discussion of religious freedom in the country.

Jordan

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam the religion of the state but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination based on religion.  The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  According to the constitution, matters concerning the personal and family status of Muslims come under the jurisdiction of sharia courts, while six of the 11 recognized Christian groups have religious courts to address such matters for their members.  The government continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  In December the attorney general ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released the two men two days later.  The government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require preachers to refrain from political commentary and stick to approved themes and texts during Friday sermons.  An official committee chaired by the grand mufti regulated which Islamic clerics could issue fatwas.  Converts to Christianity from Islam reported that security officials continued to question them to determine their true religious beliefs and practices.  Members of unregistered groups continued to face problems registering their marriages, the religious affiliation of their children, and renewing their residency permits.  Security forces increased their presence in and protection of Christian areas, especially during special events and holidays, following an August 10 attack targeting security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian city of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of a government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for worshippers.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continued online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and moderates, frequently through social media.  Social media users also defended interfaith tolerance, condemning videos and online posts that criticized Christianity or tried to discourage interfaith dialogue.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam continued to report ostracism as well as physical and verbal abuse from their families and communities, and some converts worshipped in secret as a result of the social stigma they faced.  The government did not prosecute converts from Islam for apostasy, but some reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels to support the rights of religious minorities to practice their faiths freely and to promote interfaith tolerance, raising issues such as the renewal of residency permits for religious volunteers.  The Charge and other embassy officers met with Muslim scholars and Christian community leaders to encourage interfaith dialogue.  The embassy supported exchange programs promoting religious tolerance as well as civil society programs to preserve the cultural heritage of religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.5 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims, virtually all of whom are Sunni, make up 97.2 percent of the population and Christians 2.2 percent.  Groups constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Baha’is, Hindus, and Druze (who are considered Muslim by the government).  These estimates do not include migrant workers or refugees.  According to the Ministry of Labor (MOL), there are approximately 670,000 migrant workers in the country, mostly from Egypt, South and East Asia, and Africa.  Migrant workers from Africa and South and East Asia are often Hindu or Christian.  There are more than 757,000 refugees in the country registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees from 57 countries of origin, including approximately 670,000 Syrians and 67,000 Iraqis.  The Syrian and Iraqi refugee populations are mostly Sunni Muslim.  Shia Muslims and Christians account for less than one third of the Iraqi refugee population.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam “the religion of the state” but safeguards “the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites” as long as these are consistent with public order and morality.  The constitution stipulates there shall be no discrimination in the rights and duties of citizens on grounds of religion.  It states the king must be a Muslim.  The constitution allows for religious courts, including sharia courts for Muslims and courts for non-Muslim for religious communities recognized by the government.

The constitution does not address the right to convert to another faith, nor are there penalties under civil law for doing so.  The constitution and the law, however, allow sharia courts to determine civil status affairs for Muslims and allow these courts to prohibit Muslims from converting to another religion.  Under sharia, converts from Islam are still considered Muslims and are subject to sharia but are regarded as apostates.  Neither the penal code nor the criminal code specifies a penalty for apostasy.  Sharia courts, however, have jurisdiction over marriage, divorce, and inheritance, and individuals declared to be apostates may have their marriages annulled or be disinherited, except in the presence of a will that states otherwise.  Any member of society may file an apostasy complaint against such individuals before the Sharia Public Prosecution.  The Sharia Public Prosecution consults with the Council of Churches before converting a Christian to Islam, to avoid conversions for purposes of marriage and/or divorces only, and not religious conviction.  The penal code contains articles criminalizing acts such as incitement of hatred, blasphemy against Abrahamic faiths, undermining the regime, or portraying Jordanians in a manner that violates their dignity, according to government statements.

Authorities may prosecute individuals who proselytize Muslims under the penal code’s provisions against “inciting sectarian conflict” or “harming the national unity.”  Although these prosecutions may occur in the State Security Court, cases are usually tried in other courts.  Both of these offenses are punishable by imprisonment of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 Jordanian dinars ($71).

Islamic religious groups are granted recognition through the constitution and do not need to register.  Non-Islamic religious groups must obtain official recognition through registration.  If registered as “denominations,” they may administer rites such as marriage (there is no provision for civil marriage).  They may also own land, open bank accounts, and enter into contracts.  Religious groups may also be registered as “associations” and if so, they must work through a recognized denomination on matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but may own property and open bank accounts.  They must obtain government approval to accept foreign funding.  Recognized non-Islamic religious groups are tax exempt but do not receive the government subsidies granted to Islamic religious groups.

Nonrecognized religious groups lack legal status and may not undertake basic administrative tasks such as opening bank accounts, purchasing real estate, or hiring staff.  Individuals may exercise such activities and as such may designate an individual to perform these functions on behalf of the unrecognized group, however.  To register as a recognized religious group, the group must submit its bylaws, a list of its members, its budget, and information about its religious doctrine.  In determining whether to register or recognize Christian groups, the prime minister confers with the minister of the interior and the Council of Church Leaders (CCL), a government advisory body comprising the heads of the country’s 11 officially recognized Christian denominations.  The government also refers to the following criteria when considering recognition of Christian groups:  the group’s teachings must not contradict the nature of the constitution, public ethics, customs, or traditions; the Middle East Council of Churches, a regional body comprising four families of churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant/Evangelical), must recognize it; its religious doctrine must not be antagonistic to Islam as the state religion; and the group’s membership must meet a minimum number of citizens, although a precise figure is not specified.

The law lists 11 officially recognized Christian religious groups:  Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Anglican, Maronite Catholic, Lutheran, Syrian Orthodox, Seventh-day Adventist, United Pentecostal, and Coptic.  In 2018, five additional evangelical Christian denominations, formerly registered under the Ministry of Justice, were recognized by the Ministry of Interior as well, but have not been permitted to establish a court:  the Free Evangelical Church, Nazarene Church, Assemblies of God, Christian and Missionary Alliance, and Baptists.  The government has continued to deny official recognition to some religious groups, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The government granted legal status to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2018.

The CCL consists of the heads of the country’s 11 historically recognized Christian denominations and serves as an administrative body to facilitate tax and customs exemptions, as well as the issuance of civil documents (marriage or inheritance).  In other matters, such as issuing work permits or purchasing land, the denominations interact directly with the relevant ministries.  Religious groups that do not have representatives on the CCL handle administrative tasks through the ministry relevant to the task.  Nonrecognized Christian groups do not have representatives on the CCL, have no legal status as entities, and must have individual members of their groups conduct business with the government on their behalf.

According to the constitution, a special provision of the law regulates the activities and administration of finances of the Islamic awqaf (religious endowments).  Per this provision of the law, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs manages mosques, including appointing imams, paying mosque staff salaries, managing Islamic clergy training centers, and subsidizing certain mosque-sponsored activities, such as holiday celebrations and religious observances.  Other Islamic institutions are the Supreme (Sharia) Justice Department, which is headed by the Office of the Supreme (Sharia) Justice (OSJ) and is in charge of the sharia courts, and the General Ifta’ Department, which issues fatwas.

Since 2017, the government requires imams to adhere to officially prescribed themes and texts for Friday sermons.  According to the law, Muslim clergy who do not follow government policy may be suspended, issued a written warning, banned from delivering Friday sermons for a certain period, or dismissed from Ministry of Awqaf employment.  In addition to these administrative measures, a preacher who violates the law may be imprisoned for a period of one week to one month, or be given a fine not to exceed 20 dinars ($28).

The law forbids any Islamic cleric from issuing a fatwa unless officially authorized by an official committee headed by the grand mufti in the General Ifta’ Department.  This department is independent from the Ministry of Awqaf with the rank of mufti being equal to that of a minister.

The law prohibits the publication of media items that slander or insult “founders of religion or prophets” or are deemed contemptuous of “any of the religions whose freedom is protected by the constitution,” and imposes a fine on violators of up to 20,000 dinars ($28,200).

By law, public schools provide Islamic religious instruction as part of the basic national curriculum; non-Muslim students are allowed to opt out.  Private schools may offer alternative religious instruction.  The constitution provides “congregations” (a term not defined in the constitution, but legally including religious groups recognized as denominations and associations) with the right to establish their own schools provided “they comply with the general provisions of the law and are subject to the control of government in matters relating to their curricula and orientation.”  In order to operate a school, religious institutions must receive permission from the Ministry of Education, which ensures the curriculum meets national standards.  The Ministry of Education does not oversee religious courses if religious groups offer them at their places of worship.  In several cities, recognized Christian groups – including Baptists, Orthodox, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics – operate private schools and are able to conduct classes on Christianity.  The schools are open to adherents of all religions.

Knowledge of the Quran is required by law for Muslim students in both public and private schools, but it is optional for non-Muslims.  Every student, however, must pass an Arabic language exam in his or her final year of high school, which includes linguistic mastery of some verses of the Quran.  Islamic religion is an optional subject for university entrance exams for non-Muslim students following the standard curriculum or for Muslim students following international curricula.

The constitution specifies the judiciary shall be divided into civil courts, religious courts, and special courts, with religious courts divided into sharia courts and tribunals of other recognized religious communities.  According to the constitution, matters concerning personal status, which include religious affiliation, marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are under the jurisdiction of religious courts.  Matters of personal status in which the parties are Muslim fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  A personal or family status case in which one party is Muslim and the other is non-Muslim is heard by a civil court unless both parties agree to use a sharia court.  Per the constitution, matters of personal status of non-Muslims whose religion the government officially recognizes are under the jurisdiction of denomination-specific courts of religious communities.  Such courts exist for the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic, Syrian Orthodox, and Anglican communities.  According to the law, members of recognized denominations lacking their own courts must take their cases to civil courts, which, in principle, follow the rules and beliefs of the litigants’ denomination in deciding cases, unless both parties to a case agree to use a specific religious court.  There are no tribunals for atheists or adherents of nonrecognized religious groups.  Such individuals must request a civil court to hear their case.

The OSJ appoints sharia judges, while each recognized non-Muslim religious community selects the structure and members of its own tribunal.  The law stipulates the cabinet must ratify the procedures of each non-Muslim religious (known as ecclesiastical) courts.  All judicial nominations must be approved by a royal decree.

According to the constitution, sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with respect to cases concerning “blood money” (diya) in which the two parties are Muslims or one of the parties is not a Muslim and the two parties consent to the jurisdiction of the sharia courts.  Sharia courts also exercise jurisdiction with regard to matters pertaining to Islamic awqaf.  Muslims are also subject to the jurisdiction of sharia courts on civil matters not addressed by civil status legislation.

Sharia courts do not recognize converts from Islam as falling under the jurisdiction of their new religious community’s laws in matters of personal status.  Sharia court judges may annul the marriages of converts and transfer child custody to a Muslim nonparent family member or declare the children “wards of the state” and convey an individual’s property rights to Muslim family members.

According to sharia, marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man are not permitted; the man must convert to Islam for the marriage to be considered legal.  If a Christian woman converts to Islam while married to a Christian man, her husband must also convert for their marriage to remain legal.  There is no legal provision for civil marriage or divorce for members of nonrecognized religious groups.  Members of nonregistered Christian groups, as well as members of groups registered as associations, may obtain marriage certificates from any recognized Christian denomination such as the Anglican Church, which they then may take to the Civil Status Bureau to receive their government marriage certificates.

Sharia governs all matters relating to family law involving Muslims or the children of a Muslim father.  Historically, if a Muslim husband and non-Muslim wife divorce, the wife loses custody of the children when they reach seven years of age.  In December an amendment to the Personal Status Law was passed, stipulating that mothers should retain custody of their children until age 18.  The new amendment contains no mention of religious affiliation.  Minor children of male citizens who convert to Islam are considered Muslims and are not legally allowed to reconvert to their father’s prior religion or convert to any other religion.  In accordance with sharia, adult children of a man who has converted to Islam become ineligible to inherit from their father if they do not also convert to Islam, unless the father’s will states otherwise.  All citizens, including non-Muslims, are subject to Islamic legal provisions regarding inheritance if no equivalent inheritance guidelines are codified in their religion or if the state does not recognize their religion.

National identification cards issued since May 2016 do not list religion, but religious affiliation is contained in records embedded in the card’s electronic chip and remains on file in other government records.  Passports issued since May 2016 do not list religion.  Atheists and agnostics must list the religious affiliation of their families as their own.  Per the ban on conversion from Islam under sharia, converts from Islam to Christianity are not allowed to change their religion on the electronic records.  Converts from Christianity to Islam may change their religion on their civil documents such as family books (a national registration record issued to every head of family), and on electronic records.

According to the electoral law, Christians are allocated nine out of 130 parliamentary seats or 6.9 percent.  Christians may not run for additional seats.  No seats are reserved for adherents of other minority religious groups.  The government classifies Druze as Muslims and permits them to hold office.

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

Government Practices

On December 10, the Attorney General ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel and an editor working at his website, Al-Wakeel News, for posting on Facebook a cartoon deemed offensive to Jesus.  Authorities charged the men with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife per the article of the penal code stipulating hate speech, as well as with violations of the cybercrimes law and the press and publications law.  The cartoon, posted on December 8, depicted Turkish chef “Salt Bae” – real name Nusret Gokce – sprinkling salt on the food at the Last Supper of Jesus.  Social media users commented to the website that the drawing was religiously insensitive and would cause strife between Muslims and Christians in the country.  The post was taken down a few hours later, and al-Wakeel published an apology to the public.  Authorities released Al-Wakeel and the editor, Ghadeer Rbeihat, two days later.

Converts to Islam from Christianity continued to report security officials questioning them about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as surveillance, as part of the government’s effort to prevent conversions of convenience for the purpose of receiving advantageous divorce or inheritance benefits.  Some converts to Christianity from Islam reported they continued to worship in secret to avoid scrutiny by security officials.  Because of the ban on conversion under sharia, government officials generally refused to change religion listed on official documents from Islam to any other religion.  Accordingly, the converts’ religious practice did not match their official religion, opening them up to claims of apostasy and personal status issues involving marriage, divorce, and inheritance.  During the year, several adult Christians reported discovering that because of a parent’s subsequent conversion to Islam, the individuals had been automatically re-registered as Muslims in some government files, leading to inconsistencies in their records and causing bureaucratic obstacles and administrative holdups when trying to apply for marriage licenses or register for university.

Members of religious groups who were unable to obtain religious divorces converted to another Christian denomination or to Islam to divorce legally, according to reports from religious leaders and the Ministry of Justice.  The chief of the OSJ reportedly continued to try to ensure that Christians wanting to convert to Islam did not have a pending divorce case at one of the Christian religious courts to prevent them from converting for the sole purpose of obtaining a legal divorce.  The OSJ reportedly continued to enforce the interview requirement, introduced in 2017, for converts to Islam to determine whether their conversion reflected a genuine religious belief.

According to journalists who cover religious topics, the government continued to monitor sermons at mosques and to require that preachers refrain from political commentary, which the government deemed could instigate social or political unrest, and to counter radicalization.  Authorities continued to disseminate themes and required imams to choose from a list of recommended texts for sermons.  Imams who violated these rules continued to risk being fined or banned from preaching.  According to the grand mufti, the Ministry of Awqaf discovered some unregistered imams leading prayers in mosques during the year.  In these cases, the government ordered all attendees and imams to cease their activities and gather in a designated mosque in their area for the Friday sermons led by a registered imam.  In light of concerns expressed by religious minorities regarding intolerant preaching by some Muslims, the government called for the consolidation of Friday prayers into central mosques over which they had more oversight.  There continued to be unofficial mosques operating outside Ministry of Awqaf control in many cities, as well as imams outside of government employment who preached without Ministry of Awqaf supervision.

In March the government began enforcing a new residency policy enacted in October 2017 to limit the ability of churches to sponsor religious volunteers for residency, suggesting that the volunteers were illegally proselytizing Muslims.  Authorities previously allowed the churches to obtain residency status for religious volunteers with the approval of the Ministry of Interior and a letter of sponsorship from the church.  Volunteers must now obtain additional approvals, including the MOL, lengthening the average renewal process by several months.

The government policy of not recognizing the Baha’i Faith continued, but the government continued to allow Baha’is to practice their religion and included them in interfaith events.  Sharia courts and the courts of other recognized religions continued not to issue to Baha’is the marriage certificates required to transfer citizenship to a foreign spouse or to register for government health insurance and social security.  The Department of Civil Status and Passports also continued not to recognize marriages conducted by Baha’i assemblies, but it issued family books to Baha’is, allowing them to register their children, except in cases of marriages between a Baha’i man and a Baha’i woman erroneously registered as Muslim.  In those cases, the children were considered illegitimate and were not issued birth certificates or included in the family and subsequently were unable to obtain citizenship or register for school.  The Baha’is were able to obtain some documents such as marriage certificates through the civil courts, although they reportedly were required to pay fees which sometimes amounted to more than 500 dinars ($710) for documents normally available for five dinars ($7) through religious courts.

Other nonrecognized religious groups reported they continued to operate schools and hospitals, and also to hold services and meetings if they were low profile.

According to observers, recognized Christian denominations with the rights and privileges associated with membership in the CCL guarded this status, and continued to foster a degree of competition among other religious groups hoping to attain membership.  Despite efforts to alter their status, some evangelical Christian groups remained unrecognized either as denominations or as associations.  Leaders from some CCL-affiliated churches continued to say that there were “recruitment efforts” against their members by evangelical churches and that evangelical churches were disrupting interfaith harmony and the CCL’s relationship with the government and security services.

Some Christian leaders continued to express concern the CCL did not meet regularly and lacked the capacity to manage the affairs of both recognized and nonrecognized Christian groups effectively and fairly, especially in relation to their daily lives.  Most CCL leaders remained based in Jerusalem.

Security forces confirmed they devoted extra resources to protect Christian neighborhoods and churches for holidays and special events, increasing security even further after an August 10 attack targeting Jordanian security forces near a music festival outside the predominantly Christian town of Fuhais.  Christian leaders said they regarded this presence as part of the government effort to provide additional security at public gathering places, including security for religious worshippers.  The church leaders stated they especially appreciated the extra protection during religious holidays and large events.

Druze continued to worship at and socialize in buildings belonging to the Druze community.  The government continued to record Druze as Muslims on civil documents identifying the bearer’s religious affiliation, without public objection from the Druze.  Religious minorities, including Christians and Druze, served in parliament and as cabinet ministers.  Druze continued to report discrimination in reaching high positions in government and official departments.

The government continued to permit non-Muslim members of the armed forces to practice their religion.  Christians and Druze achieved general officer rank in the military, but Muslims continued to hold most senior positions across the security and intelligence services.

Members of non-Muslim religious groups continued to report occasional threats by the government to arrest them for violating the public order if they proselytized Muslims.  Security officials continued to refuse to renew residency permits for some foreign religious leaders and religious volunteers living in the country after raising concerns their activities could incite extremist attacks.  Others were refused on the basis of proselytization accusations and additional requirements were imposed on residency renewals for religious volunteers in general.

There continued to be two recognized Baha’i cemeteries registered in the name of the Baha’i Faith through a special arrangement previously agreed between the group and the government.  Baha’i leaders reported they continued to be unable to register other properties under the name of the Baha’i Faith but remained able to register property under the names of individual Baha’is.  In doing so, the Baha’i leaders said, they continued to have to pay new registration fees whenever they transferred property from one person to another at the death of the registered owner, a process constituting a large financial burden.

The Ministry of Education did not undertake school curriculum revisions during the year, following a rolling back of curriculum revisions that met with resistance in 2017.  Intended to promote tolerance, parents and teachers’ groups stated that the changes were distancing students from Islamic values and promoted normalization of relations with Israel.  The curriculum continued the past practice of omitting mention of the Holocaust.

In August amendments to the cybercrimes law were introduced to parliament including increased penalties for a broadened definition of online hate speech, defined as “any statement or act that would provoke religious, sectarian, ethnic, or regional sedition; calling for violence and justifying it; or spreading rumors against people with the aim of causing them, as a result, physical harm or damage to their assets or reputation.”  After sustained public protest, the amendments were withdrawn and re-submitted to parliament with a tighter definition that excluded mention of religion.  The new amendment, still under consideration by parliament at the end of the year, defines hate speech as “any statement or act intended to provoke “sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.”

In June the Templeton Foundation announced that King Abdullah would receive the 2018 Templeton Prize, which honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.  In the award announcement, the foundation said the king “has done more to seek religious harmony within Islam and between Islam and other religions than any other living political leader.”  The king received the award in a ceremony at the Washington National Cathedral on November 13.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Converts from Islam to Christianity reported continued social ostracism, threats, and physical and verbal abuse, including beatings, insults, and intimidation from family members, neighbors, and community or tribal members.  Some converts from Islam to Christianity reported they worshipped in secret because of the social stigma they faced as converts.  Some converts from Islam reported persistent and credible threats from family members concerned with protecting traditional honor.

Interfaith religious leaders reported continuing online hate speech directed towards religious minorities and those who advocated religious moderation, frequently through social media.  Mohammad Nuh al-Qudah, a member of parliament and prominent Muslim preacher, on his online television show criticized females, especially young women, who did not wear the hijab, calling them blasphemous and stupid.

There was also an uptick in hate speech in social media and in the press directed at the Jewish faith after the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Articles frequently appeared in mainstream media outlets such as Al Ghad that referred to Judaism in Arabic as “the heresy of the Zionist people,” described estimates of the number of Jews as fabricated, celebrated a perceived decline in the number of Jews, and ended with statements such as “the future is ours.”

Some social media users defended religious freedom, including a mostly critical reaction to al-Qudah’s remarks and calls for his show to be cancelled.  Thousands of Christians and Muslims also left comments online condemning a University of Jordan professor’s lecture in March which criticized the Bible along with the Christian and Jewish faiths.  Following this incident, which provoked condemnation from Speaker of Parliament Atef Tarawneh and other members of parliament, the professor ended his many-year practice of posting lectures online.   

Criticism online and in social media continued to target converts from Islam to other religions.  Religious minorities expressed concerns some Muslim leaders preached intolerance; Christians reported they self-segregated into Christian enclaves to escape social pressure and threats.

Church leaders continued to report incidents of violence and discrimination against religious converts and individuals in interfaith romantic relationships.  Some converts from Islam expressed interest in resettlement abroad due to discrimination and threats of violence.  Individuals in interfaith romantic relationships continued to report ostracism and, in some cases, feuds among family members and violence toward the individuals involved.

The Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center, Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute, Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center (JICRC), Community Ecumenical Center, and Catholic Center for Media Studies continued to sponsor initiatives promoting collaboration among religious groups.  In September the JICRC and National Council for Family Affairs hosted a Family and Societal Harmony Conference, which compared the family and institutional experiences of Muslims and Christians in Jordan and explored ways to work together to counter violence, extremism, and terrorism.  Baha’is continued to be included by other religious groups in interfaith conferences, religious celebrations, and World Interfaith Harmony Week in February, which included activities across the country and within the armed forces.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers continued to engage with government officials at all levels, including the minister of awqaf, the grand mufti, the minister of foreign affairs, and officials at the Royal Hashemite Court to raise the rights of religious minorities, the protection of cultural resources, interfaith tolerance, and the legal status of religious workers and volunteers.  In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith iftar during Ramadan with the expressed purpose of highlighting religious diversity, increasing engagement with civil society about tolerance and religious freedom, and building partnerships to advance minority rights.  The gathering brought together a diverse set of religious leaders including evangelical Christian pastors, the director of the Baha’i Faith Community, heads of interfaith cooperation nongovernmental organizations, sharia judges, and the grand mufti.

Embassy officers continued to meet frequently with representatives of religious communities, including nonrecognized groups, religious converts, and interfaith institutions such as the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, to discuss the ability to practice religion freely.  In September the embassy hosted the Jordanian delegation to the summer Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. to discuss follow-up from the conference and general religious freedom trends in the country.  Representatives from the embassy attended the JICRC’s conference on Societal Harmony and engaged with conference leaders on potential programmatic collaborations.

The embassy continued its sponsorship of the participation of religious scholars, teachers, and leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability.  In October the embassy granted a $750,000 award for a project to preserve religious and cultural heritage, focusing on protecting the country’s interfaith tradition and highlighting the heritage of religious minorities.  The nonprofit organization Search for Common Ground is scheduled to implement the project, building interfaith youth coalitions in six communities to promote and preserve religious heritage sites.

Latvia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides every person the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and specifies the separation of church and state.  By law, eight “traditional” religious groups receive rights and privileges other groups do not.  Three new religious groups registered during the year.  Pursuant to a Supreme Court ruling in April, religious groups registered in the country for less than 10 years no longer had to reregister every year.  The government again did not take any steps to restitute property to victims of Nazi persecution in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration.  Several senior politicians, including the president and prime minister, spoke against anti-Semitism during the year or participated in Holocaust memorial ceremonies.

On March 16, approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 veterans of the Nazi Waffen SS, five members of the All for Latvia Party, and a member of the National Alliance coalition, participated in the annual march for Latvian Legionnaires who fought alongside the Waffen SS against the Soviet Union in World War II (WWII).  Attendance was similar to recent years.  NGO Freedom House said support for the event continued to decline.  Police said they detained two persons protesting the march.  Various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, and politicians from the Latvian Russian Union, again condemned the march.  Jewish and Muslim groups again cited instances of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet.

The U.S. embassy engaged with government officials, including representatives from the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Office of the Ombudsman, Department of Religious Affairs, and parliamentarians on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education.  It also engaged with nongovernmental organization (NGO) MARTA and representatives of various religious groups, including Baptists, the Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, on the role they could play in promoting religious tolerance and acceptance in the country.  The embassy funded three projects designed to address Holocaust issues.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.9 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the Annual Report of Religious Organizations and their Activities published by the Ministry of Justice (MOJ), based on 2017 data, the largest religious groups are Lutheran (36 percent), Roman Catholic (19 percent), and Latvian Orthodox Christian (19 percent), the latter of which are predominantly native Russian speakers; 24 percent are unaffiliated with any religious group.  The Latvian Orthodox Church is a self-governing Eastern Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate.  The Central Statistical Bureau reported there are 4,721 persons who identify as Jewish, and the Council of Jewish Communities believes there are between 6,000 and 8,000 persons with Jewish heritage.  The Muslim community reports approximately 1,000 Muslims, while the MOJ’s report of religious organizations lists 198 Muslim community members in 15 congregations.  Other religious groups, which together constitute less than 5 percent of the population, include Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Old Believers, evangelical Christians, Methodists, Calvinists, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states everyone has the right to “freedom of thought, conscience, and religion,” and “the church shall be separate from the state.”  It allows restrictions on the expression of religious beliefs in order to protect public safety, welfare, morals, the democratic structure of the state, and others’ rights.  The law gives eight “traditional” religious groups – Lutherans, Catholics, Latvian Orthodox Christians, Old Believers, Baptists, Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jews – some rights and privileges not given to other religious groups, including the right to teach religion courses in public schools and the right to officiate at marriages without obtaining a civil marriage license from the MOJ.  These eight groups are also the only religious groups represented on the government’s Ecclesiastical Council, an advisory body established by law and chaired by the prime minister that meets on an ad hoc basis to comment and provide recommendations on religious issues.  These recommendations do not carry the force of law.

Separate laws define relations between the state and each of these eight groups.  The rights and activities of other religious groups are covered by one law on religious organizations.

Although the government does not require religious groups to register, the law accords registered religious groups a number of rights and privileges, including legal status to own property and conduct financial transactions, eligibility to apply for funds for religious building restoration, and tax deductions for donors.  Registration also allows religious groups to perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, and military units and to hold services in public places such as parks or public squares with the agreement of the local government.  The law accords the same rights and privileges to the eight traditional religious groups, which it treats as already registered.

Unregistered groups do not possess legal status and may not own property, conduct financial transactions, or receive tax-free donations.  They may not perform religious activities in hospitals, prisons, or military units, and generally may not hold worship services in public places without special permission.  The law stipulates fines if an unregistered group carries out any of these activities.

The law stipulates that, in order to register as a congregation, a religious group must have at least 20 members aged 18 or older.  Individuals with temporary residency status, such as asylum seekers and foreign diplomatic staff, may count as members for the purpose of registration only during the authorized period of their residency permits.  To apply, religious groups must submit statutes stipulating their aims and tasks; a list of all group members (full name, identification number, and signature); the names of the persons who will represent the religious organization; minutes of the meeting founding the group; confirmation that members voted on and approved the statutes; and a list of members of the audit committee (full name, identification number, and title).  The audit committee is responsible for preparing financial reports on the group and ensuring it adheres to its statutes.  The MOJ determines whether to register a religious group as a congregation.  The ministry may deny an application if it deems registration would threaten human rights, the democratic structure of the state, public safety, welfare, or morals.  Groups denied registration may appeal the decision in court.

Ten or more congregations – totaling at least 200 members – of the same faith or denomination, each with permanent registration status, may form a religious association or church.  Groups with religious association status, or status as a private society or foundation, may establish theological schools and monasteries.  The law does not permit simultaneous registration of more than one religious association of a single faith or denomination, or of more than one religious group with the same or similar name.  For example, the law prevents any association other than the Latvian Orthodox Church from registering with the word “orthodox” in its name.  Other Orthodox groups, such as Old Believers, are registered as separate religious associations.

In April the Constitutional Court ruled that the law requiring religious groups to reregister every year if they had been registered in the country for fewer than 10 years was unconstitutional.

According to the law, all traditional and registered religious organizations are required to submit an annual report to the MOJ by March 1 regarding their activities and goals.  They must also provide other data, including congregation size, number of clergy, number of weddings and other ceremonies performed, and details of group governance and financial status.

The law criminalizes hate speech and the incitement of hatred on the basis of religious affiliation but requires legal proof, determined at trial, of substantial harm for conviction.  Penalties range from community service to up to 10 years of imprisonment.  Committing a crime for religious reasons may also be considered an aggravating factor at trial.

The government funds required religion and ethics classes in public schools in first through third grade.  The school must receive the approval of the parents of at least 10 students in order to hold religion classes in any of the eight traditional groups; if such approval is not obtained or if they prefer not to enroll in religion classes, students take courses on general ethics.  The Center for Educational Content at the Ministry of Education must review the content of the classes to verify they do not violate freedom of conscience.  Starting in fourth grade, religious subjects are incorporated into elective ethics and social science classes.  If there is demand, schools are permitted to teach classes on the history of religion.  Students at state-supported national minority schools may attend classes on a voluntary basis on the religion “characteristic of the national minority.”  Other nontraditional religious groups without their own state-supported minority schools may provide religious education only in private schools.  Religion courses in public schools range from doctrinal instruction by church-approved government-certified instructors (usually at the lower grades), to nondenominational Christian teachings or overviews of major world religions by certified teachers who are proposed by a religious group, and approved by the Ministry of Education (usually at higher grades).

The law establishes an independent ombudsman’s office for human rights.  Its mandate includes helping to resolve cases of religious discrimination through collaboration with authorities.  While it does not have enforcement powers, it can issue recommendations to specific authorities.  Parliament appoints the ombudsman.

The law stipulates foreign missionaries may be issued a residency permit, hold meetings, and proselytize only if a registered domestic religious group invites them to conduct such activities.  Visa regulations require foreign religious workers to present letters of invitation, typically from a religious organization, and either an ordination certificate or evidence of religious education that corresponds to a local bachelor’s degree in theology.  Religious workers from EU or Schengen countries do not require visas.

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

Government Practices

The MOJ approved the applications of three religious groups that applied to register for the first time:  evangelical Christian Church Kingdom of God, spiritual center Rebirth, and evangelical Christian Church Grace of Christ.

Pursuant to the Constitutional Court’s ruling, effective in April, religious groups registered in the country for fewer than 10 years no longer had to register every year.  In December parliament amended the law on religious organizations to bring it into compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling.

The government again did not take any steps to restitute property in accordance with the 2009 Terezin Declaration, which called for measures to provide assistance, redress, and remembrance for victims of Nazi persecution.  There continued to be differing views among the government and Jewish community groups about the number of properties that remained to be restituted.  Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics told media in May restitution of Jewish property remained on the agenda and would be addressed in the next parliament, elected in October.

According to a report on the country issued in 2018 by the NGO National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry (NCSEJ), the government had made significant progress in recognizing Jewish issues and commemorating the Holocaust, adding that problems remained with regard to property restitution and vandalism of Jewish sites.

Authorities continued to monitor Muslim activities according to the annual report of the security police.  In November Islamic Cultural Centre in Latvia (ICCL) leader Janis Hamza Lucins stated privately he had had no negative interaction with the security police during the year and was unaware of any actual or threatened violence against the Muslim community by government actors or private individuals during the same period.  In October Muslim community leader Zufars Zainullins said privately he did not view government monitoring of Muslims to be discriminatory or a violation of their rights.

The new prayer center of the ICCL remained unopened.  ICCL leader Lucins stated the ICCL was not currently focused on opening the new prayer center and had no timeline for opening the facility.  Lucins and Muslim community leader Zainullins said the ICCL’s unopened status did not involve anti-Muslim animus on the part of the government.

President Raimonds Vejonis and other senior government officials, including Speaker of the Parliament Inara Murniece, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, and Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics, attended or spoke at Holocaust memorial events, including International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Latvian Holocaust Memorial Day, and the Rumbula Forest Massacre Memorial.  In July at a commemoration of the burning in 1941 of the Great Choral Synagogue together with those inside, Murniece said, “Thousands of lives were wiped out …  it was hell on earth,” adding that local henchmen were also involved in the mass executions that took place in the country during WWII.  In his speech at the same event, President Vejonis said Jews were an integral part of the country and that “intolerance to those who are different find[s] a fertile soil in society and public space.  Those who remember the horrible events of the past are today’s hope.”

On the July 4 Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, officials unveiled a memorial in Riga dedicated to Hungarian Jewish women who were deported to labor and concentration camps in Latvia during the 1944 Nazi occupation, where they perished or were killed.

The government is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On March 16, the annual march commemorating Latvians who fought in the grenadier divisions of the Waffen SS against the Soviet Red Army in WWII took place in Riga.  Approximately 250 persons, including 10-15 SS veterans and five members of parliament from the All for Latvia Party, participated.  Numbers were similar to recent years.  Protesters against the march also attended.  The organizers, the Daugava Hawks group, characterized the annual march as a commemoration of national identity and remembrance of those who fought for independence rather than as a glorification of Nazism.  According to the NCSEJ’s report on the country, the march featured Nazi propaganda.  Police reported they detained two persons protesting the march, one on a charge of public drunkenness, the other for displaying a poster picturing concentration camp prisoners before a Nazi firing squad, shouting and acting aggressively, and resisting police orders.  Police released them on the same day after they paid a fine.

In March a researcher for U.S.-based NGO Freedom House said far-right participation in the march had fallen year on year and that “Such movements tend to become the butt of online jokes rather than a meaningful force on the Latvian political scene.”  Minister of Interior Rihards Kozlovskis stated confrontations between parties holding opposing opinions at the rally had decreased over the years, and that the 2018 march passed without incident.  As in previous years, the march drew strong condemnations from various groups, including the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Latvian Anti-Nazi Committee, and politicians from political party the Latvian Russian Union.

On November 30, approximately 500 persons lit thousands of candles at the Freedom Monument in Riga in memory of the approximately 30,000 Jews killed in the Rumbula Forest by the Nazis in 1941.  Organizer Lila Tomsone initiated the annual commemoration in 2016.

In December the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism.  In Latvia 200 respondents completed the survey; however, because the agency encountered difficulties in reaching respondents through online methods, which it attributed to the country’s small and elderly Jewish population, it conducted the survey through face-to-face interviews.  The agency concluded the different recruitment and data collection methods affected the data quality and cited its findings for the country in an appendix rather than with the main survey results.  According to these findings, 3 percent of respondents said they had experienced anti-Semitic harassment over the previous 12 months, and 8 percent said a family member or close friend had experienced verbal insults or harassment because of being Jewish over the same period.  Three percent had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief.  Twelve percent of respondents considered anti-Semitism to be a problem in the country; 77 percent considered the level of anti-Semitism had stayed the same over the previous five years.

Riga Jewish Community Executive Director Gita Umanovska said that anti-Semitic hate speech on the internet was mostly in the form of posts on social media and comments on news articles, although none were reported to police.  For example, one online commenter wrote, “Hitler was too humane.”  Another wrote, “It is a damned nation that causes riots… and destroys nations from within that God himself cursed when he made them walk 40 years through the desert.  They don’t deserve anything!”  Another poster wrote:  “in the Jewish Torah it says that other people are goy … [Jews] can kill them and humiliate them, and even destroy entire nations.  It is not surprising that Adolf (half-Jewish) started to beat his own, so that they do not go too far.”

According to Muslim community leader Zainullins, anti-Muslim hate speech on the internet also consisted mostly of posts on social media and comments on news articles.  For example, one site carried the message, “You [Muslims] have no place in Europe with your savage beliefs”.  Another message read, “Muslims have their own territory, Christians have their own … Maybe you do not have to offer your territory to a potential enemy so that no [expletive] could happen!”  Several comments suggested the pilgrimage to Mecca would be a perfect opportunity for a bombing, such as:  “All of them could go straight to their hotly-loved Allah in one big crowd.  There are so many Muslims in one place.  Really no one has thought of it.”

In September the Riga City Vidzeme District Court ordered the government to pay 2,000 euros ($2,300) in damages to Leonards Inkins for prosecuting him on charges of anti-Semitism because of an article Inkins wrote in 2012 defending a broadcast by Radio Naba.  On that broadcast, a person said he had witnessed “Jews with guns” in charge.  In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld lower court verdicts acquitting Inkins of anti-Semitism.

During a visit to the country in September, Pope Francis prayed along with members of the Lutheran, Russian Orthodox, Baptist, Methodist, and Episcopalian faiths at the Lutheran cathedral in Riga.  Pope Francis praised the people’s solidarity in the face of ethnic and religious differences.  He laid flowers at the Freedom Monument honoring soldiers killed in the War of Independence before celebrating a Mass for 40,000 persons at the Basilica of Aglona, a Catholic pilgrimage site.  During the Mass in Aglona, the pope called for “the spirit of universal fraternity.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged in regular discussions with government officials, including at the MFA, MOJ, Office of the Ombudsman, Department of Religious Affairs, and with members of parliament, on the importance of restoring expropriated property to the Jewish community, religious tolerance, and Holocaust education.  U.S. embassy officials also met with Foreign Minister Rinkevics and other MFA officials specifically on the issue of why the country had not yet met its obligation under the Terezin Declaration.

Embassy staff met with leaders of the Jewish community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, and the Muslim community to discuss their concerns with religious tolerance and acceptance in the country.  They also met with NGO MARTA, which worked with immigrant women, including those that might be victimized as a result of their religious beliefs.

The embassy funded a Holocaust education program for teachers with workshops designed to help the teachers discuss critical topics, including religious tolerance and the history of the Nazi occupation of the country, as well as the Holocaust itself.  The program also included designing teaching materials to assist educational instructors to tackle issues of historical remembrance of the Holocaust in Europe.  The materials provided lesson plan examples and historical sources to support teachers.  The program built on a previous embassy-supported program that sponsored five teachers for a teacher-training program in the United States on Holocaust education.

The embassy also provided funding for a series of workshops and speakers on the theme “Holocaust Education:  Three Generations Later” during International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  With the embassy’s support, the organizers live streamed the event on the internet, making it possible for people throughout the country and around the world to view the event.

The embassy funded a project with the Zanis Lipke Memorial Museum called the “Ghetto Drawings” that created an album of sketches by artist Alexandra Belcova capturing life in the Riga Ghetto and depicting the Holocaust in the country.  More than 8,000 visitors viewed the exhibition, including students from regional schools and universities, such as Riga Stradins University, Riga Technical University, and the University of Latvia.

Lebanon

Executive Summary

The constitution states there shall be “absolute freedom of conscience” and guarantees the free exercise of religious rites for all religious groups provided they do not disturb the public order.  The constitution also states there shall be a “just and equitable balance” in the apportionment of cabinet and high-level civil service positions among the major religious groups, a situation reaffirmed by the Taef Agreement, which ended the country’s civil war and mandated equal representation between Christians and Muslims in parliament.  Parliamentary elections in May resulted in the confessional balance of parliament remaining unchanged.  The government continued to enforce laws against defamation and contempt for religion.  On July 19, the cybercrime unit interrogated online activist Charbel Khoury when one of his Facebook posts raised public controversy for allegedly mocking a popular Maronite Christian saint.  On May 15, a judge dropped all criminal charges against poet Ahmad Sbeity for reportedly insulting the Virgin Mary in an online post.  According to Human Rights Watch, some municipal governments of largely Christian cities have, since 2016, forcibly evicted mostly Muslim Syrian refugees and expelled them from localities.  Some members of unregistered religious groups, such as Baha’is and nonrecognized Protestant faiths, continued to list themselves as belonging to recognized religious groups to ensure their marriage and other personal status documents remained legally valid.  Government officials repeatedly and publicly reiterated the country’s commitment to religious freedom and diversity.  At least 30 cases of interreligious civil marriage remained pending following the government’s continuation of the halt on their registration.  Hizballah, a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, continued to exercise control over territory, particularly the southern suburbs of Beirut and southern areas of the country, both of which are predominantly Shia.

There was one report of a religiously motivated killing when a Sunni sheikh and his two brothers allegedly killed another Sunni man on August 25 over a blasphemy allegation.  Muslim and Christian community leaders reported the continued operation of places of worship in relative peace and security and said relationships among individual members of different religious groups continued to be amicable.  Once again, the Jewish Community Council reported acts of vandalism at Jewish cemeteries in Beirut and Sidon.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers engaged government officials to encourage tolerance and mutual respect among religious communities, and to highlight the importance of combating violent religious extremism.  The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with religious leaders and members of civil society to engage in dialogue on religious tolerance and the role of confessional dynamics in the country’s society and politics, and also investigated claims of religious discrimination in the provision of assistance to Iraqi Christian refugees.  Embassy public outreach and assistance programs continued to emphasize tolerance for all religious groups; these included projects to counter violent extremism related to religion, and interfaith summer exchange programs.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 6