Bosnia and Herzegovina
The constitutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and each of the country’s two entities – the Federation of BiH (the Federation) and Republika Srpska (RS) – provide for freedom of religious thought and practice, prohibit religious discrimination, and allow registered religious organizations to operate freely. The Federation constitution declares religion to be “a vital national interest” of the constituent peoples. The RS constitution establishes the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” A provision in the state constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, who predominantly belong to the SOC; Croats, who mainly belong to the Roman Catholic Church; and Bosniaks, who are predominantly Muslim – in the parliament and in government positions. Individuals not belonging to one of the three major ethnic/religious groups reported they continued to be unable to obtain government positions or seats in parliament. There were few reports of the various levels of government making progress in resolving longstanding issues pertaining to religious freedom and rights. The Islamic Community (IC) continued to express its discontent over what it said was the Presidency’s continued inaction on the anticipated agreement between the state and the IC on certain accommodations for religious adherents. Local religious groups in the minority continued to report discrimination by municipal authorities regarding the use of religious property and issuance of permits for new religious properties. In March the Sarajevo Canton Assembly annulled its 2016 decision to name an elementary school after a World War II-era Ustasha anti-Semite who glorified Hitler; at year’s end, the annulment had not been implemented, and the school still bore the name. In April seven defendants were charged for a 2015 attack on a mosque and sentenced to one and a one-half years in prison, but their sentences were suspended pending two years of probation.
Of the 209 attacks on religious officials and sites registered by the Interreligious Council (IRC) since 2010, police had identified perpetrators in 73 of the attacks, and the courts had prosecuted 23 of the cases. In an annual report issued in May on the protection of holy sites, the IRC registered 11 attacks from November 1, 2016, through December 31, 2017: seven attacks on IC members’ property, three attacks against SOC cemeteries, and one against property of the Catholic Church. The IRC said again that the failure of authorities to pursue many cases reflected ignorance about hate crimes and a desire to deflect criticism of religious intolerance. There were several instances of vandalism of religious buildings, including a mosque in Kiseljak (in December 2017), an SOC church in Visoko, and a Catholic church in Zenica. The IRC continued to take steps to promote interfaith dialogue, including organizing joint visits of senior religious leaders representing each of the major religious groups to sites of suffering in the past wars, supporting open-door days of religious communities, and sponsoring various projects with women believers and youth.
U.S. embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to promote respect for religious diversity and to enforce equal treatment under the law, including for religious minorities. In regular meetings with religious groups, embassy officials continued to urge these groups to improve interreligious dialogue in order to contribute to the development of a peaceful and stable society. In December the Deputy Secretary of State met with leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH to discuss religious freedom and interreligious dialogue. Embassy officials continued to attend significant events in the various religious communities, including events to commemorate Eid al-Fitr, Catholic Christmas, and Orthodox Christmas, to support religious tolerance and dialogue. In December 2017, embassy officials attended a meeting in Banja Luka with the local mufti, Catholic bishop, and Orthodox bishop to discuss ways to encourage increased interreligious dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population of BiH at 3.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recent census, conducted in 2013, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 51 percent of the population; Serbian Orthodox Christians 31 percent; Roman Catholics 15 percent; and others, including Protestants and Jews, 3 percent.
There is a strong correlation between ethnicity and religion: Bosnian Serbs affiliate primarily with the SOC, and Bosnian Croats with the Roman Catholic Church. Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim. The Jewish community estimates it has 1,000 members, with the majority living in Sarajevo. The majority of Serbian Orthodox live in the RS, and most Muslims and Catholics in the Federation. Protestant and most other small religious communities have their largest memberships in Sarajevo and Banja Luka.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Annex IV of the Dayton Peace Agreement, which serves as the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It stipulates no one shall be deprived of citizenship on grounds of religion and all persons shall enjoy the same rights and freedoms without discrimination as to religion. The entity constitution of the Federation states all individuals shall have freedom of religion, including of public and private worship, and freedom from discrimination based on religion or creed. It defines religion as a vital national interest of the constituent peoples.
The entity constitution of the RS establishes the SOC as “the Church of the Serb people and other people of Orthodox religion.” It guarantees equal freedoms, rights, and duties for all citizens irrespective of religion. It specifies religious communities shall be equal before the law and free to manage their religious affairs and hold religious services, open religious schools and conduct religious education in all schools, engage in commercial activities, receive gifts, and establish and manage legacies in accordance with the law.
A state law on religion guarantees freedom of conscience; grants legal status to churches and religious communities; and grants numerous rights to registered religious communities, including the rights to assemble, conduct collaborative actions such as charity work, raise funds, and construct and occupy places of worship. The law states churches and religious communities serve as representative institutions and organizations of believers, founded in accordance with their own regulations, teachings, beliefs, traditions, and practices. The law recognizes the legal status of four “traditional” religious communities: the IC, SOC, Catholic Church, and Jewish community. The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) maintains a unified register of all religious communities, and the Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees is responsible for documenting violations of religious freedom.
According to state law, any group of 300 or more adult citizens may apply to register a new religious community or church through a written application to the MOJ. Other requirements for registration include the development of a statute defining the method of religious practice and a petition for establishment with the signatures of at least 30 founders. The ministry must issue a decision within 30 days of receipt of the application, and a group may appeal a negative decision to the state-level Council of Ministers. The law allows registered religious communities to establish their own suborganizations, which may operate without restriction. The law also stipulates the ministry may deny the application for registration if it concludes the content and manner of worship may be “contrary to legal order, public morale, or is damaging to the life and health or other rights and freedoms of believers and citizens.”
The law states no new church or religious community may be founded bearing the same or similar name as an existing church or religious community. The law also states no one may use the symbols, insignia, or attributes of a church or a religious community without its consent.
A concordat with the Holy See recognizes the public juridical personality of the Catholic Church and grants a number of rights, including rights to establish educational and charitable institutions, carry out religious education, and officially recognize Catholic holidays. The commission for implementation of the concordat comprises five members from the government and five from the Holy See. A similar agreement exists with the SOC, but a commission for implementation does not yet exist, due to inaction from the government and also from the SOC.
The state recognizes the IC as the sole supreme institutional religious authority for all Muslims in the country, including immigrants and refugees, as well as for Bosniaks and other Muslim nationals living outside the country who accept the IC’s authority. According to the law, no Islamic group may register with the MOJ or open a mosque without the permission of the IC.
The laws of the Federation and RS, as well as those of all 10 cantons, affirm the right of every citizen to religious education. The laws allow a representative of each of the officially registered religious communities to be responsible for teaching religious studies in public and private pre-, primary, and secondary schools and universities if there is sufficient demand. Children from groups that are a minority in a school are entitled to religious education only when there are 18 or more students from that religious group in one class. Religious communities select and train their respective religious education teachers. These individuals are employees of the schools where they teach, but they receive accreditation from the religious body governing the curriculum.
The IC, SOC, and Catholic Church develop and approve religious curricula across the country. Public schools offer religious education in a school’s majority religion, with some exceptions. Secondary students who do not wish to attend the religion class have the right to opt out if their school offers a class in ethics as an alternative, which many schools do. Parents of primary school students may request an exemption for their child from religion class attendance.
In the Federation’s five Bosniak-majority cantons, primary and secondary schools offer Islamic religious instruction as a twice-weekly course. In cantons with Croat majorities, Croat students in primary and secondary schools attend an elective Catholic religion course twice a week. In the five primary and 10 secondary Catholic schools spread throughout the Federation and the RS, parents may choose either an elective Catholic religion course or a course in ethics. In Sarajevo and Tuzla Cantons, primary and secondary students may either opt out or take ethics courses in lieu of religious education classes. The Sarajevo Canton Ministry of Education offers Orthodox and Protestant religious education in addition to classes offered to the Muslim and Catholic communities. In September the RS Ministry of Education introduced religious education in secondary schools.
A law against discrimination prohibits exclusion, limitation, or preferential treatment of individuals based on religion in employment and the provision of social services in both the government and private sectors.
The state constitution provides for representation of the three major ethnic groups – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – in the government and armed forces. The constitution makes no explicit mention of representation for religious groups, although each ethnicity mentioned by the constitution is associated with a particular religion. Parliamentary seats and government positions are apportioned among the three constituent major ethnicities – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks – according to quotas set by constitutional provisions.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Officials publicly acknowledged the need to the address a 2009 decision by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) stating the country should amend its constitution to allow members of religious and other minorities, including Jews, to run for president and the parliament’s upper house, but they took no action during the year. According to the ECHR ruling, observers said, by apportioning government positions and seats in the parliament only among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks, the constitution discriminated against minority groups. Individuals who were not members of the three major ethnic/religious groups reported they could not hold any of the proportionally guaranteed government positions, including the presidency. There were reports of the various levels of government making little progress in resolving longstanding issues pertaining to religious freedom and rights.
NGOs, academics, and government agencies reported the continued association of each of the country’s major political parties with the religion practiced by the dominant ethnic group among its membership. The biggest ethnic Bosniak parties continued to align with the IC, the biggest ethnic Croat parties with the Catholic Church, and the two largest ethnic Serb parties with the SOC.
NGOs continued to report that government authorities were not enforcing the 2015 decision by the High Judicial and Prosecutorial Council prohibiting employees of judicial institutions from wearing any form of “religious insignia” at work, including headscarves. During the year, the Border Police complied with a November 2017 state Constitutional Court ruling that declared their January 2017 regulation prohibiting beards for the police to be unconstitutional and ordering the police to abolish the regulation.
According to IC officials, the Presidency again did not approve an agreement, reached in 2015, between the state and the IC that addressed dietary restrictions in public institutions, employer accommodations for daily prayer, and time off to attend Friday prayers as well as to take a one-time trip to Mecca for the Hajj. During the year, the Croat and Serb members of the Presidency refused to put this issue on the agenda of the Presidency sessions due to disputes over the proposed text of the agreement.
According to representatives of the Catholic Church, there had been no meeting of the joint commission for the implementation of the concordat with the Holy See since June 2016 due to a perceived lack of government interest. Earlier agreements reached by the commission, including legislation on observing religious holidays, remained unimplemented by the government and parliament.
In December SOC officials reported the government had taken no steps to establish a commission to implement the government’s agreement with the SOC.
According to officials of religious groups that are in a local minority, authorities at all levels continued to discriminate against those groups with regard to the use of religious property and issuance of permits for new religious properties. Drvar municipal authorities continued to refuse construction permits for a new Catholic church, despite repeated requests from the local Catholic priest, the Banja Luka Catholic Diocese, and representatives from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which became directly engaged on the issue. In pursuit of a solution, Drvar Catholics, led by their priest, began raising funds to purchase private land to build the church.
In December leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH lamented the lack of any BiH institution responsible for the rights of religious communities. They said this lack hindered efforts on the part of the religious communities to resolve the issue of restitution for property confiscated and nationalized under communist rule from 1946 to 1965.
According to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), provisions of the law regarding the religious education of returnee children remained unimplemented, particularly in segregated school systems, often at the behest of senior government authorities seeking to obstruct the process. Parents of more than 500 Bosniak children, who returned to their prewar homes in several RS communities, continued to boycott public schools for a sixth year, choosing instead to send their children to alternative schools organized on the premises of the IC’s administrative buildings and supported by the Federation Ministry of Education.
Academic and NGO representatives reported continued social pressure on students from communities throughout the country to attend instruction in their respective religions.
Authorities continued to enforce selectively the rights of religious groups in areas where those groups constituted religious minorities. These members of religious minorities reported discrimination regarding access to education, employment, health care, and other social services. They stated that refugees returning to their original communities pursuant to the Dayton Peace Agreement were particularly subject to discrimination. Leaders of religious minority communities and NGOs, particularly in Canton 10 in the western part of the Federation and several municipalities in eastern RS, reported the continued failure of authorities to provide government services and protections to minorities, including access to health care, pensions, other social benefits, and the transfer of student records between districts. NGOs reported that representatives of minority communities in the Canton 10 municipalities of Drvar, Bosansko Grahovo, and Glamoc were discriminated against particularly when it concerned access to education in their mother tongue and employment in public companies. The community leaders also said local authorities continued to discriminate when it came to providing police protection and investigating threats of violence, harassment, and vandalism. While only a few cases were recorded, the IRC said law enforcement treated these cases as simple theft or vandalism, without taking into consideration the acts occurred at religious sites and could be categorized as hate crimes. According to an annual report published by the IRC in May, only 45 percent of perpetrators were identified in these cases. Because religion and ethnicity often are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many actions as solely based on religious identity.
On March 6, the Sarajevo Canton Assembly annulled its 2016 decision to name an elementary school and a street in the town of Dobrosevici in the canton’s Municipality of Novi Grad after Mustafa Busuladzic, a World War II-era Ustasha figure who glorified Hitler and was known for his anti-Semitism. As of the end of the year, the decision remained unimplemented. The school’s website continued to list the school name as Mustafa Busuladzic, and the street was still named after him. During the year, the president of the Jewish Community strongly condemned the continued use of the name.
In April seven individuals were convicted for a 2015 attack on a mosque in Tomislavgrad and sentenced to one and one-half years in prison, but their sentences were suspended pending two years of probation. In 2017, a different defendant in the same case pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a similar one-year suspended prison sentence.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May the IRC, which records and tracks cases of intolerance and hatred in an annual report when members of affected religious communities report them, released data it had collected between November 2016 and December 2017. The data showed 11 attacks on religious sites, religious officials, or believers during that period (compared with 12 in the report covering November 2015-October 2016). One attack was against a Catholic site, seven against the IC, and three against the SOC. Of 209 attacks on religious officials and sites since 2010, the IRC reported police had identified perpetrators in 73 of the attacks. As of May 2018, the courts had prosecuted 23 of these cases. The IRC stated that while there were fewer reported attacks, authorities continued their practice of not categorizing these attacks as hate crimes.
In March unknown perpetrators stole items from and desecrated the Catholic Church of Saint Elijah the Prophet in Zenica, causing significant material damage. The local chapter of the IRC condemned the incident, but as of year’s end, no perpetrators had been identified. In June individuals broke into an Orthodox church in the town of Cekrekije in the Visoko Municipality, set fire to sacral items, and stole valuables. Police arrested two suspects and forwarded the case to the Zenica Doboj Prosecutor’s Office for further proceedings. On July 10, three minors verbally accosted a Catholic nun in the central town of Fojnica. Police identified the perpetrators and discussed the incident with their parents. The local mayor condemned the attack.
The Council of Muftis of the IC continued efforts to persuade unregistered Islamic congregations (or para-jamaats), which gathered predominantly Salafist followers and operated outside the purview of the IC, to cease their “unsanctioned” religious practices and officially unite with the IC. While the IC reported that 64 para‑jamaats were active in 2016, only 21 were active and operating outside the auspices of the IC in 2018.
On July 18, during a talk show on the Serbian television program Cirilica, also broadcast on Alternative TV in BiH, then RS President and leader of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats Milorad Dodik referred to the adhan (Muslim call to worship) as “howling” that disturbed citizens in Banja Luka and caused property values to depreciate. The statement drew strong condemnation from opposition politicians, the international community, and the IC.
On July 20, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared, almost at the same time, inside the hallways of apartment buildings in Tuzla and Sarajevo, where members of the Jewish community resided. Authorities condemned the incidents. No perpetrators were identified by year’s end.
On December 28, 2017, individuals threw beer bottles at the city mosque in Kiseljak, inflicting light damage to the mosque’s facade. Police identified the perpetrators and forwarded the case to the local prosecutor’s office. No information was available what sanctions, if any, were handed down to the perpetrators.
The IRC continued to sponsor projects aimed at increasing interfaith dialogue involving women and youth. On April 23, in cooperation with the German Maximilian Kolbe Foundation, the IRC organized its fourth “European Workshop on Facing the Past Burdened with Violence,” which also involved participants from other European countries. Within the project, religious leaders visited places of suffering of each ethnic/religious group from past wars. The visits included the testimonies of victims in those places.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials engaged with the Presidency, the BiH Minister of Security, and other ministries to discuss the government’s efforts to combat violent extremism related to religion and religious freedom. They also underscored the need to promote respect for religious diversity and enforce equal treatment under the law, including for religious minorities, emphasizing that restrictions on minority religious groups can lead to their marginalization and possible radicalization.
In a December meeting with leaders of the four major religious communities in BiH, the Deputy Secretary of State stressed the importance of religious freedom and interreligious dialogue. The embassy continued to promote interreligious dialogue in regular meetings with leaders and representatives of the four “traditional” religious communities and other religious groups, including discussing ways the groups could contribute to the further development of a peaceful and stable society. In December 2017, the embassy met with the local mufti, Catholic bishop, and Orthodox bishop in Banja Luka to discuss ways to promote interreligious dialogue.
As part of a U.S. government program with the IRC to promote peace, reconciliation, tolerance, and coexistence among the country’s diverse religious and ethnic communities, embassy officials regularly attended significant events in the different religious communities – Eid al-Fitr celebrations with the IC, Christmas and Easter celebrations with the Orthodox and Catholic communities, and a Passover seder with the Jewish community. At these events, embassy officials emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue and respect for religious diversity.
The embassy continued to maintain regular contact with the IRC and support its activities, including the development of its first communication strategy, 14 small grant applications to be administered by local IRC chapters, and other activities to help the IRC further develop its institutional capacity. The IRC continued to participate in U.S. government-funded programs designed to help overcome ethnic and religious divisions through dialogue and restore trust among the country’s religious groups. Such events included multiple roundtables featuring prominent women and a youth summit.
The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.” The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs; authorities used these laws to limit freedom of expression and press. Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against religious minorities by government and societal actors. It was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity in the country. Violence, discrimination, and harassment against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued. Following the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that took place in 2017 and resulted in the displacement of more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya who remained in Burma continued to face an environment of particularly severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In March the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar reported that the government appeared to be using starvation tactics against remaining Rohingya. On September 17, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published its final report on the country, which detailed atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as other areas, and characterized the “genocidal intent” of the military’s 2017 operations in Rakhine State. The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report. Some government and military officials used anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech circulating on social media in formal meetings, public speeches, and other official settings. Public remarks by the minister of religious affairs in November were widely understood to denigrate Muslims. Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State. In other areas, non-Buddhist minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, reported incidents in which authorities unduly restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minorities, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing. The military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to severe hardship on religious minorities and others and intercommunal tensions, according to NGOs. Among Rohingya who fled the country during the year, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State, while others reportedly fled due to government pressure to participate in a citizenship verification campaign, which they stated they did not trust. NGOs and religious groups said local authorities in some cases worked to reduce religious tension and improve relations between communities.
In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government has no administrative control, United Wa State Army (UWSA) authorities detained Christian leaders, destroyed churches, and otherwise interfered with Christian religious practice, according to media reports and the UWSA spokesperson.
Some leaders and members of Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, better known by its former name Ma Ba Tha, continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims. In May the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, reiterated its 2017 order that no group or individual was allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha. In spite of the order, many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name. The SSMNC’s 2017 ban on public speaking by the monk Wirathu, a self-described nationalist, expired in March. He appeared at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon in October, at which he made anti-Muslim statements. Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim sentiment in sermons and through social media. Anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate speech was prevalent on social media. Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.
Senior U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to the United Nations, USAID Administrator, Ambassador to Burma, and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against religious minorities, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tension. In November the Vice President said, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse” and asked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi about the country’s progress in holding accountable those who were responsible. In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the USAID Administrator stated, “The Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing: extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.” The United States has sanctioned five generals and two military units for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religiously based discrimination and abuses and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.
Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 55.6 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists. Approximately 6 percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations). Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population. The 2014 Census reportedly excluded the Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to the outbreak of violence and initial exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh in October 2016. According to current estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State. There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions. There is a very small Jewish community in Rangoon.
There is significant demographic correlation between ethnicity and religion. Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion among the majority Bamar ethnic group and among the Shan, Rakhine, Mon, and numerous other ethnic groups. Various forms of Christianity are dominant among the Kachin, Chin, and Naga ethnic groups. Christianity also is practiced widely among the Karen and Karenni ethnic groups, although many Karen and Karenni are Buddhist and some Karen are Muslim. People of South Asian ancestry, who are concentrated in major cities and in the south central region, are predominantly Hindu or Muslim, although some are Christian. Ethnic Rohingya and Kaman in Rakhine State, as well as some Bamar and ethnic Indians in Rangoon, Ayeyarwaddy, Magway, and Mandalay Divisions, practice Islam. Chinese ethnic minorities generally practice traditional Chinese religions and to a lesser extent Islam and Christianity. Some smaller ethnic groups in the highland regions observe traditional indigenous beliefs.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states that every citizen is equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practice his or her religious beliefs. The constitution limits those rights if they threaten public order, health, morality, or other provisions of the constitution. It further provides to every citizen the right to profess and practice his or her religion if not contrary to laws on security, law and order, community peace, or public order and morality.
The law prohibits deliberate and malicious speech or acts intended to outrage or wound the religious feelings of any class by insulting or defaming its religion or religious beliefs. The law also prohibits injuring, defiling, or trespassing on any place of worship or burial grounds with the intent to insult religion.
All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status. This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities.
The law bars members of “religious orders” (such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group) from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting. The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha). The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.”
Although there is no official state religion, the constitution notes that the government “recognizes the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.” The constitution “also recognizes Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Animism as the religions existing in the Union at the day of the coming into operation of this Constitution.”
The government bans any organization of Buddhist monks other than the nine state-recognized monastic orders. Violations of this ban are punishable by immediate public defrocking and criminal penalties. The nine recognized orders submit to the authority of the SSMNC, the members of which are elected by monks.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools.
Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect. The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance. The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process. The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing. The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code already criminalized.
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State released during the year, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s final report, corroborated earlier accounts of a systematic abuses and a campaign against Rohingya civilians that involved extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture. On September 17, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published its final report on the country, which detailed atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as other areas, and characterized the “genocidal intent” of the military’s 2017 operations in Rakhine State. The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report. The report also found the actions of the military in both Kachin (mostly Christian) and Shan States (mostly Buddhist) since 2011 amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The government established an independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State. It is comprised of two international and two Burmese members, and chaired by Rosario Manalo, a former diplomat from the Philippines. The commission did not make public any findings by year’s end. Multiple government-led investigations into earlier reported abuses by security forces culminated in denials that abuses occurred and did not result in accountability.
In January Amnesty International (AI) reported three incidents of the military abducting Rohingya girls or young women. One such instance occurred in January in Hpoe Khaung Chaung village, Buthidaung Township: soldiers searched a house, held a man at gunpoint, and abducted a 15-year-old girl; the family has not seen the girl since. AI also reported that security forces strip-searched Rohyingya women fleeing the country and robbed both women and men.
Two Reuters reporters, detained by the government in December 2017 and charged under the Official Secrets Act related to their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State, remained incarcerated throughout their trial and were sentenced on September 3 to seven years in prison. Independent observers said the trial lacked due process.
UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee told the Human Rights Council in March that the government appeared to be using a policy of starvation in Rakhine State to force out the remaining Rohingya. The country’s envoy to the council denied the charge and called for Lee’s dismissal.
In March AI reported increased “land grabs” and razing of formerly Rohingya villages by authorities in Rakhine State. AI stated that the military and police built roads and structures over burned Rohingya villages and land, making it even less likely for refugees to return to their homes and “erasing evidence of crimes against humanity.” According to satellite imagery, the military and police built at least three new security bases in northern Rakhine State. Reportedly, some Rohingya who were living near the new construction fled to Bangladesh in fear.
In February AI reported military forces in Rakhine had denied Rohingya access to their rice fields in November and December 2017, a denial that amounted to forced starvation, and that many Rohingya fled to Bangladesh on account of the food shortages. The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported that military forces imposed limits on how much rice displaced villagers in Rakhine could purchase per month, causing shortages.
An additional 13,764 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and September. The government prepared facilities to begin receiving some 2,000 of the 700,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in 2017. In November amid efforts by the governments of Burma and Bangladesh to initiate returns, Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship. Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back, and no one chose to return.
Several NGOs reported approximately 120,000 Rohingya remained confined to camps since violence in 2012.
In May Hla Phyu was arrested and convicted of false representation after attempting to leave an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Rakhine State, where she had been living since her displacement during violence in 2012, and travel to Rangoon. The 23-year-old teacher, who is Muslim, had previously applied for official permission to travel without success, and eventually traveled without receiving permission. A court sentenced her to a year in prison with hard labor.
The government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State and portions of Kachin State during the year. Reportedly, the military selectively permitted humanitarian access to IDPs in some conflict areas – granting access to local relief organizations associated with certain religious denominations while denying access to organizations associated with other religious denominations, which created intercommunal tension. In August the human rights group Fortify Rights reported that the government’s travel-authorization process for aid groups in Burma effectively acted as a restriction on aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations in violation of international humanitarian law. Authorities suspended humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State entirely in August 2017; during 2018, the Red Cross Movement, World Food Program, and several other organizations regained some degree of access. According to Fortify Rights, from June 2017 to June 2018, authorities unconditionally approved only approximately 5 percent of 562 applications submitted by international humanitarian agencies seeking “travel authorization” to assist displaced communities in government-controlled areas of Kachin State. On May 21, the government’s minister of security and border affairs for Kachin State sent a letter to the Kachin Baptist Convention – one of the largest providers of aid to displaced communities in Kachin Independence Army (KIA)-controlled areas – saying the group would be prosecuted for illegally delivering aid in areas under KIA control.
Sources stated that authorities singled out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor and arbitrarily arrested them. Authorities imposed restrictions that impeded the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings.
Authorities in northern Rakhine reportedly prohibited Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons.
Fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups that restarted in Kachin and northern Shan States in 2011 continued. UN Special Rapporteur Lee reported that in March the military started new ground offensives in Kachin State using heavy artillery. The UN estimated that 107,000 persons remained displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where there are many Christians as well as other religious groups. Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State. It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity in the country.
The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) reported that thousands of Kachin fled the military, including residents of more than 50 villages as of June. The KIO stated the military destroyed or damaged more than 400 villages, 300 churches, and 100 schools in Kachin State since 2011. In August, at the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, several NGOs reported that government security forces encouraged the construction of Buddhist monasteries and temples in areas where they built new bases. Minority religious communities said they perceived this effort to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”
According to a CHRO September report, the Chin people continued to face “institutionalized barriers to religious freedom.” According to the report, the barriers usually involved local authorities blocking the ownership of land for Christian worship. Christians have also faced mob violence by local communities, often “supported and even organized by local authorities and Buddhist-monks.” The CHRO report said there were cases where police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account.
In Rakhine State, according to the UN and media reports, the government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly members of the Rohingya community. Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considers foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form. The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors. The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks. Authorities granted Muslims located outside of Rakhine State more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State, and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine if they were to visit the state.
Such restrictions seriously impeded the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities. Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim received additional scrutiny on movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion. Obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.
According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments. Organizations noted that lack of registration did not generally hinder the ability of groups and individuals to conduct religious activities, except in a few cases, although being unregistered left organizations vulnerable to harassment or closure by the government.
Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, reported difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings. Buddhists, however, said getting such permission was harder for other groups. Religious groups said the multiple permissions, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action or to pressure by members of other religious groups. Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.
In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes. The Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs issued an order in June that restricted non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes. The order also required that teaching materials, with an implicit focus on Islamic materials printed in Arabic, be in the Burmese language and submitted to the ministry in advance. The General Administration Department, which has a significant leading role in all subnational administration aspects of daily life, issued notices in Yangon and Sagaing Divisions requiring compliance with the ministry’s order. Authorities in Mandalay Division continued to enforce similar restrictions.
Local authorities closed 12 mosques and religious schools in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Divisions as well as in Shan State during the year, according to the Burman Human Rights Network (BHRN). A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thakayta Township in Yangon Division and the closure of two remained in force. Authorities prevented 14 mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Divisions from operating in 2017 and they remained shuttered. Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.
Muslims in Mandalay Division reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014. Authorities ordered that mosques be shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, in addition to mosques in Bago and Mandalay Divisions.
According to a CHRO September report, Christian communities in Chin State reported applications to local authorities for property registration, construction, and renovation encountered delays spanning several years, or the applications were lost altogether.
The CHRO reported local authorities in Chin State continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches to buy land in the name of their religious organizations. Local authorities in Chin State also blocked Christian groups and churches from buying land in the name of their religious organizations for the purpose of worship. Religious groups said individual members circumvented this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.
In January, according to the CHRO, township administrators banned Christians from building a house for the local pastor in Magway Division and from worshipping in a residential house. As of September local authorities had not responded to a March request to use the house as a church, according to the CHRO. Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.
Sources stated that the government increased restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, imposing new requirements for advance notice of events and participants, and civil society organizations sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues. Many religious and civil society organizations said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.
The government continued to give financial support to Buddhist seminaries and Buddhist missionary activities. The government continued to fund two state sangha universities in Yangon and Mandalay that trained Buddhist monks under the purview of the SSMNC, as well as the International Theravada Buddhist Missionary University in Yangon. According to religious organizations, the Ministry of Religious Affairs financially supported the SSMNC and religious ceremonies.
Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers, although such practices were no longer a mandated part of the curriculum. Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography.
Several Christian theological seminaries and Bible schools continued to operate, along with several madrassahs, in Rangoon, Sagaing, and elsewhere.
Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools, although observers reported some increased access during the year. Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university. Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students. These students were allowed to attend classes and take examinations, but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.
According to one human rights organization, schools sometimes submitted citizenship applications on behalf of non-Muslim students while denying the same privilege to Muslim students. Muslim students, after submitting the applications, sometimes had to pay bribes to immigration officials to obtain documentation. According to BHRN, instructors reportedly made anti-Muslim comments in university classrooms and Muslim students typically were not permitted to join institutes for professional studies. One human rights group documented the teaching of racist and anti-Muslim tenets in schools throughout the country.
Muslims said government authorities denied them permission to slaughter cows during the Eid al-Adha festival that marks the end of Ramadan. Media and religious sources said local authorities in some villages restricted the licensing of and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority owned by Muslims. These restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslim communities to celebrate Islamic holidays.
Sources stated that authorities generally did not enforce four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion.”
A 2005 local order in Maungdaw Township in northern Rakhine State continued in effect, requiring residents, predominately Rohingya, to obtain local authorization to marry. In addition, some Rohingya sources expressed concern about the two-child policy for Rohingya families, referring to a 2005 local order promulgated in northern Rakhine State and sporadically enforced.
Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.
Buddhists continued to make up nearly all senior officials within the military and civil service. Applications for civil service and military positions required the applicant to list his or her religion. According to one human rights organization, applications by Muslims for government jobs were largely rejected.
Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians. There were no Muslim members of parliament, and neither the ruling NLD nor the main opposition party ran any Muslim candidates during nationwide elections in 2015 or by-elections in 2017 and 2018. Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.
Authorities required citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship. These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity. The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion. Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards. According to Fox News, a local official said Christians in Karen State applied to the central government for identification cards identifying them as “Christians” but received cards identifying them as “Buddhist,” and officials refused to change the cards. Some Muslims reported that they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on applications for citizenship cards.
BHRN published a case study of Muslim migrant workers in Thailand who applied to Burmese immigration officials for a formal verification of their nationality, known as a Certificate of Identity (CI). Respondents consistently reported that they had to provide more documentation than did other groups, or that authorities said, “We are not giving CIs to Muslims.” BHRN’s case study found that twice as many Muslims were rejected as were accepted.
The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs, the first step in the citizenship verification process). Many Rohingya objected to the exercise, citing a fear of being identified as “Bengali,” fear of being designated a “naturalized” rather than “full citizen,” a lack of requisite change in their rights if they obtained the NVCs, and a general distrust towards the government. The government said it no longer required all participants to identify as “Bengali” as a condition of participating in the process, although implementing officials reportedly continued to require participants to identify as “Bengali,” and those verified as a citizen reportedly had “Bengali” listed as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card. Recipients of naturalized citizenship were ineligible to participate in some political activities and professions, although all citizens had the right to vote. The government also pressured Rohingya to apply for NVCs, including by continuing a requirement to have an NVC in order to have a fishing permit. Many Rohingya entering Bangladesh during the year cited the pressure campaign as a primary reason for leaving Burma.
State-controlled media frequently depicted military and government officials and their family members paying respect to Buddhist monks; offering donations at pagodas; officiating at ceremonies to open, improve, restore, or maintain pagodas; and organizing “people’s donations” of money, food, and uncompensated labor to build or refurbish Buddhist shrines nationwide. The government published and distributed books on Buddhist religious instruction.
In November Minister of Religious and Cultural Affairs Aung Ko, speaking in nationally televised remarks at the funeral of a prominent Buddhist monk in Karen State, criticized “the followers of an extreme religion [who] take three of four wives and have families with 15 or 20 children.” He added, “Devotees of other [non-Buddhist] religions will become the majority and we will be in danger of being taken over.” His remarks were widely understood to refer to Muslims.
Sources stated that government officials circulated or advanced rumors and false information concerning Rohingya and other Muslims, including claims of a demographic takeover of Rakhine State by Muslims. According to media reports, the military conducted a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through dummy Facebook accounts and other social media. The military in August published a book purporting to give a historic account of the Rohingya in northern Rakhine that included images from other areas and conflicts and falsely claiming to show a Rohingya influx into the country from Bangladesh before and after World War II. Government officials distributed the book at formal meetings. Also in August, government officials circulated anti-Rohingya videos to UN and other officials, and a military-linked think tank publicized such material at an event in Rangoon in October.
In November the Yangon Division Rakhine Ethnic Affairs Ministry organized a speaker event in Rangoon called “Hidden Truths of the Western Frontier in Rakhine State,” at which the Rakhine ethnic affairs minister gave remarks in which he blamed the Rakhine crisis on “Bengalis,” a term used to refer to Rohingya that is considered pejorative.
The government officially recognized a number of interfaith groups, including the Interfaith Dialogue Group of Myanmar, which organized monthly meetings and sponsored several religious activities promoting peace and religious tolerance around the country throughout the year. The group’s leadership included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders, as well as leaders from other religious groups.
The government generally permitted foreign religious groups to operate in a manner similar to nonreligious foreign aid groups. Local religious organizations were also able to send official invitations for visa purposes to clergy from faith-based groups overseas, and foreign religious visitors acquired either a tourist or business visa for entry. Authorities generally permitted Rangoon-based groups to host international students and experts.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
In September the UWSA, which controls the Wa Self-Administered Division in Shan State, detained approximately 200 Christian leaders, destroyed churches, and imposed severe limits on Christian worship, teaching, and proselytizing, according to media reports and the UWSA spokesperson. The UWSA later released most of those it detained. The government exerts no authority inside the Wa territory, which has been under UWSA control since 1988.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In May AI reported that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army was likely responsible for the killing of 45 Hindu villagers in Maungdaw Township on August 25, 2017, which the government previously had reported, but some civil society organizations had questioned.
The Chin Human Rights Organization reported the Arakan Army beat villagers and looted property in a village in Paletwa Township, Chin State, in May.
Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to instances of abuse or discrimination against members of religious minorities by societal actors. Many prominent military, civilian, and religious leaders continued to promote the idea that Burmese Buddhist culture was under assault by Islam and Muslims, who would come through the mountains of western Burma – northern Rakhine State where the Rohingya live – and overwhelm Buddhist areas of the country.
CHRO reported that in July a mob that included Buddhist monks attacked two Chin nursery school teachers in the house of a Christian pastor in Pade Kyaw Village, Ann District, Rakhine State. Village monks previously said there would be a 50,000 kyat ($33) penalty per household if each household did not send a member to a meeting at which the monks urged participants to harass Christians attending a church service. In August, according to CHRO, a mob attacked Pastor Tin Shwe of Good News Church in the same area of Rakhine State, and he was hospitalized. In January the village tract administrator in Gangaw Township, Magway Division, along with two police officers and some local Buddhist monks, tried to expel a family who had converted to Christianity from the village. Authorities reportedly failed to investigate or hold perpetrators accountable in these cases.
Despite the renewal during the year of the 2017 order by the SSMNC that no group or individual could operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation. Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media. In August Reuters found more than 1,000 examples of anti-Muslim hate speech on Burmese-language Facebook pages, including calls for “genocide,” comparisons to “pigs” and “dogs,” and widespread use of pejoratives to refer to Muslims.
In March the SSMNC’s ban expired on the influential self-defined nationalist Wirathu, a monk and the chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, from delivering sermons across the country for one year. The SSMNC imposed the ban due to what the SSMNC called religious hate speech against Muslims, which inflamed communal tensions. In October Wirathu, who reportedly maintained strong ties to military and government officials, spoke at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon, mocking foreign sympathy for the Rohingya and making other anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim remarks. There were numerous previous reports of Wirathu making anti-Muslim remarks, such as praising the killers of the prominent Muslim lawyer Ko Ni in 2017. In September Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.
Some observers said Ma Ba Tha received financial support from and otherwise coordinated with the military.
In March prominent writer Maung Thway Chuun gave a speech in Sagaing Division in which he criticized the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament for being Christian and said the country’s religious and ethnic identity was under threat. Authorities arrested him in June on charges of inciting conflict between ethnic and religious groups, and in October a court sentenced him to two years in prison. Some observers criticized his case as an infringement of freedom of expression.
There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for the Rohingya community. Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent. There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.
Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered mechanisms.
Religious and community leaders and civil society activists organized intrafaith and interfaith events, and some worked jointly to develop mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech and to promote religious tolerance and diversity. A coalition of interfaith civil society groups continued advocating for and consulting on draft legislation to counter hate speech, although parliament did not take up the legislation by year’s end.
In Mandalay Division, civil society and interfaith leaders held meetings and public events to promote peace and religious tolerance for community leaders and youth, as in previous years. For example, an event in August drew dozens of community members to a day of activities around the theme of diversity and tolerance. A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.
On November 21-23, the Religions for Peace Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and the Advancement of Peace in Myanmar convened in Nay Pyi Taw, bringing together voices from all major religions to advance an agenda of tolerance and respect. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy commander-in-chief, and other senior government officials participated in the event.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Senior U.S. officials – including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the Ambassador to the United Nations, the Ambassador to Burma, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and senior Department of State officials for East Asia and human rights – consistently raised ongoing U.S. concerns about religious freedom in the country with senior government and military leaders. They specifically raised the plight of the mostly Muslim Rohingya in Rakhine State, hardships facing minority religious communities in Kachin and northern Shan States in the midst of ongoing military conflicts, and advocacy on social media of violence against religious minorities on social media.
On November 14, the Vice President stated, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse” and asked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi about the country’s progress in holding those accountable who were responsible.
In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the USAID Administrator said, “As our State Department and other sources have judged, the Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing: extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.”
After his visit to Bangladesh in April, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom stated that the Rohingya situation “is a humanitarian crisis perpetrated by the Burmese security forces, and by vigilantes often acting in concert with security forces …. The Burmese military and others responsible must be held accountable for these horrific acts.”
Senior officials, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, reiterated during the year the determination of former Secretary of State Tillerson that the military had committed ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. In December the Ambassador at Large said the Kachin and Karen were also being persecuted. He noted that the United States had sanctioned five generals and two military units.
The U.S. government severely curtailed bilateral military-to-military relations, restricted visas for current and former military leaders, imposed additional targeted financial sanctions against military leaders and units involved in the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and human rights abuses in Kachin and Shan States, and pressed for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations. The Department of State published a report documenting atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya since 2016, drawing on over a thousand interviews with refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
U.S. government officials consistently called for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian actors and media in Rakhine and Kachin States. Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere.
Embassy officials at all levels discussed the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric. Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high-level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy commander-in-chief, the national security advisor, and the ministers of foreign affairs, religious affairs, home affairs, ethnic affairs, immigration, population, and labor affairs, and social welfare, relief, and resettlement affairs. Embassy officials also met with officials in the president’s office, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, members of civil society, scholars, and representatives of other governments.
A Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration led a delegation in November that engaged government officials, civil society groups, and international organizations on the importance of enacting durable solutions that will allow the Rohingya and other minority populations to live in safety and dignity, with freedom of movement and worship.
Embassy officials traveled to ethnic minority-predominant areas to discuss religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities. The Ambassador visited Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Mon, and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that had suffered from and were identified as at risk of ethnoreligious conflict. The multiple visits to Rakhine State by the Ambassador and other officials to assess the situation informed the embassy’s efforts and strategies in engaging the government and advocating for the rights of all communities in the state.
The embassy continued to call for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, and in its social media accounts. At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations – such as Ma Ba Tha and its successor organization – and NGOs to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance. To advance religious tolerance, the embassy hosted celebrations of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays, and in each case invited members of various faiths to join. The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook about religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in the United States.
The Ambassador gave feature interviews to local media and international media in which he discussed the need for accountability for the 2017 ethnic cleansing and improved conditions for the Rohingya and other minority groups. The embassy regularly published statements highlighting concerns about religiously based tensions and anti-Muslim discrimination, as well as calling for respect for religious diversity, unity, and tolerance.
Public programs at embassy facilities in Rangoon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities. The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation. It also sponsored travel to the United States to receive media literacy training in methods of combating disinformation on social media, including combating the spread of hate speech. As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based and civil society organizations working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.
Since 1999, Burma 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 Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.
Central African Republic
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism.” The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion. The government continued to exercise limited control or influence in most of the country, and police and the gendarmerie (military police) failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, such as killings, physical abuse, and gender-based violence, including those based on religious affiliation, according to human rights organizations. The predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and the predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka militia forces continued to occupy territories in the western and northern parts of the country, respectively, and sectarian clashes between them and Christian and Muslim populations continued. These clashes often included attacks on churches and mosques, and the deaths of religious adherents at those places of worship. The Muslim community stated there was continued discrimination by government officials on account of their religious beliefs or affiliation, including exclusion from public services, such as access to education and healthcare.
Armed groups, particularly the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka and predominantly Muslim ex-Seleka, continued to control significant swaths of the country and clashes continued throughout the year. In April and May a joint government and UN operation to disarm a militia group in Bangui’s predominantly Muslim PK5 neighborhood sparked renewed violence. On May 1, militia gunmen attacked and killed one priest, Father Toungoumale-Baba, 26 worshipers, and injured more than 100 civilians, in the Notre-Dame de Fatima Catholic Church in Bangui. The following day, anti-Balaka elements burned two mosques in Bangui. On November 15, a suspected ex-Seleka militia group set fire to the Catholic cathedral and an adjoining internally displaced person (IDP) camp in the city of Alindao, killing Bishop Blaise Mada and Reverend Delestin Ngouambango and more than 40 civilians.
On May 25, the Platform of Religious Confessions (PCRC) composed of Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, published a memorandum on the continuing political crisis that started in 2012. The memorandum expressed concerns about the persistence of violence and called for an end to the clashes among the religiously oriented factions.
In May the White House press secretary issued a statement condemning the attacks on the Notre-Dame de Fatima Church in Bangui and retaliatory attacks on Muslims in the weeks that followed. The press secretary called on the government to provide security for all citizens, regardless of faith. At the onset of the violence, embassy staff met with government representatives responsible for human rights and religious freedom and encouraged authorities to implement measures to stem the violence. They also served as intermediaries to help increase communication and trust between the religious leaders and the government, address claims of religious discrimination, and support reconciliation efforts. Embassy officials engaged the Christian and Muslim communities, including armed group representatives, to discourage further violence. There were similar meetings with religious leaders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). These meetings explored possible solutions and offered assistance to aid the religious communities, promoted the return of IDPs that were dislocated because of religiously based violence, and highlighted the importance of religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.7 million (July 2018 estimate). Fifty percent of the population identifies as Christian, 35 percent as belonging to indigenous religions, and the remaining 15 percent as Muslim. Some Christians and Muslims incorporate aspects of indigenous religions in their religious practices.
In the central and southern regions of the country, Roman Catholicism and Islam are the dominant religions. In Bangui, there are two neighborhoods, PK5 and PK13, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Some human rights organizations reported a reduction in Bangui’s Muslim population from 100,000 to 20,000, resulting from significant outbreaks of sectarian violence in recent years. The 2014 International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic reported a significant percentage of Muslims had fled to neighboring countries; their return during the year remained a slow process.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion under conditions set by law and equal protection under the law regardless of religion. It prohibits all forms of religious intolerance and “religious fundamentalism,” but does not define these terms. The law also requires the head of state to take an oath of office that includes a promise to fulfill the duties of the office without any consideration of religion.
Religious groups, except for indigenous religious groups, are required to register with the Ministry of the Interior, Public Security, and Territorial Administration. To register, religious groups must prove they have a minimum of 1,000 members and their leaders have adequate religious education, as judged by the ministry.
The law permits the denial of registration to any religious group deemed offensive to public morals or likely to disturb social peace. It allows the suspension of registered religious groups if their activities are judged subversive by legal entities. There are no fees for registration as a religious organization. Registration confers official recognition and benefits, such as exemptions from customs tariffs for vehicles or equipment imported into the country. There are no penalties prescribed for groups that fail to register.
The law does not prohibit religious instruction in public or private schools, but religious instruction is not part of the public school curriculum.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The government continued to exercise limited control or influence in most of the country, and police and the gendarmerie failed to stop or punish abuses committed by militias, including killings, physical abuse, religious and gender-based violence, according to human rights organizations. The United National Multidimensional Stabilization Mission for Central Africa (MINUSCA) remained the only force capable of maintaining security in much of the country, but remained hampered in its ability to protect civilians due to limited resources and personnel.
According to religious leaders, government authorities continued to discriminate systematically against Muslims by denying them access to education and identity documents. In August the Ministry of Humanitarian Action and National Reconciliation launched public service announcements via nationwide radio stations, reaffirming the government’s commitment to treat all citizens equally. Observers and Muslim leaders, however, stated Muslims continued to experience ongoing discrimination by government agencies and unequal access to public services. NGOs stated there was an increase in harassment and exclusion of Muslims from national decision-making processes.
In January the Bangui Criminal Court convicted former anti-Balaka Commander Rodrigue Ngaibona, known as General Andjilo, on charges of murder, criminal conspiracy, aggravated robbery, kidnapping, and illegal arms possession, and sentenced him to life in prison. He had been in pretrial detention since his capture by MINUSCA troops in 2015. According to media reports, Ngaibona could face additional charges from the Special Criminal Court (SCC), established to prosecute war crimes and serious human rights violations, on grounds of having orchestrated a massacre of Muslims in Bangui in 2013.
In November government officials transported Alfred “Rambo” Yekatom, an anti-Balaka commander and Member of Parliament accused of war crimes, including killings, deportation, and torture of Muslims, to The Hague and turned him over to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.
The government continued to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as official but unpaid holidays. President Faustin Touadera hosted an iftar with Muslim leaders at the Presidential Palace. During the dinner, President Touadera asked for tolerance and acceptance among all religious faiths.
The SCC held its inaugural session in October. It launched several formal investigations. At year’s end the investigations continued and no cases had come to trial.
MINUSCA supported government-led local peace and reconciliation initiatives that aimed to improve relationships between Christians and Muslims. The efforts included public outreach and sensitization workshops. MINUSCA assisted the government in its efforts to promote reconciliation through the media. Observers stated that in April the initiative helped counter inflammatory rhetoric and dispel rumors, and public meetings held under the auspices of the initiative helped to reassure vulnerable communities of their safety.
In June, following an educational workshop organized by the High Council of Communication, the national regulator, and MINUSCA, journalists from local media outlets worked to improve relationships between religious groups. They pledged to discontinue contributing to messages that incited hate based on religious differences and to improve the quality of their reporting with sensitivity toward their religious listeners and readers.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Non-State Actors
According to media and UN reports, armed groups, particularly the anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka, continued to control significant swaths of territory throughout the country and acted as de facto governments in the territory they controlled. According to the UN and human rights organizations, the humanitarian and human rights situation worsened in the southeast, where clashes continued among various armed groups.
On January 4, in Bangassou, a man identified as a Muslim stabbed Catholic priest Alain Blaise Bissialo. Church members stated they believed the attack was an attempt to thwart his activism and work towards Christian-Muslim reconciliation in Bangassou.
On February 7, three churches were burned and a pastor was killed in Bangui following the death of a gang leader at the hands of MINUSCA and the police.
On March 21, in the town of Seko, an unknown assailant shot and killed Catholic priest Joseph-Desire Angbabata. The incident occurred when he intervened to prevent an attack by members of the Christian community on Muslim refugees seeking shelter on church grounds.
In April, following an operation by MINUSCA and government forces to disarm an ex-Seleka militia group in the Muslim PK5 neighborhood, heavy clashes broke out during which MINUSCA troops battled armed militias and criminal gangs for several days. One UN peacekeeper and more than 20 civilians, mostly Muslim, died in the fighting. In the weeks following the clashes, violence spread outside of PK5 as both ex-Seleka and anti-Balaka militias carried out reprisal attacks, including against individuals on account of their perceived religious identity or affiliation.
Ex-Seleka gunmen from PK5 attacked the Catholic Notre-Dame de Fatima Church in Bangui on May 1, killing Catholic priest Toungoumale-Baba and 26 worshippers. More than 100 persons were injured when the attackers sprayed the church with bullets and detonated grenades, according to media and survivor reports. This attack was followed by revenge attacks by members of the Christian community, including the lynching deaths of three Muslims and the burning of two mosques.
In mid-May unknown assailants killed three Muslim civilians in Bambari. Muslim civilians in the local community, backed by the Muslim-dominated Union for Peace in the Central African Republic (UPC) militias, then attacked an IDP camp occupied by Christians and the gendarmerie located in the same Christian area. During the attack, one police officer was killed, two others injured, and the IDPs were left in what the UN described as “desperate humanitarian conditions.”
On June 29 suspected members of the UPC militia killed Father Firmin Gbagoua, Catholic Vicar-General of Bambari. According to the secretary general of the Central African Human Rights Observatory, he may have been targeted because the UPC believed he was giving preferential treatment to Christians by denouncing attacks inflicted by Muslims in the area. Following the killing, Catholic officials expressed concern for the safety of their clerics.
A MINUSCA report on human rights violations indicated the overall security situation in Haute-Kotto Prefecture remained volatile, with sporadic fighting between anti-Balaka and ex-Seleka groups, and civilians bearing the brunt of the fighting as they were often caught in crossfire or targeted in retaliatory attacks based on ethnic or religious affiliation. According to the report, as many as 30 civilians (including at least 12 women and two children) may have been killed and at least six injured during attacks along the Bria-Irabanda road and in Bria town and its vicinity from August 5 to September 10.
On November 15, UPC militia attacked the Catholic cathedral in Alindao and a neighboring IDP camp, which was completely destroyed. The militia set the cathedral on fire and two Catholic clerics, Bishop Blaise Mada and Father Celestin Ngoumbango, were killed along with more than 40 Christian civilians. Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Bangui Father Mathieu Bondobo told Vatican News that Bishop Mada had been receiving threats, indicating that the attack was premeditated. According to a Christian advocacy organization, the attack stemmed from perceptions that the clerics killed were showing preferential treatment towards Christians in IDP camps and sheltering anti-Balaka elements at the church. On December 4, the UPC attacked an IDP camp run by a local Catholic church in Ippy town. The attackers razed the camp, destroying temporary shelters and personal belongings.
The UN Panel of Experts on the Central African Republic reported in December that hate speech and incitement to ethnic and religious-based violence had reached unprecedented levels. The report cited a statement published by the League for the Defense of the Church following the June killing of Father Gbagoua, which called on “all Christians to join us and support the movement [the league] so that Muslims also feel endangered in the Central African Republic, especially in Bangui.” The panel also stated some anti-Balaka affiliated groups were carrying out targeted attacks against the local Muslim population.
UN peacekeepers stated local anti-Balaka soldiers and Christian community members subjected returning Muslims to harassment and abuse. Displaced Muslim minorities lived predominantly in peacekeeper-protected enclaves and the return to their homes proceeded very slowly, according to international organizations.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
NGOs reported religion continued to be a primary feature dividing the population. Many Muslim communities remained displaced in the western part of the country, where according to media reports, they were not allowed to practice their religion freely.
Religious leaders generally avoided characterizing the ongoing conflicts as religiously based. Instead, they identified political and economic power struggles and foreign influence as the root causes.
Catholic Cardinal Dieudonne Nzapalainga cited the practice of Christian leaders sheltering Muslims and Muslim leaders sheltering Christians fleeing conflicts in their respective homesteads. He highlighted the central role ownership of land and mineral resources played in exacerbating tensions that led to interreligious violence. Muslim Imam Omar Kobine Layama echoed Nzapalaninga’s view and said the militias and criminal elements had instrumentalized religion to deflect from the true cause of the conflict. Both Christian and Muslim religious leaders rejected the idea that religion was the cause of the conflict.
In the predominantly Muslim Fulani community, there were complaints that Christian sponsors financed most local media outlets, and these reported negative comments directed towards Muslims. Since September 2015, there have been no Muslim-operated radio stations or Muslim-oriented programs on national radio stations.
Muslims reported social discrimination and marginalization, including their inability to move freely throughout the country or have equal access to schools, hospitals, or government, and most privately funded, services.
According to religious leaders, Muslims throughout the country faced challenges within their communities because of ethnic differences, such as Muslims of Arab and Peulh (Fulani) ethnicity. For example, sources stated some Muslims of Arab descent considered themselves superior to Muslims of other ethnicities, and that Muslims who converted from Christianity were frequently treated as inferiors among the Muslim population. The sources also stated that these converts were often prevented from living in and interacting with some Muslim communities.
Before his death, Father Gbagoua said some Christians reported they felt marginalized by the MINUSCA peacekeeping forces and that, because a large number of MINUSCA forces were Muslims, they exhibited a bias towards their coreligionists.
On February 17, members of the Organization of Young Volunteers for Development (OJVD), a Christian organization, visited the Attik Mosque in Bangui, where they met and discussed peace and cohesion with the Muslim imam. Participants said this meeting signaled a significant step toward greater interreligious dialogue, especially following the recent outbreaks of violence in Bangui. Leading the OJVD delegation was its founding president, a former anti-Balaka chief.
On January 14, the secretary general of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bangui expressed concern over the increased number of attacks against churches and mosques as well as the killing of religious leaders. On a separate occasion, Cardinal Nzapalainga and Imam Layama jointly denounced the killing of religious leaders. In January the Central African Episcopal Conference, representing Catholic bishops in the country, made a public announcement via local media in which it emphasized the organization’s condemnation of sectarian violence and encouragement of interreligious community peace across the country.
On June 12, Cardinal Nzapalainga called on the population of the primarily Christian community of Yakite District, close to PK5, and Muslim armed groups in PK5, to make peace.
On May 25, the PCRC organized a meeting with participants from various religious groups. They drafted a joint memorandum calling on the government to use the SCC to prosecute individuals who committed crimes against citizens on account of their religious affiliation.
During a closing Eid-al-Fitr ceremony on June 29, former national anti-Balaka spokesperson Emotion Namsio and former ex-Seleka leader General Abdel Kalhil (Christian and Muslim, respectively) called upon the audience of approximately 100 participants of Christians and Muslims to cease attacking each other because of their religious preferences. The ceremony was held in a mosque located in a Christian neighborhood in Bangui.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with President Touadera, the presidential advisor for national reconciliation, and the minister of social affairs and reconciliation, embassy representatives raised concerns about religious freedom and the safe return of refugees and IDPs to their home communities. They encouraged the government representatives to implement outreach activities aimed at religious communities and publicly condemn attacks on religious structures. Citing the attacks on a Catholic church in Bangui, which was followed by retaliatory attacks on Muslims, they also called on the government to provide security for all citizens, regardless of faith.
Embassy officials regularly engaged with religious leaders, including Cardinal Nzapalainga, leaders of the interdenominational faiths, imams, and the Coordinating Committee for Central African Muslim Organizations, on issues related to religious freedom and reconciliation and explored opportunities to broaden access and dialogue with elected officials.
The U.S. embassy continued to fund a consortium formed to build up the capacity of the PCRC to bolster its high-profile role in promoting social cohesion, including reconciliation between religious communities.
During the April and May upsurge in violence, embassy officials met regularly with representatives of the Christian and Muslim communities, including anti-Balaka and armed group representatives, to urge them to refrain from further violent action.
In mid-May embassy officials, who were the first foreign diplomats to enter Bangui’s Muslim-majority PK5 District since the violent upsurge in April, called for peace and reconciliation.
In June the embassy hosted an iftar with 60 Muslim and Christian guests. Participants included officials from the government, members of the diplomatic corps, and private sector and NGO representatives. Embassy officials emphasized a message of tolerance and acceptance of diversity, stressing the need for peace and asking guests to continue the spirit of coexistence that marked the day.
On July 7, embassy staff, other diplomatic representatives, and MINUSCA leadership visited the Muslim-majority district of PK5 in Bangui. They met with Muslim community leaders and discussed ways to improve security and freedom to ensure peaceful practice of Islam.
The constitution prohibits religious discrimination and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the practice of one’s religion. The country’s 16 states exercise considerable autonomy on registration of religious groups and other matters. Unrecognized religious groups are ineligible for tax benefits. The federal and some state offices of the domestic intelligence service continued to monitor the activities of certain Muslim groups. Authorities also monitored the Church of Scientology (COS), which reported continued government discrimination against its members. Certain states continued to ban or restrict the use of religious clothing or symbols, including headscarves, for some state employees, particularly teachers and courtroom officials. While senior government leaders continued to condemn anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment, some members of the federal parliament and state assemblies from the Alternative for Germany (AfD) Party again made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. The federal and seven state governments appointed anti-Semitism commissioners for the first time, following a recommendation in a parliament-commissioned 2017 experts’ report to create a federal anti-Semitism commissioner in response to growing anti-Semitism. The federal anti-Semitism commissioner serves as a contact for Jewish groups and coordinates initiatives to combat anti-Semitism in the federal ministries. In July the government announced it would increase social welfare funding for Holocaust survivors by 75 million euros ($86 million) in 2019. In March Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture, and that the country was characterized by Christianity. In May the Bavarian government decreed that every public building in the state must display a cross in a clearly visible location near its entrance.
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents. These included assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts. Jews expressed security concerns after several widely publicized anti-Semitic attacks, coupled with reports of anti-Semitic bullying in schools. Final federal crime statistics cite 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes during the year, including 69 involving violence, an increase of 20 percent compared with 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, in 2017. The federal crime statistics attributed 93 percent of the 2017 crimes to the far right. A study covering 2007-2017 by the Technical University of Berlin found online anti-Semitism was at its highest level ever recorded. There were demonstrations expressing anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiment and protests against what participants described as radical Islam. The Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) continued to make public statements opposing the COS.
The U.S. embassy and five consulates general monitored the government’s responses to incidents of religious intolerance and expressed concerns about anti-Semitic, anti-Christian, and anti-Muslim acts. Embassy representatives met regularly with the newly appointed federal government anti-Semitism commissioner at the Ministry of Interior. The embassy and consulates general maintained a dialogue with a broad spectrum of religious communities and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) on their concerns about religious freedom and on ways to promote tolerance and communication among religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 80.5 million (July 2018 estimate). Unofficial estimates based on the census and figures provided by religious groups indicate approximately 29 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and 27 percent belongs to the EKD – a confederation of Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), and United (Prussian Union) Protestant regional churches. Other Protestant denominations, including the New Apostolic Church, Baptist communities, and nondenominational Christians, combined account for less than 1 percent of the population. Orthodox Christians represent 2.4 percent of the population.
According to government estimates, approximately 6.3 percent of the population is Muslim, of which 75 percent is Sunni, 13 percent Alevi, and 7 percent Shia; the remainder identifies simply as “Muslim.” According to the Ministry of Interior, approximately 25 percent of Muslims are recent immigrants; between 2011 and 2015, an estimated 1.2 million refugees arrived from predominately Muslim countries. Estimates of the Jewish population vary widely; the Central Council of Jews estimates it at 200,000. The Central Welfare Office for Jews in Germany reported that Jewish communities had approximately 100,000 members at the end of 2017. According to Religious Studies Media and Information Service (REMID), a secular, religious studies NGO, groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists (270,000); Jehovah’s Witnesses (222,000); Hindus (100,000); Yezidis (100,000); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) (40,000); Sikhs (15,000); and COS (5,000-10,000). All of REMID’s estimates are based only on members who have registered with a religious group. According to the nonprofit Research Group Worldviews Germany, approximately 36 percent of the population either has no religious affiliation or belongs to religious groups not counted in the government’s statistics.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution (also known as the basic law) prohibits discrimination based on religious opinion and provides for freedom of faith and conscience and the freedom to profess a religious or philosophical creed and to practice one’s religion. The constitution also prohibits an official state church. It stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religious convictions nor be compelled to participate in religious acts. The constitution states religious instruction shall be part of the curriculum in public schools and that parents have the right to decide whether their children shall receive religious instruction. It recognizes the right to establish private denominational schools. The constitution guarantees the freedom to form religious societies and states groups may organize themselves for private religious purposes without constraint. It allows registered religious groups with Public Law Corporation (PLC) status to receive public subsidies from the states and provide religious services in the military, at hospitals, and in prisons.
The federal criminal code prohibits calling for violence or arbitrary measures against religious groups or their members or inciting hatred against them. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison. It also prohibits “assaulting the human dignity of religious groups or their members by insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming them,” specifying a maximum penalty of five years in prison, although prison sentences are rare. The prohibition and the penalties apply equally to online speech. The federal criminal code prohibits disturbing religious services or acts of worship, with violators subject to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years. The law bans Nazi propaganda, Holocaust denial, and fomenting racial hatred, specifying a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment.
The law permits the federal government to characterize “nontraditional” religious groups as “sects,” “youth religions,” and “youth sects,” and allows the government to provide “accurate information” or warnings about them to the public. The law does not permit the government to use terms such as “destructive,” “pseudo-religious,” or “manipulative” when referring to these groups. Several court decisions have ruled the government must remain neutral towards a religion and may provide a warning to the public only if an “offer” by a religious group would endanger the basic rights of an individual or place the individual in a state of physical or financial dependence.
Religious groups wishing to qualify as nonprofit associations with tax-exempt status must register. State-level authorities review registration submissions and routinely grant tax-exempt status; if challenged, their decisions are subject to judicial review. Religious groups applying for tax-exempt status must provide evidence through their statutes, history, and activities that they are a religious group.
A special partnership exists between the states and religious groups with PLC status, as outlined in the constitution. Any religious group may request PLC status, which, if granted, entitles the group to levy tithes on members (averaging 9 percent of income tax) that each state collects on its behalf, separately from income taxes, but through the state’s tax collection process. PLCs pay fees to the government for the tithing service, but not all groups with PLC status utilize the service. PLC status also allows for tax exemptions (larger than those given to groups with nonprofit status), representation on supervisory boards of public television and radio stations, and the right to special labor regulations, for example, requiring employees in hospitals, kindergartens, or NGOs run by a religious group to be members of that group. State governments subsidize institutions with PLC status providing public services, such as religious schools and hospitals. Due to historic “state-church contracts” dating back to before the Weimar republic, all state governments except for Bremen and Hamburg subsidize the Catholic Church and the EKD with different yearly amounts.
According to the constitution, the decision to grant PLC status is made at the state level. Individual states base PLC status decisions on a number of varying qualifications, including an assurance of the group’s permanence, size, and respect for the constitutional order and fundamental rights of individuals. An estimated 180 religious groups have PLC status, including Catholics, the EKD, Baha’is, Baptists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Mennonites, Methodists, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-day Adventists. Ahmadi Muslim groups have PLC status in the states of Hesse and Hamburg; no other Muslim communities have PLC status. The COS does not have PLC or nonprofit status in any state.
According to a ruling by the Federal Constitutional Court, general headscarf bans for teachers at public schools are a violation of religious freedom, but implementation is left to the states, which may determine if special circumstances apply. Bavaria, North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW), and Saarland render decisions on a case-by-case basis. Schleswig-Holstein, Hamburg, and Bremen do not prohibit headscarves for teachers. Hesse permits teachers to wear headscarves as long as doing so does not impair “school peace” or threaten perceptions of state neutrality. A law in Berlin bans visible signs of religious affiliation for police, lawyers, judges, law enforcement staff, and primary and secondary public school teachers. The Berlin law permits teachers at some categories of institutions, such as vocational schools, to wear headscarves. Other states have laws that restrict religious attire in certain circumstances.
In April the Bavarian Parliament amended its legislation to prohibit judges, prosecutors, and judicial trainees from wearing religious symbols in court.
Citing safety reasons and the need for traffic law enforcement, federal law prohibits the concealment of faces while driving. Infractions are punishable by a 60 euro ($69) fine.
Some federal and state laws affect religious practices. Federal animal protection laws prohibit the killing of animals without anesthesia, including as part of halal and kosher slaughter practices. However, there are exceptions. Pursuant to a Federal Administrative Court decision, trained personnel may kill animals without anesthesia in a registered slaughterhouse under observation of the local veterinary inspection office if the meat is for consumption only by members of religious communities whose beliefs require slaughtering animals without anesthesia.
According to federal law, religious groups may appoint individuals with special training to carry out circumcision of males under the age of six months. After six months, the law states circumcisions must be performed in a “medically professional manner” and without unnecessary pain.
All states offer religious instruction and ethics courses in public schools. Religious communities with PLC status (or without such status that have concluded a special agreement with the state that grants them this right) appoint religion teachers and work with the states to set the curriculum for religious education in line with the constitution; the states pay the teachers’ salaries. Most public schools offer the option of Protestant and Catholic religious instruction in cooperation with those Churches, as well as instruction in Judaism if enough students (usually 12, although regulations vary state to state) express an interest. The states of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Berlin, Hesse, Lower Saxony, NRW, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saarland, and Schleswig-Holstein also offer some religious instruction in Islam, with the teachers provided by the religious community or by the government, depending on the state. In Bavaria and Schleswig-Holstein, the state provides this instruction; in the other federal states, Muslim communities or associations do. In Hamburg and Bremen, nondenominational religious instruction for all students is offered by the Protestant Church and the state, respectively.
In Bavaria, teachers provide Islamic instruction to approximately 15,000 students in 219 primary schools and 118 middle and secondary schools under a pilot program expiring in 2019. In the fall, NRW began providing Islamic religious instruction in 20 occupational (vocational) schools.
Students who do not wish to participate in religious instruction may opt out; in some states those who opt out may substitute ethics courses. State authorities generally permit religious groups to establish private schools as long as they meet basic curriculum requirements. Schooling is constitutionally mandated, and homeschooling, including for religious reasons, is prohibited in all the states.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In January the federal government created the new position of commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism. The new commissioner, Felix Klein, started work in May. The appointment followed federal parliament enactment of a resolution entitled “Resolutely Combating Anti-Semitism” on January 18. The resolution called for creation of an anti-Semitism commissioner and expressed appreciation for the government’s 2017 decision to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA’s) working definition of anti-Semitism. It also called for deportation of foreigners that incite anti-Semitic hatred, “determined” countering of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, continued punishment for persons who denied or trivialized the Holocaust, and further financing – including with Muslim organizations and mosques – for projects to combat anti-Semitism, as well as continued financial support for Jewish communities and memorials of the Holocaust. A 2017 report on anti-Semitism in the country by independent experts had also called for the appointment of a federal commissioner on anti-Semitism, as well as improved documentation and punishment of anti-Semitic crimes and better advisory services for those affected by anti-Semitism.
In October Klein announced that he planned to implement a nationwide system of recording anti-Semitic incidents below the threshold of criminal offenses. During a visit to Israel, he announced cooperation with the Israeli government in encouraging third party states to apply the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and to develop codes of conduct for governments’ interactions with social media companies to combat online anti-Semitism. On December 20, Klein announced the 2019 launch of a nationwide online platform for reporting anti-Semitic incidents. The platform will be run by the Research and Information Center for Anti-Semitism (RIAS), a nonprofit organization that receives some federal and state funding. The Ministry of Interior also announced it would establish a separate anti-Semitism department and add experts on Jewish life to the religious department. Klein repeatedly encouraged the federal states to establish their own anti-Semitism commissioners.
Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse, Bavaria, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt and NRW established anti-Semitism commissioners. The responsibilities and functions of the position varied by state, but generally included developing contacts with the Jewish community, collecting statistics on anti-Semitic incidents, and designing education and prevention programs. In November the federal and state level anti-Semitism commissioners met for the first time to discuss best practices and identify areas of cooperation.
In November Baden-Wuerttemberg opened an anti-discrimination office. The state government said it would serve as a point of contact for those experiencing any form of discrimination, including religious discrimination.
In March NRW Minister-President Armin Laschet advocated granting PLC status to Muslim organizations. In January the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat requested PLC status in NRW, and the application was pending at year’s end.
In November Rhineland-Palatinate announced it was planning to sign a state agreement with the Muslim Alevite community. According to the state chancellery, the agreement would outline conditions for Alevi holidays and religious instruction in schools. At year’s end, four Rhineland-Palatinate elementary schools offered Alevi religious instruction. The government was scheduled to sign the agreement in March 2019.
In August the state of Rhineland-Palatinate announced it would stop negotiations to establish a “religion treaty” with the Turkish Islamic Union for Religious Affairs (DITIB) and three other Islamic organizations, Schura Rheinland-Palatinate, Ahmadiyya, and the Association of Islamic Cultural Centers. Such an agreement would have been a precondition for introducing state-wide Islamic religious education in public schools, but the state followed two expert opinion reports that had questioned DITIB’s independence from the Turkish government and the organizations’ “constitutional adequacy” as official partners for the state. State authorities also classified DITIB and Schura as “suspicious.”
In December media reported the Hesse State criminal police office started an investigation of a possible neo-Nazi network in Frankfurt’s police force after a group of police officers allegedly sent a threatening letter to a German lawyer of Turkish origin. In August investigators said they had found police officials used a work computer to look up the lawyer’s personal information without an official reason, and also found a group of five police officers had been sharing neo-Nazi images and content. Authorities suspended the five officers from duty, and the case remained under investigation at year’s end.
According to reports from the federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (OPC) – the domestic intelligence service – and state OPCs and COS members, the federal and state OPCs in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Berlin, Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony, NRW, and Thuringia continued to monitor the activities of the COS, reportedly by evaluating Scientology publications and members’ public activities to determine whether they violated the constitution. In September following the opening of new representational COS offices in Stuttgart, a Baden-Wuerttemberg state OPC spokesperson said state and national COS membership had decreased by one third since 1997, and suggested that the OPC’s monitoring of the COS deterred membership. COS leadership disputed the state OPC’s statement that membership had declined. At least four major political parties (the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Federal Democratic Party (FDP)) continued to exclude Scientologists from party membership.
Federal and state OPCs continued to monitor a number of Muslim groups, including Salafist movements, ISIS, Hezbollah, Hamas, Turkish Hezbollah (TH), Hizb ut-Tahrir, Tablighi Jama’at, Millatu Ibrahim, the Islamic Center Hamburg (IZH), the Muslim Brotherhood, and Milli Gorus. The website of NRW’s OPC stated the Muslim Brotherhood “rejects democracy.”
Groups under OPC observation continued to say their status as meriting OPC scrutiny implied they were extremist and constrained their ability to apply for publicly funded projects.
In January the Hamburg Regional Court acquitted 12 alleged members of the banned Salafist group Millatu Ibrahim. The Hamburg state attorney’s office charged that the men had, among other offenses, stormed a mosque in Luebeck, Schleswig-Holstein in 2013 and threatened to kill those who did not adhere to Millatu Ibrahim’s convictions. The state attorney’s office stated it was convinced of the defendants’ guilt but that it had failed to prove the allegations.
In July Hamburg began to record hate crimes in a more detailed manner. Hamburg Justice Senator (the city-state’s minister of justice) Till Stefen told the newspaper Welt in June the statistics would improve sentencing and make sociopolitical developments more visible. Stefen added, “We need new sources to make anti-Semitic crimes visible.” Hamburg State Attorney General Jorg Frohlich stated that collecting the new statistics would require significant additional work but that “every progress is worthwhile” when combating hate crime.
In September Bavaria established a hotline for reporting anti-Semitic incidents, according to the state’s anti-Semitism commissioner. Bavarian authorities said the hotline would begin operations in spring 2019.
In May federal statistical data on the number of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian hate crimes became available for the first time. Police had added the categories to their criminal statistics in 2017. Anti-Semitism was already a category of hate crime in federal crime statistics.
In February Baden-Wuerttemberg announced the state would start organizing training for Muslim chaplains at correctional facilities, rather than rely on outside organizations to conduct the training. In the same month media reported the state OPC had barred three of 16 imams who were graduates of a third-party training course from serving as prison chaplains because of what the OPC said were the imam’s contacts with radical Islamist organizations.
In May Bavarian Minister-President Markus Soeder announced a decree requiring public offices to display a cross in a visible place at the entrance area of the building where they were located. According to Soeder, the decree was intended to highlight Bavaria’s cultural and historical roots.
In March the Federal Constitutional Court dismissed the suit of a woman who wanted to drive wearing a niqab. The court stated the woman had not sufficiently demonstrated how the law prohibiting driving with a face covering restricted her religious freedom.
In March the Koblenz police district completed a disciplinary review of a male Muslim police officer who in 2017 refused to shake the hand of a female colleague, citing religious reasons. Police officials disciplined the officer, and ordered him to pledge his allegiance to the constitution in writing and pay a fine of 1,000 euros ($1,100). They also instructed the officer, on penalty of dismissal, not to refuse to shake the hands of women in the future when acting in an official capacity.
In May the Berlin Labor Court ruled against a teacher in Berlin who had sued the school system in 2017 for transferring her from a primary school to a school for older children because state law barred women who wore a headscarf from teaching younger children. The court decided the state administration had the right to transfer its teachers to any other post of the same salary level.
In November the State Labor Court of Berlin and Brandenburg awarded approximately 5,000 euros ($5,700) to a job applicant in compensation for discrimination on the grounds of religion. The job applicant, trained in information technology, said the school where she applied to work as a teacher had rejected her because she wore a headscarf. In May the local labor court had ruled that, because teachers served as a model for young students, the school was justified in limiting her religious freedom and asking her to teach without a headscarf. The state court, however, saw no indication that a teacher wearing a headscarf would have threatened “school peace,” and quoted the Federal Constitutional Court’s 2015 decision that such a threat was a necessary condition for prohibiting teachers from wearing headscarves.
In April the NRW integration ministry announced it would examine legal requirements for a headscarf ban for girls younger than 14, the age of so-called “religious majority.” The state integration minister stated in an interview that wearing a headscarf was a personal decision, but children lacked the self determination to decide and should not be pressured. Critics of the proposed ban, including some teachers, asked how the ban would be enforced. The federal integration commissioner and the chairwoman of the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency spoke against the ban while federal FDP Party Chair Christian Lindner and CDU Party Vice Chair and federal Minister of Agriculture Julia Kloeckner supported it. By year’s end, the NRW state government had not decided on the proposed ban and said it expected to continue debating the issue through the end of 2019.
In April a Muslim woman wearing a niqab left a reception by Heiner Bernhard (SPD Party), the mayor of Weinheim in Baden-Wuerttemberg, after she refused a request by a town employee to show her face. The mayor stated he wished “to greet all citizens of his town face to face,” and that he considered it a “citizen’s duty” to show one’s face in a democratic state. Shortly before the incident, the municipality had refused to process a pending passport application for the woman’s child because, according to Mayor Bernhard, the mother declined to show her face for identification purposes, as required by law, while applying for the passport on behalf of her child. Bernhard told the newspaper Welt, “For identity verification, we had to see the woman’s face. She could have gone to a separate room in our town hall.”
In September the city of Pforzheim announced it had reversed a regulation requiring Muslim women wishing to wear a headscarf in their driver’s license photograph to present evidence of their faith through a certificate from their mosque or religious community. Earlier in the year, a Muslim woman’s tweet about the requirement had generated strong criticism of it on social media. The new policy required certificates of faith only in cases where there was reasonable doubt about the religious motivation of those seeking to wear a headscarf in the photograph.
In February the AfD put forward a motion requesting the government to introduce legislation in parliament to prohibit full-face veils in public. Citing the individual rights of Muslim women, the AfD motion stated that wearing a full-face veil was “an expression of the oppression of women” and of conscious distancing from “Western liberal society.” At year’s end parliament was still debating the motion in committee.
In March the Bavarian Administrative Court rejected the complaint of a judicial trainee in Augsburg who in 2014 had sued to contest a Bavarian Ministry of Justice rule denying judicial trainees the right to wear a headscarf in court. A lower court had previously sided with the plaintiff in 2016.
In July a majority of the citizens of Kaufbeuren, Bavaria voted in a referendum against leasing (for a symbolic fee) municipal real estate to the local DITIB organization on which to build a mosque.
In March the Higher Administrative Court in Muenster, NRW ruled that an event venue owner could not rent his venue for a Muslim circumcision celebration scheduled for Good Friday. The ruling reaffirmed a December 2015 ruling by the Administrative Court in Cologne. The circumcision itself had taken place several weeks before the scheduled celebration and the court ruled that the jubilant nature of the event contradicted the quiet nature of the Christian Good Friday observance, which several federal states, including NRW, legally enforced.
In February the Gelsenkirchen Administrative Court in NRW banned outdoor amplification of the call to prayer via speakers by a local mosque. Following legal action by nearby residents in 2015, the Muslim community had to stop amplifying the prayer call outside of the mosque’s premises pending a court decision. The court justified its decision in this specific case with the lack of citizen involvement and dialogue in the city’s first decision to grant the permit for the call to prayer but did not prohibit the call to prayer altogether. In March the city announced it would appeal the decision prohibiting the amplification. The city’s lawyer compared the call to prayer with the ringing of church bells and said the court had not respected the religious freedom of the Muslim community.
In October the Federal Labor Court ruled on new guidelines for the rights of religious communities as employers, ruling on a case in which the EKD-owned charity organization Diakonie denied employment to a social worker because she was not a member of a religious community. Although the job description required applicants to belong to a Christian church, the court ruled that Diakonie could not deny her employment solely on that basis. The court’s decision stated religious communities could no longer require applicants to belong to a religious community as a condition of employment unless religious communities could demonstrate that membership was required to perform the job.
In March the European Court of Human Rights unanimously held that the country’s courts’ decisions in 2013 to take Twelve Tribes Church children living in Bavaria into state care because of reports that Church members punished their children by caning had not violated Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
In March Foreign Minister Heiko Maas condemned rising anti-Semitism at schools after Muslim immigrant children bullied a Jewish girl at a Berlin elementary school. The bullying reportedly included death threats.
In May the NRW Ministry of Schools and Education distributed resources on countering anti-Semitic bullying in schools to all schools and education authorities in the state. The action followed reports indicating that bullying of Jewish students rose in 2017. Politicians from the CDU/CSU called for action, including that schools pay more attention to communicating religious tolerance.
In December Hamburg’s parliament passed a resolution to strengthen preventive work against anti-Semitism. The parliament allocated an additional 300,000 euros ($344,000) for school programs to combat anti-Semitism, including educational visits to former concentration camps, adult education, and anti-discrimination counseling. The parliament said it would cooperate with Hamburg’s Jewish community and organizations to support their efforts to combat anti-Semitism, and that its efforts would target right-wing extremist groups.
In May the education ministry of Brandenburg, and the education ministries of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate in June, signed declarations of intent with Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel to collaborate on Holocaust education in the states’ schools. In November Hamburg’s education ministry introduced educational materials on Jewish life from Yad Vashem as part of a broader effort to combat anti-Semitism in schools. Yad Vashem said it had concluded such agreements with 15 of 16 states in the country.
In June the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government announced plans to reorganize Islamic religious education in public schools. Minister-President Winfried Kretschmann said that, because of the absence of a single Islamic partner organization, he proposed establishing a Sunni Muslim educational foundation that would serve as a mediator between the state and various Islamic associations. The state government did not reach a decision on a new model for Islamic religious education and announced it would continue the existing system for an additional school year.
The Alevi Muslim community continued to offer separate religious lessons in schools in eight states for approximately 1,400 students.
In June Berlin Humboldt University, a public university, created an institute for Islamic theology and said it would begin training imams and religion teachers in 2019. The state of Berlin pledged to provide 13.8 million euros ($15.83 million) in funding for the institute through 2022. Humboldt University created the institute in cooperation with three Muslim associations – the Central Council of Muslims, Islamic Federation, and Islamic Association of Shia Communities – and the associations were to have a voice in selecting the institute’s professors. Critics, including student organizations and the Berlin CDU, said they disapproved of the extent of the associations’ control over the institute’s board, or of what they described as the associations’ conservative orientation.
During campaigning for the October Bavarian state elections, the Bavarian AfD distributed posters calling for “Islam-free schools,” which the party explained as a call to end “Islamic education and headscarves in schools.”
The COS continued to report governmental discrimination. “Sect filters,” which were signed statements by potential employees to confirm they had no contact with the COS, remained in use in the public and private sectors. According to the COS, in September a Munich school refused to hire a teacher due to his membership in the COS. The COS said the government also discriminated against firms owned or operated by its members. According to the COS, Hamburg city officials asked one COS member to sign a “sect filter” when he attempted to purchase land from the city for his company.
In April the Berlin Administrative Court dismissed a suit that the mosque association Neukoellner Begegnungsstaette (NBS) had brought against the Berlin OPC in 2017. NBS had sought to have the Berlin OPC remove the association’s name from its annual report and to stop stating NBS had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. The court ruled that the Berlin OPC’s statements that NBS had had contacts with the Islamic Community in Germany and that the latter group organized followers of the Muslim Brotherhood were valid.
In May the NRW state chancery spokesperson told media the state government stopped cooperation with DITIB due to the Turkish government’s influence over the group.
In July the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (also known as the Jewish Claims Conference) and the government announced an increase of 75 million euros ($86 million) of government funding for social welfare services for Holocaust survivors, raising the yearly contribution from 405 million euros ($464.45 million) in 2018 to 480 million euros ($550.46 million) in 2019. According to the commission, the increased funds would finance additional home care, food support, medicine, and transportation services for Holocaust survivors.
The government continued to subsidize some Jewish groups. Based on an agreement between the federal government and the Central Council of Jews in Germany, the federal government increased its yearly support from 10 to 13 million euros ($11.47 to $14.91 million) to help maintain Jewish cultural heritage, restore the Jewish community, and support integration and social work. In addition, the federal government provided financial support to the Institute for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg, the Rabbi Seminar at the University of Potsdam, and the Leo Baeck Institute, an international research group on the history and culture of German Jewry.
State governments continued to provide funds to Jewish communities and organizations in various amounts, for such purposes as the renovation and construction of synagogues. The federal government continued to cover 50 percent of maintenance costs for Jewish cemeteries. State and local police units continued to provide security for synagogues and other Jewish institutions.
In September the NRW government announced a ten-year plan totaling 44 million euros ($50.46 million), beginning in 2018 and ending in 2028, for the modernization and new construction of Jewish facilities and institutions. The state said funding would begin at three million euros ($3.44 million) and be increased by 200,000 euros ($229,000) annually until reaching the maximum funding level of five million euros ($5.73 million) in 2028. Separately, NRW again provided three million euros ($3.44 million) to support and upgrade security in Jewish buildings.
On November 8, the city of Dessau-Rosslau in Saxony-Anhalt presented the Jewish community with a piece of land to build a new synagogue in the center of town. The community received 195,000 euros ($224,000) from the city and 300,000 euros ($344,000) from the state’s lottery commission for the construction of the building, as well as 700,000 euros ($803,000) from the federal government. The Minister-President of Saxony-Anhalt, Reiner Hasselof, welcomed the new synagogue, stating it would increase the visibility of Jewish life in the city.
According to the Humanistic Union, an independent civil liberties organization, total state contributions during the year to the Catholic Church and the EKD amounted to approximately 538 million euros ($616.97 million). The union said it calculated its estimate based on the federal states’ budgets.
In June the NRW state government’s Center for Political Education organized six one-day information programs in six cities entitled Diverse Islam versus Violence-Prone Salafism: Opportunities for Intervention and Prevention. The stated goals were to help teachers and educators distinguish between Islam as a religion and what the organizers described as violent Islamist extremists, and to engage with youths vulnerable to religiously based extremism. Presenters were Muslim and non-Muslim academics, members of NGOs, and state government employees. Muslim religious leaders did not participate in the programs.
In July the NRW Ministry for Children, Family, Refugees, and Integration awarded 160,000 euros ($183,000) to the Central Council of Muslims in support of its Hands-on Diversity: Students against anti-Semitism project.
In January the Federal Constitutional Court reversed the 2016 acquittal by the Wuppertal Regional Court of seven members of a self-declared “Sharia Police” on charges of violating the prohibition on wearing uniforms as expressions of a common political opinion. Dressed in yellow vests marked “Sharia Police,” the men patrolled Wuppertal in September 2014 to counter “non-Muslim behavior.” The Constitutional Court remanded the case back to the lower court and stated the latter had failed to consider whether the uniforms caused intimidation or were otherwise threatening to the public. At year’s end the lower court had not scheduled a new trial date.
On July 9, the Berlin-based Jewish Forum for Democracy and anti-Semitism, in conjunction with several other Jewish organizations in the country, published a “declaration of principles on the fight against anti-Semitism.” While applauding several “well-intentioned” federal- and state-level public statements and initiatives over the previous months, the declaration called on the government to back up policies with concrete action. It cited the need to take victims seriously, distinguish anti-Semitism as a specific form of discrimination, and apply the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism. The signatories called upon the newly appointed federal and state commissioners on anti-Semitism to develop more effective preventative measures to combat it and to learn from the experiences of victims to develop more effective preventive measures. They also called on federal and state government agencies and publicly funded institutions to explicitly distance themselves from all form of anti-Semitism, including campaigns such as BDS.
Frankfurt Deputy Mayor and City Treasurer Uwe Becker targeted the BDS movement against Israel on numerous occasions and called for a ban of BDS in Germany. In April Becker said “Frankfurt will, in the future, only work with banks which do not maintain business relations with the anti-Semitic BDS movement.” In June he added that artists who supported the BDS movement were not welcome in Frankfurt and festivals or organizations in Frankfurt supporting BDS or providing a platform to its supporters risked losing city funding.
In September the NRW State Parliament condemned the BDS movement and its calls to boycott Israeli products and companies, as well as Israeli scientists and artists in NRW. The parliament also requested that all NRW government organizations deny BDS requests to use city, municipality, and county spaces.
In December Jewish community leaders in Duesseldorf said they believe NRW could still do more to combat anti-Semitism, and they found state-level responses to the BDS movement to be insufficient and weak.
On January 1, the government implemented procedures for registering complaints and violations of the law barring hate speech enacted in late 2017. The procedures stipulated operators of social networks with more than two million users in the country, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, must delete or block “obviously illegal content” within 24 hours after notification or, in more complex cases, within seven days. Operators must name a representative in the country able to react to complaints within 48 hours. Operators failing to comply systematically with the requirements were subject to fines of up to 50 million euros ($57.34 million). By year’s end the government had not penalized any companies under the law. Anti-Semitism Commissioner of Baden-Wuerttemberg Michael Blume reported the new law had had little effect on the spread of anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech, as groups simply chose to use other, less public social media forms such as WhatsApp groups and video game chat rooms not covered by the law.
In March federal Interior Minister Seehofer stated the phrase “Islam is part of Germany,” which former President Christian Wulff and other politicians had popularized, was wrong. “No. Islam is not part of Germany,” he said. Seehofer added that Muslims in the country “are, of course, part of Germany,” but that he did not consider Islam to be a part of the country’s culture. The minister’s statements led to a public debate on the role of Islam and Muslims in the country. Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that, while the country was shaped by its Judeo-Christian heritage, “Now there are four million Muslims living in Germany” who “can live their religion here, too.” Several Muslim associations criticized the minister’s statements. Gokay Sofuoglu, chair of the advocacy group Turkish Community in Germany, said, “At a time when there are more and more attacks on mosques and Muslims, it is not a good start if the minister of the interior begins with such a statement.” He also stated that “it is not his [Seehofer’s] job to decide who belongs to Germany and who does not.” Addressing Seehofer’s remarks, Islamic Council Chair Burhan Kesici said, “He does not have the decency to withhold his opinion.…It would be better to recognize reality and see Muslims as part of society. Only then could prejudices be reduced.” Ayman Mazyek, Chair of the Central Council of Muslims, commented, “Against the backdrop of the mosque fires and the increased Islamophobic attacks, I would have expected the new interior minister to stand behind German Muslims.”
In September Hans Peter Stauch, an AfD state parliament member in Baden-Wuerttemberg, posted a video on Facebook entitled “The Power of the Rothschilds.” The video included statements that the Rothschilds, a Jewish banking family, were responsible for World War II and the Holocaust. Baden-Wuerttemberg’s state commissioner for anti-Semitism and the heads of the state-level Green, SPD, and FDP parties criticized Stauch, saying that he was spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Stauch responded that he had only posted the video without commentary and said he was exercising his freedom of speech.
In January AfD Bundestag (federal parliament) member Beatrix von Storch tweeted that Cologne police were appeasing “barbaric, gang-raping, Muslim hordes” when the police tweeted a New Year’s Day greeting in Arabic. Twitter briefly suspended von Storch’s account. Thomas Held, spokesman for the Cologne police, confirmed to media that the Cologne police initiated a criminal report against von Storch for suspicion of inciting hatred, stating that this was “a completely normal procedure” which they were “legally obliged” to start upon the suspicion of a criminal offense. Additionally, approximately 100 private individuals reported von Storch’s tweet to police. Twitter also deleted a tweet by AfD Parliamentary Caucus Chief Alice Weidel, defending her colleague by using the phrase “imported, marauding, grabbing, beating, knife stabbing migrant mobs.”
In May Weidel argued in a parliamentary debate that the uncontrolled immigration of Muslims endangered the wealth of the country, stating, “Burquas, headscarf girls, subsidized knife men, and other good-for-nothings will not secure our wealth, the economic growth, and most of all our welfare state.” Representatives of all other parties present in parliament reacted with interjections and booing. Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble called her to order for “discriminating against all women who wear a headscarf.”
In July a group of AfD party members from Weidel’s Bodensee electoral district in Baden-Wuerttemberg visited the Sachsenhausen concentration camp memorial in Brandenburg State as part of a trip to Berlin sponsored by the federal press office. According to the memorial site’s staff, some participants continuously interrupted the guided tour with inappropriate comments, including speech that trivialized Nazi crimes and questioned the existence of gas chambers. The federal press office stated one participant made anti-Semitic statements. Neuruppin public prosecutor Wilfried Lehman was investigating the case, and stated in November that his office hoped to complete the investigation by year’s end, and he already had sufficient evidence for one case of Holocaust denial.
On April 26, the Bundestag condemned the increasing number of anti-Semitic incidents and attacks in the country, and emphasized its support for Israel’s right to exist. “It is intolerable when Jewish life in Germany is not possible without fear,” said SPD party leader Andrea Nahles. Volker Kauder (who at the time was CDU/CSU parliamentary caucus leader), said “Everyone has a place in this society,” but that there was no place for anti-Semitism.
In May the Rostock District Court upheld a lower court’s 2016 finding that AfD state Member of Parliament (MP) Holger Arppe was guilty of hate speech against Muslims for comments he wrote on the right-wing website Politically Incorrect in 2010, while using a pseudonym. The court increased Arppe’s fine from 6,300 to 9,000 euros (from $7,200 to $10,300).
On February 8, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court found the creator of the banned Altermedia neo-Nazi website guilty of leadership in a criminal association and inciting racial hatred and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison. Three women, charged with supporting the website and incitement, were convicted and received suspended sentences ranging from eight months to two years. The court declared the platform a criminal organization. It had published content that denied the Holocaust and targeted Jews, immigrants, and foreigners; the federal interior minister closed it in 2016.
According to the Central Council of Muslims (ZMD), political parties continued to distance themselves from Islamic associations because they were concerned foreign nations and organizations could influence Muslims with money and by sending radical imams to mosques in the country.
As part of the coalition agreement between the ruling CDU/CSU and SPD parties, the government agreed to continue the German Islam Conference dialogue between representatives of the government and Muslims in the country, which began in 2006. The conference’s aim was to improve the religious and social participation of the Muslim population in the country, give greater recognition to Muslims’ contributions to society, and, in the absence of a central organization representing all Muslims in the country, further develop partnerships between the government and Islamic organizations. In November the government held its fourth German Islam Conference, a two-day conference with 240 participants. Conference attendees included representatives of Muslim associations, communities, scholars, and activists. Interior Minister Seehofer called on Muslim communities to cut their ties with sources of foreign funding and influence, develop their own training systems for the country’s imams, and increase their cooperation with the country’s government. Federal Integration Commissioner Annette Widmann-Mauz, reiterating concerns about the foreign financing of the country’s mosques, said, “Those who want to be part of Germany as a Muslim organization cannot remain part of Ankara.”
In January Sawsan Chebli, a Berlin state legislator of Palestinian heritage, proposed the government require that “everybody living in this country” visit Nazi concentration camp memorials at least once. She added that newly arrived immigrants should visit the memorials as part of programs to integrate them into society, in order to sensitize them to Nazi crimes against Jews and combat anti-Semitism. The country’s Central Council of Jews and the World Jewish Congress endorsed the proposal. Council President Josef Schuster told Deutschlandfunk Radio that migrants who had fled or been expelled from their home countries could develop empathy by visiting such memorials. The proposal generated debate and was not adopted. Critics said such visits should be voluntary and preceded by prior education about the Holocaust. Gunter Morsch, Director of the Brandenburg Memorials Foundation and head of the Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, said, “It seems to me an illusion to believe that such a visit can help to counter a strongly entrenched prejudice.”
In March NRW Minister-President Laschet hosted an iftar at the state chancery, the first NRW minister-president to do so.
The government created the position of federal commissioner for worldwide religious freedom within the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development and in April it appointed MP Markus Gruebel as the first commissioner. Gruebel stated the government wanted to send a clear signal on the importance it places on religious freedom and the strengthening of common values.
The country is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were numerous reports of anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian incidents, including assaults, verbal harassment, threats, discrimination, and vandalism. Most anti-Christian incidents involved actions by Muslim migrants against migrant converts. According to Ministry of Interior federal crime statistics, there were 1,799 anti-Semitic crimes committed during the year – including 69 incidents involving violence – a 20 percent increase over the 1,504 anti-Semitic crimes, of which 37 were violent, reported in 2017. The interior ministry attributed 93 percent of the incidents in 2017 to the far right but stated its methodology was not exact.
The federal OPC’s annual report stated the number of violent right-wing anti-Semitic incidents decreased from 31 in 2016 to 28 in 2017. It noted membership in neo-Nazi groups remained steady at approximately 6,000 persons.
NGO RIAS, to which victims can report anti-Semitic incidents independently of filing charges with police, reported 527 anti-Semitic incidents in Berlin in the first six months of the year, including 18 involving violence or attempted violence, compared with 514 incidents over the same period a year earlier. RIAS used different categories than official police statistics and counted anti-Semitic incidents that did not rise to the level of a criminal offense, such as “hurtful behavior.”
According to the anti-Semitism commissioner in Bavaria, incidents of anti-Semitism were increasing in the state. He said perpetrators were from both the extreme left and right, as well as the Muslim community.
In 2017, the first year in which authorities maintained a tally of anti-Muslim and anti-Christian incidents, the Ministry of Interior registered 1,075 incidents against Muslims and Muslim institutions, such as mosques or community centers, including 56 attacks involving bodily harm. Other recorded infractions included online hate speech against Muslims, hate mail, and aggressive behavior in the street. The ministry also recorded approximately 90 demonstrations against the “Islamization of Germany.”
The Ministry of Interior counted 129 incidents against Christians in 2017, including 34 cases involving violence. It classified a majority of these incidents as motivated by religious ideology. In at least 14 cases, the victims were refugees. Media reported that refugees who had converted from Islam to Christianity experienced aggression from Muslim refugees, especially if they were housed in the same refugee shelter.
In February an unknown perpetrator fired shots with an air gun from a high-rise building towards a mosque in Halle and injured a Syrian man. Federal Immigration Commissioner Aydan Oezoguz (SPD) visited the site to talk to members of the Muslim community. In June one or more unidentified individuals fired shots from an air gun near the same mosque that hit a man of Syrian origin. Police investigated, but by year’s end had not identified a suspect in either incident.
On June 3, according to RIAS, three men accosted four teenagers listening to an Israeli song on a cell phone at a subway station in Berlin. The men asked the cell phone owner if he was Jewish. When he said yes, they told him they were from Gaza City, that Jews had been killing children for 70 years, and that if he showed up again they would slit his throat, calling him a [expletive] Jew. The men then tried to push the cell phone owner onto the subway tracks and injured one of the other youths with broken glass. The attackers fled when police appeared. There were no arrests.
In September the president of the Jewish amateur sports club Makkabi Germany, Alon Meyer, said club members increasingly faced anti-Semitic abuse from other competitors during sporting events, ranging from insults to physical violence and knife attacks. According to Meyer, insults included “filthy Jew” and “Jews into the gas.” He added, “It’s not stopping at insulting, it will be fisticuffs, it will be knife attacks.” Meyer attributed the attacks mostly to an increase in migrants and refugees with a Muslim-Arab background.
In February the regional court in Traunstein, Bavaria sentenced an Afghan man to life in prison. The court found the man guilty of stabbing a woman to death in 2017, in part because she had converted from Islam to Christianity. According to the court, the attacker killed the victim, who was also from Afghanistan, in front of her young sons.
On August 31, the Dresden District Court convicted a man charged with bombing a mosque in 2016 of attempted murder, arson, and causing a bomb explosion and sentenced him to nine years and eight months in prison.
In June police reported three men with extreme far-right views attacked a Jewish man from Dortmund, attempting to punch him in the head and insulting him. The victim said he encountered the attackers for a second time that same day, and they again insulted and threatened him and made the Nazi salute. The Dortmund police intelligence service published a call for witness accounts and launched an investigation, which was ongoing at year’s end. Three days earlier, the victim said one of the three men had pushed him and directed anti-Semitic insults at him. At that time, police had verified the identities of alleged perpetrator and victim and were investigating the former for possible charges, including incitement to violence.
In July in Bonn, a 20-year old citizen of Palestinian descent assaulted a visiting Israeli professor from Johns Hopkins University. The attacker, upon seeing the professor, shouted “No Jews in Germany!” and then knocked the yarmulke off his head. When police arrived, the attacker fled the scene. The police mistakenly believed the victim to be the attacker and used force to detain him. Police later apprehended the alleged perpetrator and charged him with incitement of hate and causing bodily harm. They later released him. The Cologne police opened an internal investigation of the Bonn police actions in the incident, and the police officers involved were assigned to desk jobs pending the investigation’s results.
In April a group of three men reportedly insulted two men wearing yarmulkes across a street in Berlin. In court, the victims stated their attackers had shouted insults at them in Arabic. A video then showed one of the perpetrators, a Syrian refugee, crossing the street towards one victim, hitting him with a belt, and screaming the Arabic word for Jew. The victim was an Arab-Israeli who had received the yarmulke as a gift. In June the local court in Berlin-Tiergarten sentenced the attacker to four weeks in jail. Since the man had been in pretrial detention for two months, authorities set him free immediately, as they considered the sentence served. The man sought monetary compensation for the excess time he had served in prison, but authorities denied his claim. While his lawyer initially announced in July he would appeal the decision not to compensate him, the lawyer withdrew the appeal in October.
On August 26, the AfD and the group Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West (PEGIDA) organized a peaceful rally in Chemnitz after the killing of a citizen, reportedly by two refugees from Syria and Iraq. Later that day, approximately 800 persons marched in another demonstration in downtown Chemnitz and reportedly shouted anti-immigrant slogans, attempted to attack persons who appeared to be migrants, and clashed with police. On August 27, a group of 12 individuals who yelled “Get out of Germany, you Jewish pig” attacked the Jewish owner of the Schalom restaurant in Chemnitz, throwing rocks and bottles at the restaurant and injuring the owner, before running away. At year’s end Chemnitz police were still investigating the case. Saxony Minister-President Michael Kretschmer strongly condemned the attack, which occurred after social unrest in the city. The same day, according to press reports, approximately 6,000 right-wing demonstrators and 1,500 counterdemonstrators marched in Chemnitz. Newscasts showed demonstrators shouting anti-immigrant slogans and making the Nazi salute. Two police and 18 demonstrators were injured. Because ethnicity and religion are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize the demonstrations as being solely based on religious identity.
In May a 67-year-old man allegedly hit a woman wearing a headscarf in the face at a bus stop in Berlin. The man had asked the woman about the headscarf, and she had told him she was a Muslim and liked to wear it. Police identified a suspect and opened an investigation.
In August the Berlin-Tiergarten local court convicted a 68-year-old woman of committing deliberate bodily harm and insult for hitting a Muslim woman in the face and trying to rip off her headscarf in an incident in January. The victim and her daughter managed to detain the perpetrator until police arrived. The court fined the perpetrator 2,400 euros ($2,800).
In separate incidents during one week in March, unknown individuals threw Molotov cocktails at a mosque in Berlin, at a Turkish club in Meschede, and at a Turkish greengrocer in Itzehoe. The newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung reported that, between mid-January and mid-March, individuals carried out 26 attacks on mosques, of which 18 belonged to DITIB. According to the same newspaper, after an attack with Molotov cocktails on a building belonging to the Muslim group Milli Gorus in Laufen-am-Neckar in March, what appeared to be anti-Turkish Kurds said in an online video the attacks were in retaliation for Turkish army raids against the northern Syrian city of Afrin. In a joint statement, DITIB, the Central Council of Muslims, and the Islamic Council expressed the Muslim community’s perception that politicians and the public were not taking their concerns about their safety and that of their mosques seriously. At year’s end authorities continued to investigate these incidents and had made no arrests.
A Berlin-based Jewish-Israeli restaurant owner who appeared in a 2017 video that received widespread online attention showing him as the target of verbal anti-Semitic aggression received death threats and hate mail, and individuals threw firecrackers at his restaurant. According to a media report in September, hate mail he received filled 31 pages. Police investigated but could not identify any of those sending death threats. In July the man who had initiated the original diatribe against the restaurant owner in 2017 received a seven months’ suspended prison sentence.
The Duesseldorf Jewish Community said attendance at two Jewish schools it sponsored in the city had spiked up due to increased anti-Semitism in schools around Duesseldorf. According to the group, the schools, which the NRW government funded, had been established to enable Jewish students to strengthen their Jewish identity. Most students, however, were enrolling because they sought a safe haven from increased bullying due to their Jewish faith. According to NRW Ministry of Education officials, much anti-Semitism in schools came from students’ parents and media, and anti-Semitism among Muslim children was particularly difficult to change.
The Catholic Church and the EKD continued to oppose the COS publicly. “Sect commissioners” or “departments on sects and worldview matters” of the EKD and the Catholic Church investigated “sects and cults” and publicized what they considered to be the dangers of these groups. On its website, the EKD Center for Questions of World Views warned the public about what it said were the dangers posed by multiple religious groups, including the COS, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Bhagwan-Osho, Transcendental Meditation, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Universal Life, and continued to produce literature criticizing these groups.
A study on discrimination against migrants in the labor market by the Scientific Center Berlin for Social Research released in June reported that Muslims experienced discrimination when looking for a job. According to the study, which included more than 6,000 fictitious job applications, Muslim job applicants were 7 percent less likely to receive a positive answer than Christian applicants with the same qualifications.
In April the Center to Combat Antidiscrimination and Counselling on Racism and Anti-Semitism (SABRA) held an all-day conference on Anti-Semitism and Refugees. The Duesseldorf Jewish Community established SABRA in 2017 as a new service to combat anti-Semitism. SABRA is part of a network of state government-supported organizations throughout NRW that provide services to immigrants to help them integrate into society. Conference participants stated that, although anti-Semitism had always been present in the country, the influx of a large number of mostly Muslim refugees exacerbated anti-Semitism. The program focused on supporting individuals who were victims of anti-Semitism, racism, and discrimination by providing counseling and legal services and helping to resolve cases of discrimination; sponsoring prevention programs in schools; and monitoring incidents of anti-Semitism throughout the state. SABRA also provided support for victims of anti-Semitic incidents that did not meet the threshold for filing criminal charges.
In November Abraham Lehrer, Vice President of the Central Council of Jews, told media that he expected anti-Semitism among Arab or Muslim immigrants to increase and called for combating anti-Semitism through education. Lehrer said, “Many of these people were influenced by regimes in which anti-Semitism is part of the rationale of the state and the Jewish state is denied the right to existence.” As a remedy, Lehrer proposed integration courses tailored to immigrants’ country of origin, with intensive teaching of such values as democracy and the treatment of women in society.
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 1,233 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Germany responded to the online survey. Twenty-nine percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 41 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Thirty-seven percent said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief. Eighty-nine percent said anti-Semitism had increased during the previous five years.
According to a survey of more than 2,000 German-speaking residents released in September by the Social Science Institute of the Protestant Church, 54 percent did not agree with the statement that “Islam fits into German society,” and 31 percent agreed. While 69 percent agreed that Muslims were part of everyday life in the country, only 27 percent said they were well or very well informed about Islam. A third of respondents approved of Islamic religious instruction in schools.
PEGIDA continued to organize weekly demonstrations in Dresden. Journalists said PEGIDA supporters pushed and threatened them when they were reporting on the demonstrations. On September 3, police detained a PEGIDA demonstrator who had allegedly attacked a journalist, according to Deutschlandfunk online. On September 24, several PEGIDA demonstrators attacked two journalists, hitting one reporter in the face and kicking the other, while other PEGIDA supporters stood nearby and cheered, according to the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Some members of the crowd then reportedly helped the perpetrators escape. Amid calls to curb immigration, PEGIDA supporters regularly expressed anti-Muslim sentiments during the rallies, including by carrying posters expressing opposition to women who wear religious head coverings.
The number of participants at PEGIDA marches remained constant at approximately 1,500-2,000 protesters per rally, according to several media reports. An exception was the October 21 rally in Dresden, when 4,500 supporters marked the group’s fourth anniversary. On the same day in Dresden, approximately 10,000 persons marched in support of tolerance and against PEGIDA. Among the participants in the counterdemonstration were Saxony Minister-President Kretschmer, Dresden Mayor Dirk Hilbert, and several state ministers. The October 21 demonstrations were largely peaceful, but police reported five incidents of assault. Early in the year AfD parliamentarians gave multiple speeches at PEGIDA rallies. In January the magazine Der Spiegel cited AfD Bundestag member Siegbert Droese as stating that in Saxony there was close cooperation between his party and PEGIDA.
In what organizers said was a sign of solidarity with Jews in Germany, hundreds of persons wearing yarmulkes demonstrated against anti-Semitism in several cities around the country, including in Berlin, Cologne, Erfurt, Magdeburg, and Potsdam, in April and May. During the Berlin demonstration, where there were approximately 2,500 participants, authorities reported incidents in which counterprotesters spit on demonstrators, called them terrorists, and violently removed an Israeli banner.
Between May and August Realitaet Islam (Reality Islam), a group that said it aimed to strengthen the Islamic identity of Muslims in the country, campaigned in Frankfurt and other cities in Hesse against a headscarf ban. The group said it targeted young Muslims and had collected more than 140,000 signatures from throughout the country. The Hesse state OPC stated to media on August 29 that, while the campaign itself was not illegal, the group rejected the country’s liberal democratic order and was striving for a theocracy, and a “high Islamic radicalization potential” for the group “could not be excluded.”
On January 17, approximately 300 persons demonstrated against the construction of a mosque by the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt. The AfD leadership in Thuringia supported the demonstration, and state AfD Chairperson Bjoern Hoecke said the mosque’s construction was “part of a long-standing land grab project.” Mosque opponents subsequently organized a series of smaller demonstrations against the construction. For example, in June David Koeckert, who press reported was a former member of the National Democratic Party, widely described as a neo-Nazi group, organized an event at an Erfurt market where protestors staged a fake execution, shouting “Allahu akbar” (“God is great” in Arabic) and pretending to cut a woman’s throat using imitation blood. Left Party state MP Steffen Dittes called the act disgusting. According to police, authorities filed charges against the organizers for insult and damage to property.
In September demonstrators against the construction of the mosque wore masks depicting what they considered to be stereotypical Middle Eastern faces and “Arab” garb. Numbering fewer than 20 participants, the demonstrators also marched in front of Green Party state MP Astrid Rothe-Beinlich’s home. Rothe-Beinlich criticized local authorities for authorizing a demonstration directly in front of her house, which she described as a personal threat. Authorities permitted the masks’ use, stating there was no violation of the ban on face coverings during demonstrations, because protestors could be identified with their identification documents. Critics stated there was no exception to the ban on face coverings during demonstrations.
The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Erfurt moved forward with the construction and celebrated the laying of the foundation stone on November 13. The ceremony was accompanied by loud protests from approximately 60 opponents of the mosque, as well as a counterdemonstration by persons calling for religious freedom and tolerance.
Construction of a mosque in Sulzbach, Saarland was ongoing at year’s end. The citizen’s group Sulzbach wehrt sich (Sulzback Fights Back) continued to protest the construction of the mosque. In April the group organized a protest as well as a concert with the band Kategorie C/Hungrige Wolfe that the OPC said it was monitoring for its connection to right wing extremists. The city tried to prevent the concert in a municipal building, stating the group had misled it in registering the event without the band’s name. The Saarland Higher Administrative Court ruled in April the city had to allow the concert to take place since it could not show sufficient cause for cancelling it. Approximately 200 representatives of political parties, trade unions, and churches protested against the concert.
In June Ruhrtriennale, a cultural festival receiving state financial support in NRW, invited the Scottish band Young Fathers to play a concert. The private company Kultur Ruhr GmbH organizing the festival said it cancelled the appearance when it learned the band supported the BDS movement. The organizers stated they later reversed their decision and reinvited the band so they could publicly explain their views, but the band declined. State Minister of Culture and Science Isabel Pfeiffer-Poensgen criticized the organizer’s reinvitation of the band in a press statement, and the minister-president cancelled his attendance. Jewish organizations criticized the scheduling of a panel discussion at the festival about the BDS debate because it took place on the Sabbath and featured Jewish artists who supported BDS. A Jewish activist, Malca Goldstein-Wolf, organized a demonstration headlined “No support for BDS with taxpayers’ money.” The demonstration took place in Bochum on August 18, and there were approximately 250 participants.
In August the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel called for a boycott of the Berlin Pop-Kultur Festival, and several artists from the United Kingdom and the United States cancelled their appearances. The Israeli embassy had supported the festival with 1,200 euros ($1,400) and appeared on the festival’s website as a “partner.” During the festival, the BDS movement put up posters in Berlin that mimicked the festival’s logo, stating “pop culture – sponsored by apartheid.” BDS activists also disrupted the festival’s opening event.
According to a study the Technical University of Berlin issued in July, anti-Semitic online hate speech reached record levels on social media, blogs, websites’ comment sections, and thematically unrelated websites and online forums. The researchers stated that, since online communication was becoming more important, acceptance of anti-Semitism could increase. The study, which distinguished between anti-Semitism and political criticism of Israel, evaluated 30,000 German language online statements made between 2014 and 2018 on Twitter, Facebook, and the comment sections of mainstream media outlets. The study also evaluated 20,000 emails sent to the Israeli embassy in Berlin and the Central Council of Jews in Germany. According to the report authors, between 2007 and 2017, anti-Semitic content in the texts had tripled “in some instances.” The study identified an increased use of comparisons of Israel to Nazis; fantasies of violence targeting Jews, e.g., references to asphyxiating Jews in pig excrement and to hunting and killings Jews; and dehumanizing or demonizing characterizations of Jews, such as “pest,” “cancer,” or “filth.” Almost half of the texts used centuries-old anti-Semitic stereotypes, such as portraying Jews as strangers, usurers, exploiters, vindictive intriguers, blood cult practitioners, robbers, and murderers. According to the authors, anti-Semitism related to Israel was encountered in a third of all texts.
In April the German Music Federation awarded rappers Farid Bang and Kollegah, whose songs include anti-Semitic lyrics, the country’s Echo music award based on high record sales. Civil society groups, artists, politicians, and Jewish groups criticized the award. Several musicians who were past recipients of the Echo, returned their awards in protest, and singer Peter Maffay and Foreign Minister Maas both said awarding the prize on Holocaust Remembrance Day was “shameful.” After the award ceremony, 11 persons reported the rappers to police for “incitement of hatred.” In June the Duesseldorf public prosecutor’s office declined to prosecute them. The Duesseldorf prosecutor stated that, while their songs contained anti-Semitic and misogynist lyrics, the lyrics were characteristic of their genre and a form of protected artistic freedom. Following the controversy, the federation revoked the Echo prize given to Farid Bang and Kollegah, and the organizers announced they would discontinue the award.
In April a satirical play based on Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf was performed in Constance, Baden-Wuerttemberg. The play’s organizers promised free entry to spectators who wore the swastika, and those who paid for a ticket had to wear a Star of David “as a sign of solidarity with the victims of Nazi barbarism.” Several legal complaints were filed against the theater. Although the law prohibits the public display of Nazi symbols and several legal complaints were reportedly filed against the theater, local prosecutors allowed the theater to present the play and allow free entry for those wearing swastikas, citing free speech laws that permit artistic performances. The region’s German-Israeli Society called for a boycott of the play.
On April 20, approximately 1,300 neo-Nazis gathered in the town of Ostritz in Saxony to commemorate Hitler’s birthday. Thorsten Heise, chairman of the National Democratic Party of Germany, organized the event. On the same date, also in Ostritz, opponents held a peace festival, a counterrally of approximately the same size. Police were present in force, and both events were largely peaceful. According to press reports, one person was slightly injured during scuffles between the opposing groups, and police detained one man for making the Nazi salute. The same organizers organized a neo-Nazi Shield and Sword (SS) rock festival in Ostritz on November 1-4. In another peace festival, approximately 3,000 opponents protested again. Police stopped another right-wing rock concert in Ostritz on December 1, after neighbors reported hearing the participants yell the Nazi slogan, “Sieg Heil.” Authorities were investigating the incident at year’s end.
On September 21, an estimated 100 neo-Nazis rallied in Dortmund, NRW, chanting anti-Semitic slogans, such as, “He who loves Germany is anti-Semitic,” and carrying symbols such as the “Reich” flag.
At a Unification Day demonstration on October 3 in Berlin with approximately 2,000 participants, media reported a few participants performed the Nazi salute, and several dozen displayed neo-Nazi tattoos, inscriptions on their clothes, or posters. Several counterdemonstrations with a similar total number of participants took place in Berlin at the same time. All the demonstrations were peaceful.
In May authorities arrested 89-year-old Ursula Haverbeck after she failed to appear to serve her prison sentence for Holocaust denial. In 2017, the Regional Court Verden sentenced Haverbeck to two years’ imprisonment after convicting her on eight counts of incitement of hate. In February the Celle Higher Regional Court rejected her appeal. In August the Federal Constitutional Court refused to accept her complaint that Holocaust denial was covered by the protected constitutional right of freedom of expression and not a punishable offense. At year’s end, Haverbeck was serving her sentence and publishing messages from prison on her website, Freedom for Ursula.
In May unknown perpetrators spray-painted a swastika on a house in the town of Kirchhain in Hesse and covered commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) with black paint.
According to state authorities and local media, religious establishments in Ulm in Baden-Wuerttemberg experienced increased vandalism over the course of the year. In September unknown individuals painted swastikas and other pro-Nazi symbols or writing on the door and pews of the Protestant cathedral in Ulm. State authorities said they had found similar anti-Semitic graffiti in Ulm and the surrounding area in the preceding months, including at a local synagogue and a Turkish mosque.
In September unknown persons targeted the Al-Nour Mosque in Hamburg, just before its opening, with anti-Muslim graffiti. The mosque was converted from a former Protestant church. According to a mosque official, the mosque had held open days for city residents in an effort to engage with non-Muslims and be as transparent as possible with the project.
In February the Duesseldorf Memorial and Education Center, a museum, research center, and archive of the Holocaust, started a research project aimed at identifying the number of victims in NRW of the November 1938 Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, as well as how the victims had died. The center published a report of its findings on the 80th anniversary of the pogrom, on November 9. The report detailed the cases of the approximately 127 persons from NRW who lost their lives as a result of the pogroms.
According to local officials, legal proceedings against a bus driver in Emden, Lower Saxony for refusing a pregnant woman wearing a full-face veil onto his bus on three occasions, were continuing at year’s
In May Hamburg’s Jewish Community ordained five rabbis, its first ordination since World War II. Hamburg Mayor and Minister-President Peter Tschentscher (SPD) attended the ceremony.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. embassy and the five consulates general continued to engage closely with the government regarding responses to incidents of religious intolerance. Embassy officials regularly met with the Ministry of Interior’s federal government commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism. Consulate general officials in Frankfurt and Munich met with the Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria commissioners for anti-Semitism to express concern about anti-Semitism and discuss ways of ensuring anti-Semitic incidents were correctly recorded.
Embassy and consulate general representatives met with members and leaders of numerous local and national religious and civil society groups about their concerns related to freedom of worship. Topics of discussion with Jewish groups included concerns about what they characterized as the growing acceptability of anti-Semitism through the country’s changing political landscape (for example, the cooperation of the AfD with extreme right groups, especially in Chemnitz), the rise of the BDS movement, and concern that refugees and other migrants might be bringing concepts of anti-Semitism into the country. Embassy and consulate general representatives also discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance with the Catholic, Evangelical, and other Protestant churches; COS; ZMD; Association of Islamic Cultural Centers; the Central Council of Jews in Germany; Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany; Alevi Muslims; Council of Religions Frankfurt; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and human rights NGOs.
In January the Charge d’Affaires met with the head representative of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims against Germany (Jewish Claims Conference) in Frankfurt am Main to discuss the status of claims negotiations.
In March the embassy sponsored the visit of 11 young Muslim leaders from Berlin and Heilbronn to participate in a program in the United States on community outreach and engagement. Program topics included community efforts to combat violent extremism, particularly of Muslim youth, strengthening civil society and citizen participation, combating hate speech, and developing leadership skills to connect with and engage Muslim youth.
The embassy funded the participation of a U.S. photographer in a photography project titled A World of Faith – 4 Perspectives on Religion, in which four photographers presented pictures highlighting aspects of the beliefs of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. A display of the project at a Berlin art gallery in January and February encouraged interreligious dialogue among visitors and media. During a visit to the exhibition, the Charge d’Affaires stressed to organizers the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and commended the gallery and participating photographers for their efforts to promote understanding among people of different faiths.
To commemorate Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Charge d’Affaires visited the photography exhibition Religion behind Bars that discussed religiosity in prison. The embassy supported the exhibition with a travel fund for one of the photographers. During the visit, the Charge stressed the importance of religious tolerance and freedom of religion.
On April 18, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a Celebrate Diversity Month reception for approximately 100 religious, government, and civil society leaders from a variety of backgrounds to encourage them to find common ground and engage in productive dialogue over shared values. In his remarks, the Charge spoke of religious diversity and freedom.
In June the Ambassador discussed Jewish life in the country and the community’s concerns about anti-Semitism and intolerance with Rabbi Gesa Ederberg of the New Synagogue on Oranienburger Street in Berlin and Rabbi Joshua Spinner, Executive Vice President of the Ronald Lauder Foundation in the country.
In July the Ambassador met with the Kreuzberger Initiative against anti-Semitism (KIGA), a Berlin-based NGO that trains students from Kreuzberg (a neighborhood with a high number of Muslim immigrants) to work with students and talk to school classes to promote tolerance and combat anti-Semitism.
In September the Ambassador hosted a screening of Yezidi activist Duezen Tekkal’s documentary Hawar – My Journey to Genocide, which focused on the atrocities committed by ISIS against the Yezidi people in Iraq in 2014. The Ambassador delivered remarks on the importance of religious freedom and commended the work that Tekkal and fellow Yezidi activist and 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nadia Murad have done to highlight abuses by ISIS. The Ambassador said the Baden-Wuerttemberg state government’s efforts to resettle approximately 2,500 Yezidi women and children were “courageous,” and cited it as an example of Germany’s commitment to defend religious freedom.
In October the Ambassador hosted a 20th anniversary celebration in honor of international Jewish NGO AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute. In his speech, the Ambassador highlighted the significance of religious freedom and efforts to combat anti-Semitism. He stressed the importance of German government restitution of Jewish property seized in World War II, compensation for Holocaust survivors, and promotion of Holocaust education.
In October the U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited Berlin and Magdeburg and met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss how to best combat anti-Semitism. In Magdeburg, the special envoy attended a board meeting of the German Lost Art Foundation, which focused on provenance research for art and cultural assets the Nazis confiscated from Jews.
On November 9, the 80th anniversary of the Pogromnacht (Kristallnacht) pogrom, the Ambassador met with the head of Deutsche Bahn’s (German Railway’s) historical section at the Track 17 memorial, one of three deportation points for Berlin Jews during World War II, and toured the memorial. Embassy officials also cleaned defaced commemorative cobblestones for Nazi victims (Stolpersteine) throughout Berlin.
In November the Ambassador participated in a roundtable with KIGA peer trainers and program participants to discuss the importance of tolerance and religious freedom. The Ambassador also listened to the participants’ views on KIGA’s training, as well as their experiences with combatting anti-Semitism in their communities.
On November 13, the U.S. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence and State Secretary at the German Ministry of Finance Rolf Bosinger hosted a discussion at the AJC’s Berlin Ramer Institute on the U.S. Treasury’s role in assisting Jews in Europe during the Holocaust, as well on Germany’s contributions to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
In November the Charge d’Affaires delivered remarks on religious freedom and the importance of restitution for Holocaust victims and their heirs at the German Lost Art Foundation’s Conference. On the margins of the conference, the German government signed a joint declaration with the U.S. government that reaffirmed both governments’ commitment to find just and fair solutions for the return of stolen artwork to Holocaust survivors and their heirs.
On December 2, the Ambassador gave remarks on religious tolerance and nondiscrimination at an embassy reception to mark Hanukkah, in advance of an annual menorah lighting ceremony in central Berlin.
The embassy and consulates general provided small cash grants to support programs promoting religious tolerance, such as the Jewish Cultural Days in Halle, Saxony-Anhalt, Jewish Week in Leipzig, Saxony, and Yiddish Summer in Weimar, Thuringia. These events featured music, dancing, film screenings, exhibitions, and speakers that raised awareness about the Jewish community and Jewish culture.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose, change, or manifest religion or belief, cites “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood,” and values “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community and stipulates the autonomy of religious communities. In December parliament amended the law that had stripped hundreds of religious entities of their legal status. The amendment enters into force in April 2019; it establishes a four-tier system of churches and makes them eligible for donations from income tax and state funding. In May the Supreme Court ruled a 2017 government raid on the Church of Scientology (COS) headquarters was lawful; the government continued its criminal investigation of the COS. Jewish groups expressed concern that the House of Fates museum, which the government said it would open in 2019, would obscure the country’s role in the Holocaust. There were reports of senior government officials and politicians using anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic speech. Jewish groups expressed concern about praise by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban and other government officials for World War II (WWII)-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies and public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. PM Orban reiterated “zero tolerance for anti-Semitism.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, including assaults. Muslim leaders said anti-Muslim incidents were at approximately the same level as in 2017. The Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) a nongovernmental organization (NGO), recorded 32 anti-Semitic crimes, including three assaults, compared with 37 in 2017. A business magazine’s picture of an article about a prominent Jewish leader was condemned as anti-Semitic. A Jewish news outlet poll said two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem; 48 percent reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year. An Ipsos Mori poll reported 51 percent of residents believed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian.”
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials met with the Office of the Prime Minister (PMO), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC) to discuss religious freedom, Holocaust commemoration, and heirless property restitution, and to urge the government to amend the religion law. U.S. officials expressed concern about government officials’ anti-Muslim rhetoric and the COS investigation. Embassy officials met a range of religious groups to discuss issues affecting them.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.8 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, which included an optional question on religious affiliation, of the 73 percent of the population that responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent said they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the COS, Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, and Muslims. The Hungarian Evangelical Brotherhood (MET) has approximately 8,500 members, according to a 2013 news report, and the Hungarian Pentecostal Church approximately 9,300 members, according to the 2011 census. According to estimates from the World Jewish Congress, the Jewish population numbers between 35,000 and 120,000 persons. The overwhelming majority of Jews live in Budapest, while other religious groups are distributed throughout the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states, “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and the state, as well as the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
In an administrative reorganization following parliamentary elections in April, the government transferred most responsibilities for religious affairs from the MHC to the PMO.
In the system valid through the end of the year, religious organizations could acquire incorporated church status through an application submitted to the office responsible for religious affairs in the PMO and, if found eligible, by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament. The religious group was then by law entered onto a list of incorporated churches. The PMO ha 60 days following the initial application to assess whether the group fulfills all the administrative criteria, which included a variety of documentation and qualification requirements. To qualify for incorporated church status, a religious group must have existed as a religious organization in the country for 20 years, in which case it must have had a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population (approximately 10,000 persons) or been registered as a religious organization and have existed for at least 100 years internationally, in which case its foreign affiliation must have been certified by at least two other churches of “similar doctrine” recognized in foreign countries. Its activities must not have conflicted with the constitution or other laws or violate the rights and freedoms of other communities. A group must also have proven its primary purpose was to conduct religious activity; have a formal statement of faith and rites, bylaws and internal rules, and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies; and officially declared its activities were not in violation of the laws or the freedom of others. The PMO was obligated to consult with a qualified lawyer, historian of religions, scholar of religions, or sociologist with an academic degree prior to issuing its decision. Applicants could appeal the PMO’s decision to the Budapest Public Administration and Labor Court and, ultimately, to the Curia, the country’s highest judicial authority.
Following a favorable PMO decision on the applicant’s eligibility, the PMO submitted the application to parliament’s Judiciary Committee, which had 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit an assessment to parliament on the group’s compliance with additional criteria. These criteria included an assessment that the group poses no threat to national security (provided by parliament’s National Security Committee), that it did not violate the right to physical and mental health or the protection of life and human dignity, and that the group was suitable for long-term cooperation with the state in promoting community goals based on its founding documents, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.
Approval of a request for incorporated church status required a two-thirds majority vote by parliament, to take place within 60 days of a motion by parliament’s Judiciary Committee. If a religious group received such parliamentary approval, the state was required to grant specific licenses to the group to support its participation in tasks to achieve community goals. If parliament rejected the application, a detailed explanation was required, and the applicant could challenge parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court within 15 days. The law did not prescribe any consequences if parliament did not act within the 60-day period, nor was there opportunity for appealing parliamentary inaction.
A 2011 law on religion automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations that had had incorporated church status. Those organizations must reapply if they wish to regain incorporated church status. Their applications are also subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament.
The 2011 law listed 27 incorporated churches, including the Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, three Jewish groups, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups, bringing the total number on the registered list of incorporated churches to 32.
Incorporated churches have certain privileges not available to religious organizations, such as greater access to state funding and exemption from state oversight of their financial operations connected to religious activities. Incorporated churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities”) that provide public services, such as healthcare, education, or other social services, are automatically eligible for full state subsidies (a subsidy based on the number of persons receiving services coupled with a supplementary subsidy) for all their public service activities. Religious organizations may take over or establish public service institutions and receive a per capita state subsidy to cover the wages of the staff employed by these institutions. They may also apply for additional funding from an additional budgetary allocation.
The law authorized the Budapest Metropolitan Court to register a group as a religious organization if it had at least 10 founding individual members whose primary objective was to conduct religious activities that do not violate the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities. The organization’s membership could consist only of individuals; no “legal persons” such as corporations or other associations could be members. The court was required to approve applications meeting all of these criteria. Applicants had to submit the name and address of the organization, names and addresses of founding members, identifying information on the group’s legal representative and the term of his or her appointment, the founding documents of the group, and a statement that the primary objective of the organization was to conduct religious activities. If the court rejected an organization’s application, the decision was subject to appeal to the Budapest Metropolitan Court of Appeals.
By law taxpayers may allocate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to an NGO, including one affiliated with a religious organization or incorporated church, and could allocate an additional 1 percent to an incorporated church (but not to any other religious organization or NGO). The government matched the 1 percent funds that only incorporated churches were eligible to receive.
Both incorporated churches and NGOs affiliated with religious organizations were free to use taxpayer donations as they wished. Only officials of incorporated churches were exempt from personal income tax under certain conditions. Both religious organizations and incorporated churches were prohibited from purchasing agricultural land. Incorporated churches, but not religious organizations, could acquire new agricultural land as a gift or an inheritance. Agricultural land (as opposed to other land holdings) owned by a religious group deregistered in 2011 could be retained by the religious organization that is the deregistered group’s legal successor.
If incorporated churches or religious organizations cease to exist (e.g., by dissolving themselves) and have no legal successor, their assets become state property that must be used to finance public services. This may also occur if, upon the initiative of the government, the Constitutional Court issues an opinion that the activity of the incorporated church violates the constitution, and parliament confirms the decision by a two-thirds majority vote. The Constitutional Court also issues opinions upon the request of the Budapest Metropolitan Court on whether a religious organization is in violation of the constitution.
Every registered (but not unregistered) religious community may use the word “church” in its official name regardless of whether it is officially recognized by parliament as an “incorporated church.” Officials from both incorporated churches and registered religious organizations not recognized by parliament (but not unregistered religious groups) are not obligated to disclose information shared with them in the course of their faith-related service, such as during rites of confession. Unregistered religious groups, since they lack legal status, may not purchase property in their name. The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) reports that unregistered religious organizations enjoy protection for faith-related services.
On December 12, parliament enacted an amendment to the 2011 religion law, scheduled to enter into force on April 15, 2019, that will extend the existing two-tier system of “incorporated churches” and “religious organizations” into a four-tier system of registered religious entities, consisting of “incorporated churches,” “registered churches,” “listed churches,” and “religious associations.” The categories will be applicable to any religious group, not just Christian organizations. All four categories under the new law will have “legal personality,” giving them legal rights such as the right to own property. The amendment will eliminate the restriction that taxpayers may donate 1 percent of their tax liability only to incorporated churches and allows donations to all religious entities with legal personality. The amendment will also allow the government to negotiate individual agreements with all four categories of religious entities to fund their social service activities. The duration of these agreements will depend on the type of church status, ranging from a five-year maximum for religious associations to unlimited duration for incorporated churches. With the exception of religious associations, religious groups falling under one of these categories will be required to publish these agreements and publicly account for social service spending.
Under the new system, all currently incorporated churches will retain their status in the new system, and incorporation of new churches will still require a two-thirds approval by parliament. The Budapest-Capital Regional Court will rule on registration applications for the other three tiers. Religious association status will require a church to have at least 10 members. Listed church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 1,000 individuals on average over three years and have operated as a religious association for at least five years in the country or for at least 100 years internationally. Registered church status will require that the church receive tax donations from 4,000 individuals on average over five years and have operated as a religious association for at least 20 years in the country or at least 100 years internationally. Churches that agree they will not seek government or EU funding for their religious activities will be able to qualify as listed or registered churches without receiving individual donations. A religious entity will not be allowed to apply for any of the three categories if it is a criminal defendant, has been convicted of a crime during the previous five years, is under sanction for “repeated violation of accounting and management rules,” or is considered a national security threat.
Religious entities that do not register will still be able to function and conduct worship, and the amendment specifies constitutional protections for freedom of religion apply to them as well as to those with legal personality.
By law, no state office may determine or supervise a registered religious community’s faith-based activities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Their names, symbols, and rites are protected by copyright law, while buildings and cemeteries are protected by criminal law. Unregistered groups, according to HCLU, enjoy copyright and at least some other protections, but the law is unclear about the extent of those other protections.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsman). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy. These measures do not have the force of law.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and settling claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, Hungarian Lutheran Church, Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (Mazsihisz), and four Orthodox churches.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic Church, Reformed Church, Lutheran Church, and Jewish congregations receive automatic authorization to provide chaplain services to the military. Other incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion and provide them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. All incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission to offer pastoral services in prisons. Rejection of access requests may be appealed to the National Prison Service, the prosecutor’s office, or the ombudsman. Detainees have the right to participate in communal religious services three times a week and to contact without supervision representatives of incorporated churches or religious organizations having permission to access the facility. Detainees in special security regimes may only receive individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs. In the case of pretrial detainees, during the course of the criminal investigation, a public prosecutor or judge may restrict personal interaction with a religious representative but not participation in communal religious services.
Incorporated churches receive automatic authorization to provide pastoral services in hospitals, while religious organizations must seek permission.
One-hour-per-week faith-and-ethics or ethics-only education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Students and their parents choose between the faith-and-ethics class provided by an incorporated church of their choice or a generic ethics course taught by public school teachers. Religious groups are entitled to provide their own teachers, prepare their own textbooks, and determine curricula for their faith-and-ethics classes. Private schools are not required to introduce faith-and-ethics or ethics classes. Unincorporated religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents.
Incorporated churches and religious organizations have the right to open their own schools. For incorporated churches and religious organizations operating their own schools, the state provides a subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee wages, but only incorporated churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. According to the law, religious organizations may apply to the MHC for a supplementary operational subsidy covering approximately 30 percent of their total costs for schools, and the MHC decides on a case-by-case basis whether to grant it.
The law also affords incorporated churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal agreement with the PMO. In these cases, the government continues to fund the schools. Religious communities, school teachers, the affected parents, or the operator of the school may initiate such transfers, but only if the designated religious community is able to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law includes a prohibition of “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion. Abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or suspected religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is similarly punished with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the arrow cross in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by detention for a period ranging from five to 90 days.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As in previous years, parliament failed to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporated church status, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action after a ministerial referral and a December 2017 Constitutional Court ruling that parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution. The explanatory notes to the December 12 amendment to the religion law, which the government is expected to use as a guide in implementing the amendment, state that those religious groups will be given preferential consideration for (the lesser) listed or registered church status.
In a case involving the MET’s home for the elderly, the Constitutional Court ruled October 5 that parliament had violated the constitution by failing to act on MET’s 2014 pending application for incorporated church status. The Constitutional Court ruled parliament should fulfill its legislative duty and vote on the application by the end of the year; parliament did not comply, although the new amendment provided a procedure for the MET and other churches to regain a lesser status. MET representatives said its shelters for homeless, elderly, and refugees, hospital, schools, and other social services should be eligible for the same support the state gave to similar activities conducted by incorporated churches. The government rejected this argument. The Constitutional Court did not rule on the issue of funding of MET’s home or other social services, but only that parliament should vote on the group’s application for incorporated status. The Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling on December 20, 2017, ordering parliament to vote on MET’s application, but parliament failed to act by that ruling’s March 31 deadline.
In May the Supreme Court overturned the February decision of the Buda Central District Court of Budapest that the National Bureau of Investigation’s (NBI) 2017 raid of the COS headquarters and seizure of its materials was unlawful. The Supreme Court ruled the seizure did not violate the principle of proportionality and did not obstruct the free practice of religion. The NBI raid followed the initiation of an investigation of the COS by the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) and a DPA complaint against the COS alleging criminal abuse of personal data. The government recognized the COS as a religious organization. The government’s investigation of the COS was continuing at year’s end, but the government did not provide any information on the status of the case.
The COS’s appeal of the denial of a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and eviction order issued by Budapest’s 13th District remained pending at year’s end. According to the COS, courts blocked the eviction order until the Supreme Court could decide the appeal.
The government continued its public campaign of billboards and posters against a Jewish, Hungarian-born, U.S. citizen businessman. Some of the placards stated the businessman wanted to settle migrants from the Middle East and Africa in the country. In May PM Orban demanded “respect” from Jewish leaders and blamed the same businessman and his NGO for growing European anti-Semitism.
In April online news service Index.hu and daily newspaper Nepszava reported that in the previous eight years the government had transferred 34 buildings to churches in a nontransparent manner. The report stated the buildings were not properties seized under the Communist regime and had not previously belonged to the religious groups to which they were given.
Prominent national and international Jewish groups expressed concern about the September 7 announcement that in 2019 the government would open the House of Fates, a Holocaust museum and education center in Budapest focusing on the efforts of non-Jewish Hungarians to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. The government had put the museum on hold in 2014 due to intense opposition from national and international groups. These organizations criticized the project as an attempt to obscure the involvement of the country and WWII Regent Miklos Horthy in the Holocaust. According to a September 21 statement by Israeli Holocaust Museum Yad Vashem, the House of Fates museum’s plans ignored the country’s anti-Jewish laws during that era and gave the false impression that, “except for a tiny, criminal and fanatic minority, the citizens of Hungary were essentially blameless.” On September 27, World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder expressed disappointment that the House of Fates museum concept “ignored the role played by Hungarian society and its authorities in the annihilation of Hungarian Jewry.”
There were reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels. For example, a January interview in the German newspaper Bild quoted PM Orban as saying most migrants should not be considered refugees but “Muslim invaders.” In a March 15 speech, PM Orban said, “We must fight against an opponent which is different…they are not honorable, but unprincipled; they are not national, but international; they do not believe in work, but speculate with money; they have no homeland, but feel that the whole world is theirs.” Media outlets such as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, The Times of Israel, and The Guardian reported these comments as referring to Jews.
In November private television broadcaster Hir TV made public a recording it said it had obtained of opposition Jobbik party MP Istvan Szavay talking to a fellow party member at Jobbik’s electoral congress about “knocking out” a woman he presumed to be Jewish at a downtown club in August. Szavay said the woman recognized him and said, “I feel Nazi stench here.” Szavay said he called her a “filthy Jew,” punched her in the face , and “slightly twisted her schnozzle.” On December 3, Szavay announced he would give up his parliamentary seat.
Jewish groups expressed concerns about praise by government officials, including PM Orban, for the country’s WWII-era anti-Semites and Hitler allies as well as about public messaging they said could incite anti-Semitism. On September 2, the Fidesz (governing party)-administered village of Kenderes held a Horthy Memorial Day. Fidesz MP Sandor Kovacs stated at the event it was thanks to Regent Horthy and others that the country managed to survive after World War I. The Director of the government-funded Veritas Research Institute, Sandor Szakaly, said anti-Jewish laws signed by Horthy did not deprive Jews of their rights but only limited them, and that, despite these limitations, the lives of Jews in the country were safe until the Nazi occupation in 1944. He added that Horthy did not need rehabilitation because he was never convicted of any crime.
On July 16, state television broadcaster MTVA appointed Beatrix Siklosi to run its cultural channel M5. When Siklosi previously was nominated as chief editor of religious programming for national public television in 2014, media reported she had made racist and anti-Semitic comments on social media. The Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Jewish communities published a letter stating Siklosi was unacceptable to them. Siklosi resigned from the religious programming position due to the protests but remained in charge of nationalities programming. TEV sent a letter asking the MTVA leadership and Media Council to reconsider her appointment.
In March Fidesz Party members of the local municipality and progovernment media criticized the opening of a Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) cultural center and prayer house in 2017. In addition, media reported that, prior to the April parliamentary elections, Fidesz Party call centers told voters opposition Jobbik Party leader Gabor Vona “prays to Allah,” referring to an undated video where he spoke to Turkish students and referred to God as “Allah.”
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary (OMH) cited the government’s anti-migration and anti-Muslim rhetoric as the biggest challenges Muslims had to face in the country. It also said Muslims faced indirect administrative barriers when trying to obtain building permits for mosques, open or expand Muslim cemeteries, or buy or rent land or homes. HIC and OMH leaders said lack of sufficient cemetery space for Muslims was one of the most pressing problems for the Muslim community.
On July 19, PM Orban visited Israel and met with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. After their meeting, Orban stated Jews could feel safe in Hungary and that his government had zero tolerance for anti-Semitic statements.
According to a major survey of Jews in the country, issued in December by the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), 74 percent of Jews found anti-Semitism to be a problem in political life. Eighty-three percent said the government was ineffective in combating anti-Semitism, and 55 percent assessed the government’s efforts to respond to the security needs of Jewish communities were inadequate.
The government provided 118.1 billion forints ($421.53 million) to incorporated churches during the year, of which 96.7 percent went to what the government and media called the country’s four “historical” religious groups: the Catholic Church, which received 94.2 billion forints ($336.22 million); Hungarian Reformed Church, 13.7 billion forints ($48.9 million); Lutheran Church, 3 billion forints ($10.71 million); and the Jewish community, consisting of Mazsihisz, 2.6 billion forints ($9.28 million), the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation, 304.4 million forints ($1.09 million), and the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community, 227 million forints ($810,000 million). According to the government, more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.
These four religious groups and the other incorporated churches that received the balance of the government’s contribution used the funds for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and employee wages. Government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings. The government allocated additional funding from other budget accounts for churches providing public educational and social services and for registered religious organizations, but data on the extent of this support were unavailable.
According to press reports, on October 3, the government distributed 2.76 billion forints ($9.85 million) from the annual budget for religious community programs. On December 23, the government awarded an additional 21 billion forints ($74.95 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations.
Some incorporated churches continued to express concern that, if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two-thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, 988,000 citizens donated their 1 percent personal income tax to one of the incorporated churches during the year. Similarly to previous years, the church bodies receiving the most donations were the Catholic, with 526,339 persons contributing 2.5 billion forints ($8.92 million); Reformed, 209,109 persons contributing 996.8 million forints ($3.56 million); and Lutheran, 60,036 persons contributing 308 million forints ($1.1 million). The Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness ranked fourth, with 46,198 persons contributing 250 million forints ($892,000). Effective January 1, tax declarations did not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but remained valid until the taxpayer changed them.
According to the PMO, of elementary and secondary schools, 15 percent were operated by incorporated churches (compared with 14.3 percent in 2016-17) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2017-18 school year. Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.5 percent were operated by incorporated churches (7.2 percent in the previous year) and 0.1 percent by religious organizations. There were 214,243 students studying at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared with 207,600 in the previous school year. Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.
According to the PMO, religious entities provided government-funded social services to 116,440 persons and child protection services to 10,506 persons during the year (27.2 percent by the Catholic, 24.2 percent by the Reformed, and 21.3 percent by the Hungarian Pentecostal Church).
The government made statements in defense of a Christian Europe and operated a dedicated state secretariat within the PMO to assist persecuted Christian communities throughout the world, including with financial assistance. In his annual state of the nation speech in February, PM Orban stated the West “opened the way for the decline of Christian culture and…Islamic expansion,” while his government “prevented the Islamic world from flooding us from the South.” On November 13, Deputy PM Zsolt Semjen said it was striking that Europe’s Christian civilization was in danger again, not from the Ottoman Empire, but from the threat of Islamization.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Budapest on October 8-9 and, with PM Orban, attended the opening ceremony of the renovated tomb of Gul Baba. Baba was a Muslim dervish and member of the Bektashi order, who died in Budapest in 1541 and whose burial place became a pilgrimage site for Muslims. The government cofinanced the renovation with the government of Turkey.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The government did not publish statistics on religiously motivated crimes or other incidents. According to its annual report, TEV registered 32 anti-Semitic hate crimes, compared with 37 in the previous year. These were 19 cases of hate speech (24 in 2017), 10 of vandalism (13 in 2017), three of assault (one in 2017), and none of threats (none in 2017). Muslim organizations did not collect statistical data and said many members did not bother to report incidents because they did not believe doing so would lead to any effective action by authorities. Muslim leaders stated they believed anti-Muslim incidents remained at approximately the same level as in 2017.
On April 5, according to TEV, a man struck a Canadian rabbi without warning and knocked off his kippah at a store in a Budapest shopping mall. On June 13, TEV reported a Budapest bus driver said he “wished gas to the Jews” when someone asked him for directions to a synagogue. In April a Facebook user shared a photograph of a Budapest bus stop defaced with the text, “death on … Jews.”
The November 29 edition of weekly business magazine Figyelo stated Mazsihisz could not account for funds the government had allocated to the organization for a new museum. The issue’s cover showed Andras Heisler, Mazsihisz President and World Jewish Congress Vice President, surrounded by money. Its lead article stated that, while Heisler criticized other proposed museums (such as the House of Fates) for not disclosing details of their planned exhibits, he had so far failed to publish the concept of his own government-funded project, the House of Coexistence.
In a published statement, Mazsihisz condemned the Figyelo article and cover as an incitement against a religious leader unprecedented since the country’s transition to democracy in 1990, adding that they “revived centuries-old stereotypes against our community.” According to Israeli press reports, the Israeli PM’s diplomatic adviser raised concerns over the issue with the Hungarian Ambassador to Israel and called on the Hungarian government to condemn the magazine’s anti-Semitism. The American Jewish Committee called the Figyelo piece an “anti-Semitic attack.” Figyelo rejected the criticism and, in response to a statement supporting Heisler by the Israeli Ambassador to Hungary, stated, “This form of diplomatic pressure … constitutes a violation of the freedom of the press and of Hungarian sovereignty.” World Jewish Congress President Lauder said the cover “is one of the oldest and vilest caricatures of the Jewish people and it places not just the magazine, but all of Hungary in a very bad light.”
In January the Association of Christian Intellectuals organized a Mass to be held in a downtown Budapest Catholic church to commemorate former Regent Horthy’s 150th birthday on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day – five months before his actual birthday on June 18. Fidesz MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Sandor Lezsak, former PM Peter Boross, and Veritas Institute Director Szakaly were scheduled to attend and speak at the Mass. The Catholic Church canceled the event following intense domestic and international criticism. Mazsihisz President Heisler publicly opposed the Mass and stated in an open letter addressed to Lezsak that his official participation “tramples on the memory of all the Hungarian victims.” In 2017, Heisler raised concerns about Horthy for what he said was his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Jews and tens of thousands of soldiers and the era of anti-Semitism associated with his name. The Miklos Horthy Association then organized a small service in honor of Horthy on February 11 in the Homecoming Reformed Church, where Horthy’s bust is also placed.
The Organization of Muslims in Hungary reported that early in the year an older woman used her walking stick to strike a middle-aged woman wearing a headscarf. The two women engaged in an altercation, but neither pressed charges. The organization reported several incidents in which individuals verbally insulted members of their community, mostly women and girls wearing headscarves on streets or in schools by shouting “Allahu akbar” at them or telling them to “go back to Africa.” The organization also said that on several occasions unknown persons sprayed litter bins and mobile toilets in the neighborhood of the ongoing renovations of its headquarters with the texts, “Allah,” “Muhammad,” and “migrant.”
In December the European Union’s Agency for Fundamental Rights (EU-FRA) released its second survey of Jewish experiences and perceptions of anti-Semitism. EU-FRA targeted Jewish populations through community organizations, Jewish media, and social networks; 590 individuals who identified themselves as Jewish residents of Hungary responded to the online survey. Twenty-seven percent said they had witnessed other Jews being physically attacked, insulted, or harassed in the previous 12 months, and 23 percent reported being harassed over the same period. Eight percent of respondents said they had felt discriminated against because of their religion or belief; 71 percent thought anti-Semitism had increased over the previous five years.
According to a survey published in June by the country’s leading Jewish news outlet, Szombat, two-thirds of Jews believed anti-Semitism in the country was a serious problem, and 48 percent of respondents reported hearing anti-Semitic remarks in the preceding year.
In a poll of residents of the country by UK-based market research company Ipsos MORI published in June, 51 percent agreed a Muslim could never be a “true Hungarian” and 59 percent said immigrants could not be regarded as Hungarians, even if they were legal residents or had lived most of their lives in the country. A poll of residents by think tank Political Capital found almost half said Muslims were stealthily trying to enforce their culture, and 45 percent believed Muslim leaders had a secret plan to capture Europe and transform it into an Arab continent. According to a Pew Research Center poll of residents published in October, 21 and 57 percent, respectively, said they would accept a Muslim or a Jew as a member of their family.
A 2017 survey the Median Public Opinion and Market Research Institute conducted for TEV, found approximately 37 percent of the population (33 percent in 2016) held anti-Semitic views.
In June online news site 888.hu published an article about what it called the negative influence of the six million Muslims in France. The same article announced a new column, “the White Man,” with a stated aim of drawing attention to the threats Islam posed to Western society and civilization. Ahead of the April parliamentary elections, media widely described as government-friendly (online sites origo.hu, pestisracok.hu, and ripost.hu) ran stories calling opposition party Jobbik prime ministerial candidate Gabor Vona a closet Muslim.
During a soccer match between the country’s Ferencvaros club and Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in July, former Ferencvaros player and club coach Istvan Toth was honored by the club, Mazsihisz, and the World Jewish Congress. In 1944, Toth saved hundreds of Jews as a member of the Hungarian anti-fascist resistance. Nazi collaborators executed him in 1945.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings with government officials, including in the PMO, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), and the MHC, U.S. embassy representatives continued to advocate religious freedom and discussed Holocaust commemoration, provisions of the religion law that resulted in discrimination against minority religious groups, the House of Fates, and the COS investigation.
The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited the country in November and, accompanied by embassy officials, met with Prime Minister Orban, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto, other government officials, and religious leaders to discuss religious freedom.
The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited the country in June and, accompanied by embassy representatives, met with officials at the PMO and MFAT, representatives of Jewish communities, the Holocaust Memorial Center, and Jewish cultural organizations. The Special Envoy encouraged government officials to agree on a timetable to conclude negotiations on the value of now-heirless property seized from Jews during the Holocaust and to consider another interim payment to Holocaust survivors while these negotiations were ongoing.
Embassy and visiting Department of State officials met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss anti-Semitism and the challenges of promoting tolerance education and historical truth, the community’s relationship with the government, the House of Fates, restitution issues, and commemoration of the Holocaust.
Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders of religious communities, including the four “historical” groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the COS, and with religious groups that lost incorporated church status in 2011, such as MET, Bet Orim, and Sim Shalom, to understand their concerns, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law and anti-Islamic rhetoric.
In February and June senior embassy representatives hosted interfaith breakfasts to discuss religious freedom and the importance of interfaith dialogue with Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Jewish, Muslim, Baptist, and MET leaders.
Senior embassy officers attended seders in March, and the Ambassador and a senior embassy officer attended Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in September held by various Jewish congregations. At all these events, the embassy representatives reiterated U.S. government support for religious freedom and discussed issues of concern to the Jewish community.
In April an embassy officer spoke about the lives of the Reverends Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr., and their messages rejecting intolerance and prejudice at an event organized by the Hungarian Baptist Church. Government officials and leaders of other churches attended the event.
In June an embassy official attended and delivered a welcome speech at the “Empty Desks” conference organized by the Jewish cultural organization Mazsike and the Holocaust Memorial Center. The project commemorated pupils killed during the Holocaust. The speech focused on the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, solidarity, and universal human rights.
In August the Ambassador delivered a speech emphasizing the importance of religious tolerance at a commemoration of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation of the country in 1944.
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion; mandates a secular state; requires the state to treat all religions impartially; and prohibits discrimination based on religion. It also states citizens must practice their faith in a way that does not adversely affect public order, morality, or health. Nine of the 29 states have laws restricting religious conversions. Some human rights groups stated that these laws fostered hostility against minority communities. There were reports by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that the government sometimes failed to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. Some senior officials of the Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made inflammatory speeches against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution. As of November, there were 18 such attacks, and eight people killed during the year. On June 22, two Uttar Pradesh police officers were charged with culpable homicide after a Muslim cattle trader died of injuries sustained while being questioned in police custody. In a separate incident, a court in Jharkhand sentenced 11 individuals, including a local BJP official, to life in prison for beating to death a Muslim, whom his killers believed to be trading in beef. On July 17, the Supreme Court said violence in the name of “cow vigilantism” was unacceptable and the onus of preventing such incidents lay with the states. Attacks on religious minorities included allegations of involvement by law enforcement personnel. On January 10, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested eight men, including four police personnel, in connection with the kidnapping, gang rape, and killing of an 8-year-old girl. The men allegedly kidnapped the victim, took her to a nearby temple, and raped and killed her in an effort to drive her nomadic Muslim community out of the area. In September Uttar Pradesh authorities suspended three police officers after videos surfaced of them abusing a Hindu woman in Meerut for reportedly consorting with a Muslim man. The central and state governments and members of political parties took steps that affected Muslim practices and institutions. The government continued its challenge in the Supreme Court to the minority status of Muslim educational institutions, which affords them independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. Proposals to rename Indian cities with Muslim provenance continued, most notably the renaming of Allahabad to Prayagraj. Activists said these proposals were designed to erase Muslim contributions to Indian history and had led to increased communal tensions.
There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytize. According to Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) data presented in the lower house of parliament on February 6, communal incidents increased by 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, with 822 incidents resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries in 2017. Authorities often failed to prosecute perpetrators of “cow vigilante” attacks, which included killings, mob violence, and intimidation. On July 21, a group attacked and killed Rakbar Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana, while he was transporting two cows at night. In December an estimated 300 persons, angered by reports of cows being slaughtered in the area, set fire to the police station in Chigrawati and killed a police officer. An 18-year-old protester was also killed in the violence. A mob assaulted two Muslim men, killing one, in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna District on May 17, alleging they were slaughtering a bull. Police arrested four assailants and filed a complaint alleging cow slaughter against the injured survivor. On January 20, a Christian pastor was found dead at his residence in Tamil Nadu. Members of his congregation alleged he had been murdered, and that he had been a victim of frequent past harassment by Hindu fundamentalist organizations. According to the NGO Persecution Relief’s 2017 Annual Report released in January, there were 736 incidents of persecution against Christians in 2017 compared to 348 in 2016. Tradition and social custom continued to deny entry to women and members of Dalit communities (former untouchables) into many places of worship. In December the Shiv Sena Party published an editorial calling for government to curb the growth of the country’s Muslim population through such measures as compulsory family planning for Muslims. On September 28, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala, a move that, according to media, sparked political controversy across the country.
Senior U.S. government officials underscored the importance of respecting religious freedom and promoting tolerance throughout the year with the ruling and opposition parties, civil society and religious freedom activists, and religious leaders belonging to various faith communities. In March a U.S. expert discussed racial and ethnic tolerance with audiences in Chennai and Mumbai. In June the Ambassador and the visiting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations stressed the importance of religious freedom during interactions with multiple religious leaders in Delhi. In almost every visit the Ambassador made in India, he engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths. In August the Department of State Senior Bureau Official for South and Central Asian Affairs visited India and convened a roundtable with senior leaders representing a number of faith groups to exchange views on religious freedom and tolerance. In December the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials, religious minority groups, and civil society representatives in Delhi and Lucknow to discuss the challenges faced by religious minorities in India.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.30 billion (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2011 national census, the most recent year for which disaggregated figures are available, Hindus constitute 79.8 percent of the population, Muslims 14.2 percent, Christians 2.3 percent, and Sikhs 1.7 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. The Ministry of Tribal Affairs officially classifies more than 104 million members of Scheduled Tribes – indigenous groups historically outside the caste system who often practice animism and indigenous religious beliefs – as Hindus in government statistics. Approximately one-third of Christians also are listed as part of Scheduled Tribes.
According to government estimates, there are large minority Muslim populations in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Telangana, Karnataka, and Kerala states. Muslims constitute 68.3 percent of the population in Jammu and Kashmir, the only state in which Muslims constitute a majority. Slightly more than 85 percent of Muslims are Sunni; most of the rest are Shia. Christian populations are found across the country but in greater concentrations in the northeast, as well as in southern states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Goa. Three small northeastern states have large Christian majorities: Nagaland (90 percent of the population), Mizoram (87 percent), and Meghalaya (70 percent). Sikhs constitute 54 percent of Punjab’s population. The Dalai Lama’s office estimates there are significant resettled Tibetan Buddhist communities in Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttarakhand, and Delhi. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 108,000 Tibetan Buddhists in the country and 21,000 Muslim refugees from Burma.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution mandates a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience and the right of all individuals to profess, practice, and propagate religion freely, subject to considerations of public order, morality, and health. It prohibits government discrimination based on religion, including with regard to employment, as well as any religion-based restrictions on individuals’ access to public or private facilities or establishments open to the general public. The constitution states religious groups have the right to establish and maintain institutions for religious and charitable purposes, manage their own affairs in religious matters, and own, acquire, and administer property. It prohibits compelling anyone to pay taxes to promote or maintain any specific religion. National and state laws make freedom of religion “subject to public order, morality, and health.” The constitution stipulates the state shall endeavor to create a uniform civil code applicable to members of all religions across the country.
Federal law empowers the government to ban religious organizations that provoke intercommunal tensions, are involved in terrorism or sedition, or violate laws governing foreign contributions.
Nine of the 29 states have laws restricting religious conversion: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Rajasthan, and Uttarakhand. The legislation in Rajasthan, passed in 2008, was reviewed by the central government to ensure its provisions were in alignment with existing national laws and the constitution, and has not yet received the approval from the country’s president that is required for the law to go into effect. In March Uttarakhand became the latest state to pass an anti-conversion law, making it a non-bailable offense. The law came into effect in April and was strengthened in August with the addition of provisions that allow the state to cancel the registration of institutions involved in forced conversions. Only five states have implemented rules that are required for these laws to be enforced.
Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttarakhand prohibit religious conversion by the use of “force,” “allurement,” or “fraudulent means,” and require district authorities be informed of any intended conversions one month in advance. Himachal Pradesh and Odisha maintain similar prohibitions against conversion through “force,” “inducement,” or “fraud,” and bar individuals from abetting such conversions. Odisha requires individuals wishing to convert to another religion and clergy intending to officiate in a conversion ceremony to submit formal notification to the government. Violators, including missionaries and other religious figures who encourage conversion, are subject to fines and other penalties, such as prison sentences of up to three years in Chhattisgarh and up to four years in Madhya Pradesh if the converts are minors, women, or members of government-designated, historically disadvantaged groups (known as Scheduled Castes or Scheduled Tribes). Gujarat mandates prior permission from the district magistrate for any form of conversion and punishes forced conversions with up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine up to 50,000 rupees ($720). In Himachal Pradesh, penalties include up to two years’ imprisonment and/or fines of 25,000 rupees ($360). Punishments for conversions involving minors, Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe members, or in the case of Odisha, women, may consist of jail sentences rather than fines.
According to the Supreme Court, converting from Hinduism to another religion ordinarily “operates as an expulsion from the caste” since caste is a structure affiliated with Hindu society. Societal definitions of caste affiliation are determinative of a person’s eligibility for government benefits.
Under Andhra Pradesh and Telangana law, authorities may prohibit proselytizing near another religion’s place of worship. Punishment for violations may include imprisonment for up to three years and fines up to 5,000 rupees ($72).
The federal penal code criminalizes “promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion” and “acts prejudicial to maintenance of harmony,” including acts causing injury or harm to religious groups and members. The penal code also prohibits “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” Violations of any of these provisions are punishable by imprisonment for up to three years, a fine, or both. If the offense is committed at a place of worship, imprisonment may be for up to five years.
There are no requirements for registration of religious groups, although federal law requires religiously affiliated organizations to maintain audit reports on their accounts and a schedule of their activities, and to provide these to state government officials upon request.
A federal law regulates foreign contributions to NGOs, including faith-based organizations. Organizations with “definite cultural, economic, educational, religious, or social programs” must receive a federal government certificate of registration to receive foreign funds. The federal government may also require that certified organizations obtain prior permission before accepting or transferring foreign funds. The federal government may reject an application for a certificate of registration or a request for prior permission to transfer funds if it judges the recipient to be prejudicially affecting “harmony between religious, racial, social, linguistic, regional groups, castes, or communities.”
The constitution states any reference to Hindus in law is to be construed as containing a reference to followers of Sikhism, Jainism, and Buddhism, meaning they are subject to laws regarding Hindus, such as the Hindu Marriage Act. Subsequent legislation continues to use the word Hindu as a blanket category that includes Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha’i, and Jains, but clarifies these are separate religions whose followers are included under the legislation.
Federal law provides minority community status to six religious groups: Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, Jains, and Buddhists. State governments may grant minority status to religious groups that are minorities in a particular region and designate them as minorities under state law. Minority status makes these groups eligible for several government assistance programs. The constitution states the government will protect the existence of religious minorities and encourage conditions for the promotion of their individual identities.
Personal status laws determine rights for members of certain religious communities in matters of marriage, divorce, adoption, and inheritance based on religion, faith, and culture. Hindu, Christian, Parsi, Jewish, and Islamic personal status laws are legally recognized and judicially enforceable. Personal status issues not defined for a community in a separate law are covered under Hindu personal status laws. These laws, however, do not supersede national- and state-level legislation or constitutional provisions. The government grants autonomy to the All India Muslim Personal Law Board and the Parsi community to define customary practices. If the law board or community leaders cannot offer satisfactory solutions, the case is referred to the civil courts.
Federal law permits interfaith couples to marry without religious conversion. Interfaith couples, and all couples marrying in a civil ceremony, are required to provide public notice 30 days in advance – including addresses, photographs, and religious affiliation – for public comment. Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jains who marry outside their religions, however, face the possibility of losing their property inheritance rights under those communities’ personal status laws.
The law recognizes the registration of Sikh marriages. There are no divorce provisions for Sikhs under personal status laws. Other Sikh personal status matters fall under Hindu codes. Under the law, any person, irrespective of religion, may seek a divorce in civil court.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in government schools; the law permits private religious schools.
Twenty-four of the 29 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter. Penalties vary among states, and may vary based on whether the animal is a cow, calf, bull, or ox. The ban mostly affects Muslims and members of other Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In the majority of the 24 states where bovine slaughter is banned, punishments include imprisonment for six months to two years and a fine of 1,000 to 10,000 rupees ($14 to $140). Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir penalize cow slaughter with imprisonment of two to 10 years. The law in Gujarat mandates a minimum 10-year sentence (the punishment for some counts of manslaughter) and a maximum sentence of life imprisonment (the punishment for premeditated murder of humans) for killing cows, selling beef, and illegally transporting cows or beef.
The National Commission for Minorities, which includes representatives from the six designated religious minorities and the National Human Rights Commission, investigates allegations of religious discrimination. The Ministry of Minority Affairs may also conduct investigations. These bodies have no enforcement powers, but launch investigations based on written complaints by plaintiffs charging criminal or civil violations and submit their findings to law enforcement agencies for action. Eighteen of the country’s 29 states and the National Capital Territory of Delhi have state minorities commissions, which also investigate allegations of religious discrimination.
The constitution allows for a form of affirmative action for Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe communities, and the “Other Backward Class,” a category for groups deemed to be socially and educationally disadvantaged. Since the constitution specifies only Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists shall be deemed a member of a Scheduled Caste, the only means through which Christian and Muslim individuals may qualify for affirmative action benefits is if they are considered members of the “backward” classes due to their social and economic status.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain a missionary visa.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On June 22, the government charged two police officers with culpable homicide after a Muslim cattle trader, Mohammad Salim Qureshi, died of injuries sustained while being questioned by police in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh. The accused officers were suspended following a police inquiry.
On May 11, a Muslim youth died in a police shooting and a Hindu shopkeeper died in his burning shop following communal clashes in Maharashtra’s Aurangabad city. These events followed allegations that authorities were conducting a civic crackdown on illegal water connections in a discriminatory manner, possibly triggered by the removal of water connection of four Muslim residents. In the immediate aftermath of the violence, in which seven officers were injured, Aurangabad police arrested 14 persons. With families of both victims alleging partisan policing and video footage of the clashes receiving wide coverage on social media, police ordered an investigation.
A court in Jharkhand sentenced 11 individuals, including a local BJP official, to life in prison for beating to death Alimuddin Ansari, a Muslim, in June 2017. Ansari’s killers said they believed he was trading in beef.
On August 13, the Supreme Court ordered Uttar Pradesh authorities to reinvestigate and submit a report on the June 18 killing of Qasim Qureshi, a Muslim cattle trader attacked by a mob while transporting cows through Harpur. The order came after multiple online videos surfaced casting doubt on the initial police report, which described the assault as an incident of “road rage.” In one video, a bloodied Qureshi is seen refuting claims that he was transporting the cows for slaughter. Police arrested and filed murder charges against nine individuals in connection with the attack.
On April 20, the Gujarat High Court acquitted former Gujarat Minister of State for Women and Child Development Maya Kodnani and upheld the conviction of former Bajrang Dal leader Babu Bajrangi related to the 2002 Naroda Patiya communal riots in Gujarat. Kodnani had been charged with provoking a Hindu mob. Bajrangi was accused and convicted of criminal conspiracy, collecting weapons, and leading a violent mob. In March the Supreme Court stated it would not give the Gujarat government further extensions to meet its request for a status report on disciplinary action taken against police officers convicted in the gang rape of a pregnant 19-year-old woman, Bilkis Bano, during the 2002 riots. On June 25, the Gujarat High Court sentenced P. Rajput, Rajkumar Chaumal, and Umesh Bharwad to 10 years of imprisonment for their involvement in a mob that killed 96 Muslims during the 2002 riots, reversing the judgment of a lower court. The court upheld the acquittals of 29 others in the case.
On April 1, Hyderabad police arrested four Christians for “hurting religious sentiments” for handing out Christian tracts during an Easter procession. Christian news website World Watch Monitor said the charges against Rayapuri Jyothi, Meena Kumari, Mahima Kumari, and Bagadam Sudhakar were spurious, and came following a complaint from activists of the Hindu nationalist organization Hindu Jana Shakti. Authorities released the individuals on bail on April 3. According to other news reports, however, the police also filed charges against four activists of the Hindu Jana Shakti in the same case, charging them with “outraging the modesty” of the Christian women and forcing them to wear the traditional Hindu vermilion mark on their foreheads.
The NGO Alliance Defending Freedom India (ADFI) stated authorities pursued charges against members of the minority Christian community in several states under religious conversion laws.
On September 12, police in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur District charged 271 Christians with “spreading lies about Hinduism” and allegedly drugging people to try to convert them to Christianity. The police action came after a local Hindu group filed a complaint with the court alleging the Christians refused to stop conducting Sunday prayer services and spread misinformation about Hinduism. Deputy Police Superintendent Anil Kumar Pandey said the individuals were “accused of various criminal offenses like fraud, defiling places of worship, and prejudice against national integration.”
On January 10, Jammu and Kashmir police arrested eight Hindu men, including four police personnel and a retired government official, in connection with the kidnapping, gang rape, and killing of 8-year-old Asifa Bano. The victim belonged to a Muslim tribal community in Kathua District and was kidnapped while grazing her horse in a meadow. The men allegedly took Bano to a nearby Hindu temple where they drugged and raped her over the course of several days. According to media reports, the men raped and murdered Bano to drive her nomadic Muslim community out of the area. The Jammu High Court Bar Association joined several Hindu groups and two BJP state government ministers in a protest to demand the release of the accused, saying it was an anti-Hindu move by police and prosecutors in the Muslim-majority state. On May 7, the Supreme Court ordered the transfer of the trial to Punjab’s Pathankot District. The two state BJP ministers who attended the rally supporting the suspects resigned their positions.
In September Uttar Pradesh authorities suspended three police officers after video surfaced of one of the officers slapping a Hindu woman for reportedly consorting with a Muslim man while two other officers taunted her. Media reported police were dispatched to rescue the interfaith couple, both medical college students, whom members of a Hindu nationalist organization had attacked in protest of so-called “love jihad,” a term used to accuse Muslim men of converting Hindu women by seducing them.
On December 9, police in Bakhitayrpur village, Patna District, Bihar State, arrested and detained a local Christian pastor for attempted forced conversions after he showed a film about Jesus. Local residents reportedly tried to stop the pastor from showing the film and said they wanted him removed from the village. According to media reports, the police detained the pastor but did not arrest him, and told him to return to his home village and not return to Bakhitayrpur.
In May the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported police in Uttar Pradesh arrested Rev. Gyan Singh and another Pentecostal Christian in the village of Bugauliya Block, Basti District for forced conversions. Police told GCIC that they would release the two without charges. In June authorities arrested an Uttar Pradesh pastor, Dependra Prakash Maleywar, after he was accused of the forced conversion of 16 persons. Police originally arrested Maleywar after a local Hindu activist accused him of an assault against some activists of the Bajrang Dal Hindu group. A judge ordered Maleywar to 14 days of judicial custody pending investigation; after a week, authorities released him on bail. Police in Jharkhand arrested Dalu Soren, a Christian veterinarian, on October 16, after a 13-year-old girl’s father filed a complaint charging forced conversion.
According to the website AsiaNews and Catholic media outlet Crux, four men attacked a Catholic priest, Vineet Vincent Pereira, who was conducting a prayer service in Ghohana, Uttar Pradesh on November 14. The four attackers were allegedly members of a Hindu group trying to “reconvert” Hindus who had earlier changed their religious beliefs. After the attack, police took Pereira into protective custody, but charged him the next day with rioting and unlawful assembly. The attackers were not charged.
In October Hyderabad police arrested well-known Muslim preacher Brother Imran after he allegedly made derogatory remarks against the Shia community and another Islamic group. According to the complainants, Imran tried to create “communal animosity” and outraged the feelings of the Shia community, resulting in tension in the area. He was released on bail and the court had not taken up his case by year’s end.
On August 27, a special court in Ahmedabad, Gujarat sentenced Farooq Bhana and Imran Sheru to life imprisonment and acquitted three others accused of setting fire to the Sabarmati Express train on February 28, 2002, that killed 59 Hindu pilgrims and led to large-scale intercommunal riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002. By year’s end, courts convicted 33 suspects in the case and eight remained at large.
In its World Report covering 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government failed to “prevent or credibly investigate” mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government. At the same time, according to HRW, some BJP officials publicly supported perpetrators of such crimes and made inflammatory speeches against minority communities, which encouraged further violence. According to HRW, mob violence against minority communities amid rumors that they traded or killed cows for beef, especially Muslims, by extremist Hindu groups continued throughout the year. As of November, there had been 18 such attacks, and eight people killed during the year.
On December 15, police in Assam arrested two men who vandalized a Catholic church and a grotto in the village of Chapatoli. Police stated they believed the two to be responsible for the desecration of the church’s crucifix and for toppling a statue.
In June media reported Arunachal Pradesh’s BJP Chief Minister Pema Khandu announced that his government would repeal the state’s 40-year-old anti-conversion law.
On September 18, media reported a village council in Haryana passed a decree urging Muslim residents to adopt Hindu names, refrain from such actions as growing beards or wearing traditional skullcaps, and avoid praying in public. The announcement reportedly came a month after police arrested Yamin Khokkar, a Muslim villager, whom local authorities accused of illegally slaughtering a calf. Subsequent media reports stated the village council denied it passed the decree.
According to NGO sources, authorities reportedly denied three U.S. citizens entry under non-missionary visas due to concerns they intended to engage in missionary activity, although the U.S. citizens denied that this was their intention.
On April 21, Bharat Singh, a BJP Member of Parliament from Uttar Pradesh, said, “Christian missionaries are a threat to the unity and integrity” of the country and the opposition Congress Party is “controlled by them [Christian missionaries].” The president of the GCIC, citing a survey by news channel NDTV, stated that hate speech by BJP representatives had increased by 490 percent since 2014.
In August Catholic bishops in Jharkhand sent a memorandum to the state governor in response to perceived harassment and intense scrutiny of Christian organizations by government agencies after allegations emerged regarding a baby-selling scandal in a home for unwed mothers run by the Missionaries of Charity (MOC) in Ranchi. Church leaders said the crackdown on the MOC by the Jharkhand government was a ploy to discredit the organization as part of the state government’s anti-Christian agenda.
On June 21, authorities transferred a regional passport official in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, after he reportedly refused to issue passports to an interfaith couple. Media reported the official harangued Tanvi Seth for not adopting her husband’s surname, then later suggested her spouse, Mohammad Anas Siddiqui, convert to Hinduism. The Ministry of External Affairs intervened after Seth went public with their story on social media. Authorities issued the couple passports a day later.
On June 11, Hyderabad police charged a member of the Telangana legislative assembly, T. Raja Singh of the BJP, for making hateful and derogatory remarks against Muslims and the Quran. The police arrested him on charges of promoting enmity between different groups. This was the 19th case filed against Singh. In a live Facebook video session, Singh allegedly demanded a ban on the Quran, stating that its verses called for killing Hindus.
On February 7, BJP Member of Parliament Vinay Katiyar said Muslims had “no business” staying in India. Speaking to a media organization, Katiyar said Muslims should instead settle in Bangladesh and Pakistan since they were responsible for the partition of India.
On July 31, the government of Assam published the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a document intended to define individuals with a claim to citizenship in a state that experienced an influx of foreigners in 1971. Authorities excluded more than 4 million individuals from the list, many of them Bengali-speaking Muslims. The Supreme Court continued to oversee an appeals process at year’s end for those excluded. The Citizenship (Amendment) Bill of 2016 that would allow certain Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian (but not Muslim) migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to become citizens continued to face strong criticism and was not taken up by the upper chamber of parliament during the year.
In January the Supreme Court ordered a newly-constituted Special Investigation Team (SIT) of law enforcement officials to assess 186 cases related to anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and Punjab in 1984. In July media reports suggested the SIT failed to begin its work due to a member refusing to participate in its proceedings.
In April the central government removed its proposed ban on selling cattle for slaughter in animal markets that had been suspended by the Supreme Court. Observers expressed concern the ban would most negatively impact Muslims, who dominate the country’s quarter trillion rupee ($3.58 billion) buffalo meat export industry. Observers noted an increase in cow vigilantism hurt members of the Muslim, Dalit, and Adivasi communities who were economically dependent on the cattle trade and leather industries. On July 17, the Supreme Court said violence in the name of cow vigilantism was unacceptable and the onus of preventing such incidents lay with the states. The court ordered all state governments to designate a senior police officer in every district to prevent mob violence, ensure that the police act promptly against attackers, and asked the legislature to consider enacting a new penal provision to deal with mob violence by self-styled cow protectors and provide deterrent-level punishment to offenders.
On July 8, Union Minister Jayant Sinha came under public scrutiny after embracing individuals convicted of killing a Muslim trader in Jharkhand in 2017. The eight men who met with Sinha were convicted of murder in the killing of Alimuddin Ansari, who they said was transporting beef. Social commentators criticized Sinha, particularly for not speaking about the victim or about justice for his surviving family members. Following the public backlash, he issued statements condemning violence and vigilantism.
On October 12, the Supreme Court stayed an order of the Uttarakhand High Court directing a blanket ban on fatwas by Islamic religious bodies. The court acted in response to a rape victim’s complaint about a village council banishing her family from the village.
On September 19, the government issued an executive order to fine and imprison men who practice “triple talaq” – via which a Muslim man can divorce his wife instantly by saying the work “talaq” (Arabic for divorce) three times. Muslim women’s groups have been central to efforts to end the practice, which is outlawed in many Muslim majority countries. In 2017 the Supreme Court ruled that the practice was unconstitutional and inconsistent with Islamic law and urged parliament to draft a new provision. The current executive order is scheduled to lapse if its provisions are not enacted into law by parliament before national parliamentary elections are held in 2019.
On August 28, the Punjab government passed an amendment to the federal penal code punishing the intentional desecration of certain religious texts – the Guru Granth Sahib (the Sikh holy book), the Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagwad Gita – with life imprisonment. Media reports criticized the amendment as “excessive” and noted its potential misuse by authorities to restrict freedom of expression and silence political opponents. As of September 25, the proposed amendment was under review by the central government, which must approve state-specific amendments to federal law.
On July 6, Gujarat became the third state, along with Maharashtra and West Bengal, to grant the Jewish community minority status, providing members with “benefits of welfare schemes formulated for religious minority communities within the jurisdiction” of the state.
The government continued its challenge, dating from 2016, of the Supreme Court ruling regarding the minority status of Muslim educational institutions that affords these institutions independence in hiring and curriculum decisions. The central government continued to state that Aligarh Muslim University was a central university set up under an act of parliament, and therefore should not be considered a minority institution.
State and local jurisdictions submitted 25 proposals to the MHA during the year to rename cities across India, mirroring a similar trend of renaming train stations, islands, and roads that previously had British or Islamic names. According to AsiaNews and Reuters, BJP leaders in Uttar Pradesh decided to rename some cities that “sounded too Islamic.” In October Uttar Pradesh changed the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj. In November authorities changed the name of the Faizabad District to Ayodhya, the place where Hindus believe Lord Ram was born. Activists said these proposals were designed to erase Muslim contributions to Indian history and had led to increased communal tensions.
The Supreme Court in March overturned a 2017 Kerala High Court order that annulled the marriage of a Hindu woman and a Muslim man based on third-party allegations that she was forcibly converted to Islam, despite her denials.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In September Rajasthan police charged three men with murder in connection with the killing of Rakbar Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer from Haryana. On July 21, a group of cow vigilantes attacked Khan while he was transporting two cows at night. Authorities suspended a senior police officer after he reportedly took four hours to transport a still conscious Khan to a local hospital four kilometers (2.5 miles) away. Doctors declared Khan dead on arrival. The attack occurred in the same district, Alwar, where in April 2017 a mob killed Muslim dairy farmer Pehlu Khan on suspicion of cow smuggling.
In December a crowd estimated at more than 300, reportedly angered by reports of cows being slaughtered in the area, killed a police officer at the police station in Chigrawati when he tried to calm them. An 18-year-old protester was also killed. The mob set fire to the police station and several cars. Police arrested four men in the killing and reportedly were searching for 23 others at year’s end.
A mob assaulted two Muslim men, killing one, in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna District May 17, alleging the duo were slaughtering a bull. Police arrested four assailants and filed a complaint alleging cow slaughter against the injured survivor, who denied the charge.
On January 20, Christian pastor Gideon Periyaswamy of Maknayeem Church in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu, was found dead at his residence. Members of his congregation alleged he had been murdered and that he had previously been a victim of frequent harassment by Hindu fundamentalist organizations.
On November 1, Hindu priest D. Satyanarayana died in a hospital in Hyderabad due to injuries sustained in the city of Warangal on October 26. Muslim Imam Syed Sadiq Hussain allegedly assaulted the priest during an argument over the use of a loudspeaker in the temple where the deceased worked. The police charged the imam with murder and trespassing and placed him in custody pending trial.
In February media reported Ankit Saxena, a 23-year-old Hindu man, was killed on a busy road in Delhi, allegedly by family members of a Muslim woman he was courting. Authorities arrested the woman’s parents, uncle, and minor brother, who reportedly objected to the interfaith relationship, and filed charges against the family in May.
Media data project IndiaSpend stated there were eight deaths related to cow vigilantes as of year’s end, and 31 total incidents of cow vigilantism. According to the data, 73 percent of victims were Muslim. In 2017, there were 108 victims and 13 deaths in 43 incidents, and in 2016, 67 victims and 9 deaths in 30 incidents. While Muslims constituted 60 percent of the victims in 2017, they were 42 percent in 2016, with 34 percent being Dalits.
In September authorities arrested Catholic bishop Franco Mulakkal for the rape of a nun of the Missionaries of Jesus order in Kerala between 2014 and 2016. The government released the bishop on bail in October; the trial was set for 2019. The Vatican temporarily relieved him of his duties. Media reported a majority of Christians appeared to support the bishop and questioned the nun’s accusations, while others expressed support. During the summer prior to the bishop’s arrest, nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus protested and led rallies, calling for the authorities to take action.
In March media reported that members of Hindu nationalist organization Bajrang Dal chopped off the finger of a Muslim woman, Roshan Bi, and attacked her son Farzan Saiyed in Chhatral town in Gujarat when they did not follow warnings to restrict their cattle grazing only to Muslim neighborhoods. Saiyed later died from his injuries. Police arrested five assailants following community protests.
On March 12, according to several sources, Hindu supporters of a BJP member of parliament attacked a Catholic hospital and roughly handled nurses and nuns in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh. The supporters were reportedly motivated by an ownership dispute over the land on which the hospital is located. Several nurses were injured in the attack. The parliamentarian, Chitamani Malviya, made claims against the hospital in 2015 and then again in January. The hospital and church disputed his claims. Using two bulldozers and armed with weapons, a crowd of nearly 100 people broke down a section of hospital wall, damaged the electrical supply and generator unit, and disconnected the water connection to the hospital, which has approximately 200 beds. According to the reports, church authorities contacted top government officials during the attack, but police did not respond. Police filed a report on the incident two days later.
According to AsiaNews, in February a group of Hindus attacked and beat a Pentecostal Christian pastor for conducting allegedly “forced conversions” in West Champaran District, Bihar. The missionary was on a bus with 13 other Pentecostals when a Hindu on the bus, reportedly upset with discussion of Christian beliefs that he overheard, alerted fellow Hindus at the next bus station. When the bus arrived, the Hindus reportedly beat the pastor and another member of the group, both of whom were transported to the hospital. Police initially declined to register a complaint, but later agreed to take statements from the pastor and other members of his group.
On July 23, media reported members of a Hindu nationalist organization attacked Sahil Khan, a Muslim man registering his marriage to a Hindu woman, outside a court in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh. A mob reportedly dragged Khan out of the court and beat him in the street before damaging his car. Police filed charges against two individuals in connection with the attack.
According to AsiaNews, on December 16 in Tamil Nadu, a crowd of approximately 150 individuals attacked a group of 16 Christians singing Christmas carols.
Media reported that on May 24, a Sikh police officer, Gagandeep Singh, reportedly prevented a mob in Ramnagar, Uttarakhand, from lynching a Muslim youth after local residents allegedly found him meeting with a Hindu woman in a temple. Video of the event showed officer Singh taking several blows as he shielded the Muslim youth from the crowd. The crowd accused the young Muslim of “love jihad.” Police later arrested and filed charges against five of the attackers. Following his actions, Singh received death threats and was put on leave for his own protection.
ADFI reported members of Hindu nationalist groups attacked Christian leaders and their ministries, mainly in rural communities, under the pretext the Christians were practicing forced conversions, and 15 churches were closed due to concerns about ensuring the security of the churches. The government was working to reopen the churches at year’s end. ADFI also stated a pastor was assaulted in Fatehpur while conducting a Sunday service, and a mob protested the singing of Christmas carols by members of 35 different churches that came together in a Catholic church in Varanasi.
The Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI-RLC) documented 325 cases of violence and attacks against Christians and churches during the year, compared with 351 in 2017 and 247 in 2016. Its 2018 report tracked incidents in which Christians were targeted for violence, intimidation, or harassment, and noted over 40 percent of the documented incidents occurred in Uttar Pradesh, with a significant rise between September and December. Churches were allegedly targeted by Hindu nationalist groups claiming “conversions through force or fraud” resulting in disrupted worship services, harassment of pastors and worshippers, and the arrest or detention of pastors and lay Christians. Twelve percent of the incidents were reported in Tamil Nadu.
The NGO Prosecution Relief reported 477 incidents of violence against Christians in its 2018 annual report, compared with 440 in in 2017. The organization also stated that the state of religious affairs was worsening in the country, as perpetrators of religious violence were often not prosecuted. The most common form of persecution was “threats, harassment, and intimidation.” According to the NGO, such incidents increased by 118 percent over 2017.
Media reported on January 24, unidentified persons in Nagarkurnool District in Telangana burned several copies of a Telugu translation of the Bible after forcing a group of Christian activists from Gideons International to give them the copies they were planning to distribute.
On February 6, the MHA presented data in the lower house of parliament showing a 9 percent increase in incidents of religious violence from 2015 to 2017. In 2017, there were 822 incidents, resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries.
In February the first public display of “ghar-wapsi” (reconversion activities facilitated by Hindu organizations for those who had left Hinduism) in Kolkata took place when the organization Hindu Samhati featured 16 members of a Muslim family who were “reconverted to Hinduism” at a public rally. Hindu Samhati founder Tapan Ghosh said he had organized similar events previously for quite some time but decided to showcase the “reconverted” people in public as “the time was right.”
International Christian Concern (ICC) documented 10 attacks on Christians in the lead-up to Easter. On April 5, ICC reported Hindu nationalists attacked a prayer gathering in the Vakel village of Bastar district in Chhattisgarh, injuring six Christians. On April 6, ADFI reported 17 anti-Christian incidents by Hindu nationalist groups within or close to Hyderabad on its World Watch Monitor website.
A crowd waving orange flags of Hindu nationalists attacked a church during a Sunday service in Naubasta, Kanpur District in Uttar Pradesh, on December 2, demanding the pastor and congregation stop the service and close down the church immediately. Police at the scene asked the Christians to leave and then dispersed the demonstrators, who threatened to return the following week. Two days before the incident a police inspector informed the pastor he was being charged with “forced conversions” following a complaint filed against him. Following the incident, police declined to accept formal complaints from the pastor or his community about the disruption of the church service.
The Times of India newspaper and other media reported that on March 25, police in Nirmal District, Telangana, used measures, including caning and teargas, to control tense crowds after individuals allegedly pelted a local mosque with stones and threw a saffron flag into the mosque during a procession to celebrate the Hindu Sri Rama Navami festival. A senior police official and a constable were injured in clashes with protesters. The police imposed the section of the criminal code that restricts assembly of more than four persons for three consecutive days to bring the situation under control. A media report quoted the district police chief as stating that six activists of the Hindu Vahini and three Muslim protesters were arrested.
On June 3, Archbishop of Goa and Daman Filipe Neri Ferrao in his annual pastoral letter called upon Catholics to fight social injustice and the trend of “mono-culturalism,” which attempted to dictate how Indians “eat, dress, live, and even worship.” In response, Surendra Jain, a leader of the Hindu nationalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad, said the country’s Christian churches “conspire with the Vatican to destabilize the current elected government” of the BJP. According to AsiaNews, “Jain further said the Vatican not only denigrates the Hindus all over the world but also India as a nation and the Indian churches are acting as puppets in their [i.e., the Vatican’s] hands.” Jain also criticized the section of the letter in which Ferrao wrote of “the trampling of human rights in India.”
In June media reported that Aman Khan, a Muslim software engineer in Pune, Maharashtra, filed a complaint with the labor commissioner alleging his supervisor forced him to resign after he saw Khan praying in the office.
According to media reports, in July Hindu groups in Jharkhand’s Latehar District forced Christian families out of their village after they refused to renounce their religion. The reports stated that the families were “living in fear” and did not return because the local authorities were unable or unwilling to help.
In August a group of Hindus from Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, attacked and damaged a Pentecostal church in Bihar, accusing the church of forced conversions. The church said this was a “false accusation.”
Media reported on August 25, South Indian singer O.S. Arun withdrew from participation in a Christian Carnatic Music Concert in Chennai after Tamil Nadu-based Hindu organization Rashtriya Sanathana Seva Sangam called the Hindu artists associating with the event “traitors” to the Hindu faith and threatened any Hindu singer singing Christian hymns.
In October the India Today newspaper conducted a “sting operation” on Hindu nationalist organization Sanatan Sanstha, in which two representatives of the organization allegedly made confessions about their involvement in attacks conducted outside cinemas in Maharashtra in 2008 over the “objectionable” depiction of Hinduism in certain films and dramas.
Several acts of vandalism targeting Christian sites and symbols occurred during the year. In March a sculpture of the Virgin Mary was found headless in a grotto dedicated to her in a church in Aligondo, Odisha. Vandals attacked another Catholic church in Odisha the night before Easter Sunday, setting fire to a room storing sacred objects. On April 10, a crowd estimated at approximately 500 persons threw stones at a Christian retreat center in Neyyattinkara in Kerala, shattering windows and entrance doors. On the night of March 31, unknown individuals in Punnamoodu, Alappuzha District vandalized an Orthodox church hall, breaking windows and kicking down a door.
Media reported on March 11 that a Pentecostal church in Madurai, Tamil Nadu, was vandalized and copies of the Bible were burned, allegedly by members of a Hindu group. According to the GCIC, multiple churches in the state of Tamil Nadu experienced acts of vandalism during the year.
Tradition and social custom continued to deny entry to women and Dalits into many places of worship. On September 28, the Supreme Court overturned a ban on females aged 10 to 50 years from entering the Hindu Sabarimala temple in Kerala. According to media, the ruling sparked political controversy across the country. On May 1, media reported a Dalit woman was turned away from Sri Kamatchi Sameta Boodanadheeswarar temple in Puducherry when she tried to enter the temple during a festival. A group of people surrounded the woman and insisted she leave and visit “the temple of her community.”
Members of Hindu nationalist groups and the BJP filed a complaint against the administrators of the Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple in Tamil Nadu for allowing a group of Catholic nuns, who were part of a tourist group, to visit the site in May. According to the complaint, the presence of nuns in their religious attire in a Hindu place of worship offended Hindu believers and mocked the temple’s sanctity.
In its official newspaper, the Shiv Sena, a Hindu nationalist regional party, stated the country’s Muslim community had too many children and “needs a family planning policy.” The paper’s December 4 editorial said the policy was needed to “ensure stability in the country and maintain national security.” It added, “the population of Indian Muslims is proliferating at the speed of a bullet train. Implementing family planning on them is the only solution.”
After flooding in Kerala, a Hindu religious figure, Chakrapani Maharaj, called for disaster aid to be provided only to those who avoid eating beef. Maharaj said the floods were caused by the gods’ outrage at the consumption of beef, which he described as “the sins of the beef eaters.” Other press reports stated, however, that unlike Maharaj, most of the country was very supportive of helping all those in Kerala who needed assistance.
In March a publisher included Adolf Hitler in a children’s book on world leaders. Annushu Juneja, a publishing manager for the B. Jain Publishing Group, said Hitler was featured because “his leadership skills and speeches influenced masses.” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said in a statement, “Adolf Hitler? This description would bring tears of joy to the Nazis and their racist neo-Nazi heirs.” The publisher subsequently discontinued sales of the book.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Throughout the year representatives from the embassy and consulates general met government officials to discuss challenges faced by religious minorities, especially Christians and Muslims, incidents of cow vigilantism, the status of religious freedom in the country, and religiously motivated violence. In almost every visit the Ambassador made in India, he engaged with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths.
U.S. representatives also engaged with civil society and religious leaders on anticonversion laws, the growing politicization of the bureaucracy, the frequent local veneration of individuals who commit acts of violence against religious minorities, Islamic divorce, and the challenge of protecting personal religious laws in accordance with the constitution, the minority status of universities, and beef bans.
In May the Ambassador hosted an iftar with leaders from the Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, and Jewish communities, journalists, and multiple political parties, at which he stressed the shared commitment of the two countries to religious diversity and the importance of empathy for other faiths. In June the visiting U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations joined the Ambassador on a tour of multiple religious sites in Old Delhi, highlighting the country’s rich tradition of spiritual pluralism, and met with Muslim, Jain, Hindu, Christian, and Sikh leaders. In July the Ambassador traveled to Ladakh and met with Buddhist leaders, a religious minority in the region, and highlighted via social media the religious diversity of India and Ladakh’s religion and culture. In August the senior official of the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs convened a roundtable with senior leaders from Muslim and Christian communities and discussed increased violence against religious minorities. In December the Department of State Special Advisor for Religious Minorities met with government officials, religious minority groups, and civil society representatives in Delhi and Lucknow to discuss the challenges faced by religious minorities in India.
Embassy and consulate officers continued to meet with religious organizations, missionary communities, and NGOs of all religious backgrounds to discuss religious freedom, understand concerns related to an increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceived diminishing space for religious freedom, and monitor cases involving reports of religious persecution and religiously motivated attacks. Embassy and consulate representatives met with the Imam of Jama Masjid, leaders of several mosques, Hindu priests, and Christian and Catholic leaders, as well as representatives of the India Islamic Cultural Center, the All India Imams’ Organization, the Parsi community, and Sikh leaders.
The embassy and consulates general hosted celebrations marking major religious holidays, including Ramadan, Holi, Eid al-Fitr, and Easter to bring together leaders from different religious groups and emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance. In February Mumbai’s Mahim Dargah (a Muslim shrine) Trustee Suhail Khandwani hosted an interfaith dialogue for visiting U.S. mayors from Anaheim, California and Louisville, Kentucky. In March the Consul General in Chennai hosted a U.S. expert on interfaith relations. The expert discussed tolerance with graduate students at the Indian Institute of Democratic Leadership in Mumbai and more than 200 Muslim youth at a grade school for Muslim children displaced during 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.
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
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.”
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.
Israel, West Bank and Gaza
IN THIS SECTION: ISRAEL (BELOW) | WEST BANK AND GAZA
This section includes Israel, including Jerusalem. In December 2017, the United States recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is the position of the United States that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises no authority over Jerusalem. In March 2019, the United States recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. A report on the West Bank and Gaza, including areas subject to the jurisdiction of the PA, is appended at the end of this report.
The country’s laws and Supreme Court rulings protect the freedoms of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religious affiliation, and the 1992 “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” protects additional individual rights. Citing a need to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law, on June 19, the Knesset passed the “Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People.” According to the government, the “law determines, among other things, that the Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people; the State of Israel is the nation state of the Jewish People, in which it realizes its natural, cultural, religious and historical right to self-determination; and exercising the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People.” Druze leaders, other non-Jewish minorities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) criticized the new law for not mentioning the principle of equality to prevent harm to the rights of minorities. Supporters said it was necessary to balance the 1992 basic law and restate the country’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality. The government continued to control access to religious sites, including the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. Some Members of the Knesset (MKs) and civil society organizations called for reversing the practice of banning non-Muslim prayer at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif (the foundation of the first and second Jewish temples) and the Haram al-Sharif (site containing the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque), based on post-1967 status quo understandings. Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours on July 27, following clashes with Muslim protesters. The government permitted persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly at the main Western Wall plaza in separate gender sections, and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups. The government continued, however, to enforce a prohibition on performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place,” which authorities interpreted to include mixed gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies that did not conform to Orthodox Judaism. The government continued to implement policies based on Orthodox Jewish interpretations of religious law. Following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who vandalized a church in Tabgha in 2015. In June police officers injured an Ethiopian monk while evicting him and other monks from their church in Jerusalem, and in October police arrested a Coptic monk and removed others from the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem after they refused to allow the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) to enter and perform restoration work. Some minority religious groups complained of what they said was lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. The government maintained its policy of not accepting new applications for official recognition from religious groups, but members of nonrecognized religious groups remained free to practice their religion. Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community, police, and other Israelis, particularly related to service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), resulting in clashes such as those on March 22 between ultra-Orthodox protesters and police. On December 2, the Supreme Court granted the Knesset (parliament) an extension into 2019 to pass legislation regulating ultra-Orthodox military service.
Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported in February an unknown man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ashdod. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years. Following the attack, the Israeli government offered to pay for repairs.
Visiting high-level U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, met with government officials, religious groups, and civil society leaders to stress the importance of tolerance and dialogue and ways to reduce religiously motivated violence. Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and public speeches, embassy officers stressed the importance of religious freedom and respect for all religious groups. Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated for a shared society for Jewish and Arab populations. Embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i groups to show U.S. support for religious pluralism.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.4 million (July 2018 estimate), including residents and citizens. According to the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) classification system, approximately 75 percent of the population is Jewish, 18 percent Muslim, 2 percent Christian, and 1.6 percent Druze. The remaining 4 percent consists of those the CBS classifies as “other” – mostly persons, including many immigrants from the former Soviet Union, who identify themselves as Jewish but do not satisfy the Orthodox Jewish definition of “Jewish” the government uses for civil procedures – as well as relatively small communities of Samaritans, Karaites, Ahmadi Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Messianic Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and members of the Baha’i Faith. The majority of non-Jewish citizens are of Arab origin. This includes approximately 78 percent of the country’s 175,000 Christians, according to the CBS, as of December. Non-Arab Christians are mainly those who emigrated from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s as descendants of Jews or alongside Jewish family members, and their descendants.
According to a poll by the local NGO Hiddush published in September, 58 percent of Jewish citizens do not affiliate with any religious stream, 17 percent are “Zionist Orthodox,” 12 percent “ultra-Orthodox” (including 2 percent “Zionist ultra-Orthodox”), 7 percent “Reform,” and 6 percent “Conservative.”
Muslim, Druze, and Christian communities are located in the Galilee region, some of which are homogenous; others feature a mix of these groups. There are also dozens of Muslim-majority communities in the Negev. In addition to an Alawite community in Ghajar, there are several Druze communities in the Golan Heights.
The CBS estimates 546,100 Jews, 328,600 Muslims, and 15,900 Christians live in Jerusalem, accounting for approximately 99 percent of the city’s total population of 901,300, as of September.
According to government and NGO data, as of October, foreign workers included approximately 113,000 documented foreign workers in the caregiving, agriculture, and construction sectors, including a few thousand in the “skilled worker” category and 39,000 who arrived under bilateral work agreements; 100,000 documented Palestinian workers; 40,000 undocumented Palestinian workers; and 100,000 were undocumented workers, mostly from countries of the former Soviet Union, who remained in the country after overstaying a visa-free entry or a work visa. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there are approximately 31,000 African migrants and asylum seekers residing in the country, in addition to children born in the country to those migrants. Foreign workers and migrants included Protestants, Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. According to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, Catholics among the foreign worker population included 30,000 Filipinos, 8,000 Indians, 2,000 Sri Lankans, 2,500 Colombians, and 1,100 workers from South American countries.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Although the country has no constitution, the unicameral 120-member Knesset enacted a series of “Basic Laws” that enumerate fundamental rights, which it states will become the country’s constitutional foundation. The “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty” describes the country as a “Jewish and democratic state” and references the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, which protects freedom to practice or not practice religious beliefs, including freedom of conscience, faith, religion, and worship, regardless of an individual’s religion. The law incorporates religious freedom provisions of international human rights covenants into the country’s body of domestic law. Authorities subject non-Israeli residents to the same laws it applies to Israeli citizens. Detention of Palestinians on security grounds falls under military jurisdiction as applied by Israel to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (see “West Bank and Gaza” section), even if detained inside Israel.
On June 19, the Knesset passed a new basic law referred to as the “Nation State Law.” The new law changed the status of Arabic from an official language, a standing it held since Israel adopted then prevailing British Mandate law in 1948, to a language with a “special status.” The law also recognized only the Jewish People as having a national right of self-determination and called for promotion of “Jewish settlement” within Israel.
On April 30, the Knesset passed a law recommending – but not requiring – that judges use Jewish jurisprudence and heritage as a source of legal principles in cases in which there is no relevant legislation or judicial precedents.
The Chief Rabbinate retains the authority to issue certificates of conversion to Judaism within the country under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law. The Council of the Chief Rabbinate consists of Orthodox rabbis chosen by an assembly of rabbis, local government leaders, government ministers, and laypersons appointed by the government.
The government provides funding for both Orthodox and non-Orthodox conversion programs. Relatives of Jewish converts may not receive residency rights, except for the children of male or female converts born after the parent’s conversion was complete.
The law recognizes Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Druze Faith, and the Baha’i Faith. Christian religious communities recognized according to the adopted Ottoman millet (court) system include: Eastern Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), Gregorian-Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean (Chaldean Uniate Catholic), Greek Catholic Melkite, Maronite, Syrian Orthodox, and Evangelical Episcopal. The Anglican and Baha’i communities are recognized through a British Mandate-era law adopted by the government. The government does not recognize other religious communities, including major Protestant denominations with a presence in the country, as distinct ethnoreligious communities. There are two legal pathways to formal recognition, according to laws adopted from the British Mandate period: by petitioning either the Prime Minister’s Office according to the Order in Council or the Ministry of Interior (MOI). Groups may appeal rejected applications to the Supreme Court.
Recognized religious communities are exempt from taxation of places of worship and may have separate courts to apply their religion’s personal status law. Municipalities may levy property taxes on religious properties not used for prayer, such as monasteries, pilgrim hostels, and soup kitchens.
Legislation establishes religious councils for Jewish communities and for the Druze. The Ministry of Religious Services (MRS) has jurisdiction over the country’s 133 Jewish religious councils, which oversee the provision of religious services for Jewish communities. The government finances approximately 40 percent of the religious councils’ budgets, and local municipalities fund the remainder. The MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs has jurisdiction over religious matters concerning non-Jewish groups and oversees the religious council for the Druze. The Department of Non-Jewish Affairs convenes an interreligious council of all recognized religions, including Judaism, which serves as a discussion forum for recognized religious communities.
The law criminalizes the damage, destruction, or desecration of religious sites (subject to seven years’ imprisonment) and actions to “harm the freedom of access” of worshippers to religious sites (subject to five years’ imprisonment). Certain religious sites considered antiquities receive further protection under the antiquities law. The Ministry of Tourism (MOT) is responsible for the protection and upkeep of selected non-Jewish religious sites, while the MRS protects and maintains selected Jewish religious sites. The law also provides for up to five years’ imprisonment for actions “likely to violate the feelings of the members of the different religions” with regard to their religious sites. The law grants the government, not the courts, the authority to decide the scope of the right to worship at certain religious sites.
The law criminalizes willfully and unjustly disturbing any meeting of persons lawfully assembled for religious worship or assaulting someone at such a meeting. It also criminalizes intentionally destroying, damaging, or desecrating any object held sacred by any group of persons, with punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment.
The law criminalizes calling for, praising, supporting, or encouraging acts of violence or terrorism where such actions are likely to lead to violence, including calls for violence against religious groups. The law criminalizes statements demeaning, degrading, or showing violence toward someone based on race, but provides an exception for statements citing a religious source, unless there is proof of intent to incite racism.
The law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the MOI or the Prime Minister for travel to “hostile” countries, including Saudi Arabia, which is the destination for those participating in the Hajj. Illegal travel is punishable by a prison sentence or fine if the traveler does not request prior approval.
It is illegal to proselytize to a person under 18 years of age without the consent of both parents. The law prohibits offering a material benefit in the course of proselytizing.
The government provides separate public schools for Jewish children, conducted in Hebrew, and Arab children, conducted in Arabic. For Jewish children there are separate public schools available for religious and secular families. Individual families may choose a public school system for their children regardless of ethnicity or religious observance. Minors have the right to choose a public secular school instead of a religious school regardless of parental preference. By law, the state provides the equivalent of public school funding to two systems of “recognized but not official” (a form of semi-private) ultra-Orthodox religious schools, the United Torah Judaism-affiliated Independent Education System and the Shas-affiliated Fountain of Torah Education System. Churches, however, receive only partial government funding to operate “recognized but not official” schools. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem may send their children to one of these church schools or a private school operated by the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf; both include religious instruction. Israeli education authorities use the PA curriculum in some public schools in Jerusalem. Religious education is part of the PA curriculum for students in grades one through six in these schools, with separate courses on religion for Muslims and Christians. Students may choose which class to take but may not opt out of religion courses.
The law provides the right for any Jew, including those who converted to Judaism, or any child or grandchild of a Jew, to immigrate to the country from a foreign country with his or her spouse and children. The minor children of a grandchild of a Jew receive humanitarian status, but are not automatically granted citizenship. Non-Jews who are not descendants of Jews do not have this route to immigration. Under the Law of Return, those who completed an Orthodox conversion inside or outside the country are entitled to immigration, citizenship, and registration as Jews in the civil population registry. Those who completed conversion to Judaism outside the country, regardless of affiliation, are eligible for these benefits even if they are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate; this would include Reform, Conservative, and other affiliations of Judaism. Descendants of Jews qualify for immigration under the Law of Return regardless of the religious beliefs under which they were raised. The law considers those who were eligible for immigration and as adults converted to another religion, including Messianic Judaism, as no longer eligible for benefits under the Law of Return.
The 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry, renewed annually, prohibits residence status for non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, unless the MOI makes a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds.
The Chief Rabbinate determines who may be buried in Jewish state cemeteries, limiting this right to individuals considered Jewish by Orthodox Jewish standards. The law provides for the right of any individual to burial in a civil ceremony, and requires the government to establish civil cemeteries in various areas around the country. The law criminalizes the intentional desecration of, or trespass on, places of burial, which is punishable by three years’ imprisonment.
Laws inherited from the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate periods establish the legal authority of religious courts operated by officially recognized religious communities over their members in matters of marriage, divorce, and burial. The law allows for civil registration of two persons as a married couple outside of the religious court system only if they married outside the country, or if the partners are of different religions and their respective religious courts do not object to a civil registration, or if both partners are listed as “lacking religion” in the population registry. A law mandating women’s equality contains language that explicitly exempts matters of marriage, divorce, and appointments to religious positions.
The only domestic marriages with legal standing and that may be registered are those performed according to the religious statutes of recognized religious communities. Members of nonrecognized groups may process their personal status documents, including marriage licenses, through the authorities of one of the recognized religious communities if those authorities agree.
The law imposes a two-year prison sentence for persons who conduct, or are married in, a Jewish wedding or divorce outside the Chief Rabbinate’s authority.
Religious courts have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce cases when the husband and wife are registered with the same recognized religion. Members of religious groups not permitting divorce, such as Catholics, may not obtain a divorce. Paternity cases among Muslim citizens are the exclusive jurisdiction of sharia courts. Civil courts have jurisdiction over personal status cases when religious courts lack jurisdiction, as in cases of interfaith and same-sex couples.
Matters stemming from divorce proceedings, including alimony, child support, child custody, guardianship, and property division, are under parallel jurisdiction of both religious courts and civil courts. The first court to receive a case acquires exclusive jurisdiction over it.
In accordance with halacha (Jewish religious law), a Jewish woman whose husband refuses to give her a get (Jewish legal writ of divorce) may not legally remarry in the country. While a rabbinical court may order a husband to give a get, it does not have the power to terminate the marriage if he refuses. In such cases, rabbinical courts may impose community-based punishments on the husband, including avoiding financial dealings with a get-refuser, excluding him from community activities, and advertising these decisions to the public. On June 25, the Knesset passed a law allowing rabbinical courts to hear cases of get refusals in which the spouses are not Israeli citizens, if certain other conditions are met (for instance, if the couple live abroad in a location where there is no rabbinical court).
Secular courts have primary jurisdiction over questions of inheritance, but parties may file such cases in religious courts by mutual agreement. Decisions by these bodies are subject to Supreme Court review. The rabbinical courts, when exercising their power in civil matters, apply religious law, which varies from civil law, including in matters relating to the property rights of widows and daughters.
Military service is compulsory for Jewish citizens, male Druze citizens, and male Circassian citizens (Muslims originally from the northwestern Caucasus region who migrated in the late 19th century). Orthodox Jewish women and Arab Christian and Muslim citizens remain exempt from mandatory military service, although they may voluntarily enlist.
Membership in a recognized religion is recorded in the National Registry and generally passed from parents to children, unless a person changes it through a formal conversion to another recognized religion. Approximately 400,000 citizens who identify as Jewish but do not meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” under Jewish religious law, as well as members of religious groups that are not recognized, are recorded as “lacking religion.” The vast majority are immigrants from the former Soviet Union and their children, who gained citizenship under the Law of Return but are not recognized as Jewish by the Chief Rabbinate because they cannot prove they meet the Orthodox definition of Jewish through matrilineal descent. All citizens who meet the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria as “Jewish” are recorded as Jewish, whether Orthodox or not (unless they convert to another religion). Of the approximately 30,000 immigrants who arrived to Israel during the year, 17,700 of them did not qualify as Jewish under the Chief Rabbinate’s criteria, according to a press report citing CBS data.
For those who did not wish to be identified with a religion, there was no mechanism to change one’s registration to “lacking religion.”
Religious identification is listed in the National Registry but not on official identity cards.
There is no legal requirement regarding personal observance or nonobservance of the Jewish Sabbath (Shabbat), from sunset on Fridays until sunset on Saturdays, and on Jewish holidays. The law, however, declares in the context of labor rights that Shabbat and Jewish holidays are national days of rest, while permitting non-Jewish workers alternate days of rest. The law criminalizes those who open their businesses and employ Jews on Shabbat but not workers, except those who are self-employed. There are exceptions for essential infrastructure and the hospitality, culture, and recreation industries. On June 18, the Knesset passed a law prohibiting hiring discrimination against workers who refuse to work on their day of rest, based on their religion and regardless of whether they are religiously observant. The law takes effect on January 1, 2019. An existing law instructs the labor and welfare minister to take into account “Israel’s tradition,” among other factors, when considering whether to approve permits to work on Shabbat.
On January 8, following 2013 and 2017 court rulings permitting municipalities to legislate bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat, the Knesset passed a law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws on this matter.
The law states public transportation may not operate on Shabbat, with exceptions for vehicles bringing passengers to hospitals, remote localities, and non-Jewish localities, and for vehicles essential to public security or maintaining public transportation services. Halacha prohibits the use of motorized vehicles on Shabbat, except in emergencies.
The Chief Rabbinate has sole legal authority to issue certificates of kashrut, which certify a restaurant’s adherence to Jewish dietary laws. Alternatively, restaurants are permitted to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance” without using the word kashrut.
The Mufti of Jerusalem issued “fatwas” (religious edicts) prohibiting Palestinian participation in Jerusalem municipal elections, and sales of land by Palestinians to the Israelis.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a reservation stating that matters of personal status are governed by the religious law of the parties concerned, and the country reserves the right to apply that religious law when inconsistent with its obligations under the Covenant.
On July 27, Muslim protestors threw rocks and fireworks at Israeli police officers near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. According to the government, violent acts and danger to Israeli security forces forced police to “use appropriate means to scatter the riots” and keep the peace and the public safety. Police closed the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for several hours. These clashes led to the arrest of more than 20 individuals and injuries to four police officers, according to media reports.
Following an investigation for more than one year, State Attorney Shai Nitzan announced on May 1 he was closing, without charges, the government’s investigation into a January 2017 incident in which a police officer and a Muslim citizen died during a police action to demolish homes in the unrecognized Bedouin village of Umm al-Hiran. Nitzan wrote he decided not to bring criminal charges against police officers after concluding police shot Abu al-Qian because they feared for their lives; however, he recommended disciplinary action against some officers due to “professional mistakes,” according to media reports. In votes on May 9 and June 13, the Knesset rejected a proposal by MK Taleb Abu Arar, one of three Bedouins in the Knesset, to establish a Knesset inquiry into the events and all subsequent investigations leading up to Nitzan’s decision. The Arab legal rights organization Adalah stated the decision was evidence of “whitewashing” and that the government treated Arab citizens’ lives as unequal to those of Jewish citizens.
On August 16, following an appeal by the State Attorney’s office, the Supreme Court added 18 months to a four-year sentence for Yinon Reuveni, who burned and vandalized a large section of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha in 2015.
On April 4 in Jerusalem, two police officers reportedly hit an ultra-Orthodox man with a mental disability on the head after he briefly stopped in the road and waved his hands while walking with a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters toward a demonstration, according to the NGO Public Committee Against Torture in Israel.
On November 22, the Jerusalem District Court acquitted Jerusalem police officer Gil Zaken of charges he choked and hit in the head an ultra-Orthodox demonstrator in 2016.
Christian clergy in Jerusalem said police officers treated them with unnecessary force on two occasions. First, in June an Ethiopian monk sustained injuries from police officers when they were they evicting him and other monks from their church. According to media reports, police had suspected the monks of trespassing because they did not provide identification cards. Second, on October 24, police physically removed several Coptic monks from outside a chapel in the Deir al-Sultan monastery on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, arresting one of them when the monks refused to allow the IAA to enter and perform restoration work. The government stated the injured monk’s refusal to obey police instructions left police with no choice but to remove him, using necessary and appropriate physical force. Ownership of the monastery remained the subject of an ongoing dispute between the Coptic and Ethiopian churches.
On August 13, police arrested a senior official in the Chief Rabbinate for allegedly accepting a bribe to expedite issuance of kashrut certificates. A 2017 report from the state comptroller called for comprehensive reform of the kashrut regulation system and criticized the MRS, Chief Rabbinate, and local religious councils for structural failures that enabled fraud, waste, poor supervision, and nepotism.
On July 6, a court ordered the head of the banned Northern Islamic Movement, Sheikh Raed Salah, released to house arrest. In 2017, police had arrested him on suspicion of incitement and supporting the activities of an illegal organization.
Some religious minority groups complained of lack of police interest in investigating attacks on members of their communities. Data from the NGO Tag Meir and media reports indicated in recent years authorities had indicted few suspects in attacks on religious sites in the country.
On July 19, police in Haifa briefly detained and questioned Conservative Rabbi Dov Hayun on suspicion he conducted Jewish marriage ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate’s authority. The attorney general subsequently instructed police to stop investigating the rabbi before they had determined “whether his actions raise suspicion of a criminal offense.” As of year’s end, police had not taken any further action against the rabbi.
According to data from the MRS, out of 70,326 individuals who registered for a Jewish marriage in 2018, rabbinical courts instructed 3,996 who self-identified as Jewish to prove their Jewish lineage. Of these, 122 were unsuccessful.
Prior to marriage, the Chief Rabbinate required Jewish women to complete bridal counseling sessions. Existing instructions from the Chief Rabbinate required these sessions address only the wedding ceremony, but in practice the content varied widely and often included marital relations and “family purity” in accordance with halacha, according to a report in Ma’ariv newspaper. Neither halacha nor civil law mandated such counselling sessions, according to the NGO ITIM.
On May 3, the rabbinical courts, which are government institutions, reported they had issued nine arrest warrants against men who refused to give a get and succeeded in securing 216 gets from intransigent husbands in 2017. In a speech to new rabbinical court judges on October 15, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef urged them to “have the courage to render judgment” in cases of get refusal, stating, “Do whatever is necessary to make sure a divorce is granted.”
Ultra-Orthodox parties continued to block legislative changes to the status quo regarding issues of halacha and state, which opponents said perpetuated practices that infringed on religious freedom. For example, on November 21, the Knesset defeated a bill to allow limited public transportation on Shabbat for municipalities that so chose. Bus cooperatives, however, continued to operate lines on Shabbat in several cities.
The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize as Jewish some citizens who self-identified as Jewish, including Reform and Conservative converts to Judaism and others who could not prove Jewish matrilineage. As a result, the government prohibited those individuals from accessing official Jewish marriage, divorce, and burial services in the country. Some Orthodox and non-Orthodox rabbis, however, officiated at a growing number of these ceremonies outside of the Chief Rabbinate. Likewise, the government continued not to allow Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim) to marry converts or divorcees, in accordance with halacha.
On October 29, the Supreme Court ordered Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked to explain, within 60 days, why the government had not held a disciplinary hearing for Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Eliyahu, a government employee. This order followed a 2016 petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Religious Action Center, Tag Meir, and other NGOs to initiate disciplinary hearings against Eliyahu, alleging he made a series of racist and offensive statements against Arabs, Druze, women, and the LGBTI community. The government did not hold a disciplinary hearing for Eliyahu by the end of the year, and the case was ongoing.
The government continued to control access to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. The post-1967 status quo pertaining to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif allows non-Muslim visitors but prohibits non-Islamic worship on the compound, despite the fact that no law or published policy prohibits non-Islamic prayer there. The Jordanian Government Islamic Religious Endowment (Waqf) in Jerusalem maintained the Al-Aqsa Mosque, while the Jordanian Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Holy Places supported maintenance and salary of the Waqf staff in Jerusalem. The 1994 peace agreement between Israel and Jordan recognized Jordan’s “special role” in relation to Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem. Supporters of the status quo stated that, while not perfect, the post-1967 arrangement allowed the holy sites to be open to visitors from all faiths for the first time in Jerusalem’s millennia-old history.
Israeli police continued to be responsible for security, with police officers stationed both inside the site and outside each entrance. Israeli police conducted routine patrols on the outdoor plaza and inside buildings on the site and regulated pedestrian traffic exiting and entering the site. Israeli police continued to maintain exclusive control of the Mughrabi Gate entrance, the entrance through which non-Muslims may enter the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, and allowed visitors through the gate during set visiting hours; however, police sometimes restricted this access due to security concerns. Israeli police maintained checkpoints outside other gates to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, preventing non-Muslims from entering these other areas, but they did not coordinate with Waqf guards inside. Some Jewish groups performed religious acts such as prayers and prostration on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif despite the ban on non-Muslim prayer. NGOs, media, and Jewish Temple Mount advocacy groups continued to report that changes in relations between police and the Temple Mount advocacy movement created a more permissive environment for non-Muslim religious acts on the site. In response, the government reiterated that non-Muslim prayer was not allowed on the grounds of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
Israeli authorities in some instances barred specific individuals from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site, including Jewish activists believed to have violated the status quo understanding prohibiting non-Muslim prayer, Muslims believed to have verbally harassed or acted violently against non-Muslim visitors to the site, and public figures, including MKs, whose presence authorities feared would inflame tensions. The government stated that police have no specific policy regarding barring individuals from entering, but police respond both to intelligence information they receive in advance as well as events that unfolding on the ground, without distinguishing between Muslim and non-Muslim visitors. The government added it was rare for any individual to be barred entry to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site. Police continued to screen non-Muslims for religious articles. Police allowed Jewish male visitors who were visibly wearing a kippah (head covering) and tzitzit (fringes), and those who wished to enter the site barefoot (in accordance with interpretations of halacha) to enter the site with police escort.
The Waqf continued to restrict non-Muslims who visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif from entering the Dome of the Rock and other buildings dedicated for Islamic worship, including the Al-Qibli/Al-Aqsa Mosque. It also lodged objections with Israeli police concerning non-Muslim visitors wearing religious symbols or religious clothing. Israeli police sometimes acted upon these objections.
Waqf officials repeated previous years’ complaints over their lack of control of access to the site. Waqf officials stated Israeli police did not coordinate with the Waqf on decisions regarding entry and barring of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors to the site. Waqf employees remained stationed inside each gate and on the plaza, but Waqf officials said they were able to exercise only a limited oversight role. The Waqf reportedly objected to non-Muslims praying or performing religious acts on the site and to individuals who dressed immodestly or caused disturbances, but they lacked authority to remove such persons from the site. The government stated that most of the time, police and the Waqf worked in full coordination, including regular joint sessions regarding routine activities.
On August 20, the Supreme Court ordered the government to respond within 60 days to a petition by the NGO Moked Israeli Center for the Advancement of Democracy and Protection of Human Rights, which objected to a sign near the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif discouraging non-Muslim visitors from entering the site. The court later granted government requests to extend the deadline for a response into 2019.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again reiterated his support for the post-1967 status quo understandings at holy sites in Jerusalem, including in a statement following his meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan on June 18. Many Jewish leaders, including the government-appointed Rabbi of the Western Wall, continued to say Jewish law prohibited Jews from entering the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif for reasons of ritual purity. Some MKs, however, including members of the governing coalition, called for reversing the policy of banning non-Muslim prayer at the site to provide equal religious freedom for all visitors. Some government coalition Knesset members continued to call on the Israeli government to implement time-based division at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to set aside certain days or hours for Jewish access and/or worship, similar to the arrangement used at the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. MK Yehuda Glick and other members of the Temple Mount movement continued to advocate for reversing the status quo prohibition on non-Muslim prayer at the site, describing it as a restriction on religious freedom.
In accordance with previously instituted practices, Israeli police announced a temporary closure of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif to non-Muslim visitors during the last 10 days of Ramadan; however, the police permitted non-Muslim visits to the site during the first two days of this period. The government stated that each year police assess the security situation and decide whether it is necessary to close the site to non-Muslims during this period, “in order to allow for a proper course of prayer for Muslim worshipers during Ramadan.” In July Prime Minister Netanyahu rescinded his 2015 blanket prohibition of MKs and ministers visiting the site and allowed these officials to visit once a month, after obtaining approval of the Chairman of the Knesset and according to police security assessments.
The Waqf expressed its continued concern over calls by some Jewish activists to build a third Jewish temple on the site, as well as increased numbers of visits by Jews whom the Waqf described as Jewish “Temple Mount activists.” The Waqf also objected to increased attempts by activists to pray on the site or conduct other religious activity on the site in violation of the status quo. Waqf officials also stated Israeli police restricted the Waqf’s administration of the site by prohibiting building and infrastructure repairs. For example, police prevented the Waqf from carrying out repairs without advance approval and oversight from the IAA and refused to permit the entry of most maintenance equipment onto the site, according to the Waqf. The government stated maintenance of the site was supervised by police and coordinated in advance, adding that larger scale renovations required approval and supervision by the IAA and of a ministerial committee to ensure the site is properly preserved and no archeological findings are destroyed or covered by the renovators. In August Israeli authorities briefly detained four Waqf employees attempting to carry out repairs, but they subsequently permitted the repairs.
Waqf officials reported Israeli police on occasion detained Waqf employees (typically guards) or expelled them from the site and from the vicinity of visiting non-Muslim groups. The government stated that on some occasions, Waqf employees with suspected connections to terrorist organizations, such as Hamas and Shabab al-Aqsa, instigated “provocations,” which police handled either by issuing a directive limiting the proximity of the Waqf employees to visiting Jewish groups, or in extreme cases, removing them from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
The Temple Mount Sifting Project and other group and individuals criticized the Waqf for the “destruction of the heritage of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims” for moving soil, stones, and artifacts from dirt mounds in the courtyard the Waqf had previously dug up during controversial excavations. According to a media report, the mixed pile of dirt had limited archaeological value because it was already out of its original archeological strata; however, artifacts in the dirt could be of historical value.
On March 26, for the first time, authorities allowed Temple Mount activists to conduct a ritual slaughter of sheep for Passover in the Davidson Center Archaeological Park, below the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif.
At the main Western Wall plaza, the place of worship nearest Judaism’s holiest site, the government continued to permit persons of all faiths to pray individually and quietly and Jewish men to conduct Orthodox Jewish prayer in groups, with separation of women and men. The government, however, continued to prohibit at the main plaza the performance of “a religious ceremony that is not in accordance with the customs of the place, which harms the feelings of the public towards the place.” Authorities interpreted this prohibition to include mixed-gender Jewish prayer services and other ceremonies not conforming to Orthodox Judaism.
Members of the Jewish Conservative and Reform movements continued to criticize gender segregation and rules governing how women may pray at the Western Wall. Authorities continued to prohibit visitors from bringing private Torah scrolls to the main Western Wall plaza and women from accessing the public Torah scrolls or giving priestly blessings at the site. Authorities, however, permitted women to pray with tefillin and prayer shawls pursuant to a 2013 Jerusalem District Court ruling stating it was illegal to arrest or fine them for such actions.
Police continued to allow the group Women of the Wall to enter the women’s area of the main Western Wall plaza for its monthly service. In June, following a request from the police and the government-sponsored Western Wall Heritage Foundation, the Attorney General’s Office ruled the Women of the Wall must hold their monthly service in a barricaded area in the women’s section, which police set up on a side of the women’s section not touching the Western Wall. Representatives of Women of the Wall complained of a lack of effort by police or ushers from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which administers the Western Wall site, to intervene when ultra-Orthodox women and men disrupted their monthly prayer service with screaming, whistling, and pushing. In response, the government stated that large numbers of Israeli police, ushers, and security personnel maintained order on occasions when Women of the Wall prayed there. Women of the Wall filed a petition to the Supreme Court in March 2017 to require ushers and police to prevent disruption to their services. The case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
Authorities continued to allow use of a temporary platform south of the Mughrabi ramp and adjacent to the Western Wall, but not visible from the main Western Wall plaza, for non-Orthodox egalitarian (mixed gender) Jewish prayers. Authorities designated the platform for members of the Conservative and Reform movements of Judaism, including for religious ceremonies such as bar and bat mitzvahs. In response to an ongoing Supreme Court case from 2013 on the issue of prayer access at the Western Wall, the government stated in January it intended to upgrade the egalitarian prayer space. In June 2017, the government “froze” a 2016 agreement with non-Orthodox Jewish groups that offered symbolic recognition to the Conservative and Reform Judaism movements in addition to upgrading the egalitarian prayer space. The non-Orthodox Jewish movements stated that upgrading the prayer space alone would not fulfill the agreement. In August a special government committee approved expansion of the platform through a fast-track planning process. The court case was ongoing as of the end of the year.
On May 13, the government allocated 200 million shekels ($53.35 million) to the MOT for the planning and establishment of a cable car from the First Station cultural complex in Jerusalem to the Dung Gate of the Old City. The plan included building a roof over a Karaite cemetery under the path of the cable car to resolve Orthodox Jewish concerns about use of the cable car by Jewish men with priestly patrilineage (kohanim), for whom it is halachically forbidden to contract ritual impurity by “sheltering” over a corpse. The Karaite community objected to the plan, saying building a roof over the cemetery would render it ritually impure according to Karaite beliefs, preventing further use of the cemetery.
The security barrier dividing most of the West Bank from Israel also divided some Palestinian communities in Jerusalem, affecting access to places of worship. The Israeli government previously stated the barrier was highly effective in preventing attacks in Israel.
Several groups, including religious minorities and human rights NGOs, criticized the July passage of the new Nation State Law. The law called for promoting “Jewish settlement,” which non-Jewish organizations and leaders said they feared would lead to increased discrimination in housing and land issues. Druze leaders decried the law for relegating what they termed a loyal minority that serves in the military to second-class-citizen status. Opponents, including the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, also criticized the law for failing to mention the principle of equality in order to prevent harm to the rights of non-Jewish minorities. Supporters stated it was necessary to anchor the country’s Jewish character in a basic law to balance the 1992 Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty, which anchored the country’s democratic character with protection of individual rights, noting the Supreme Court had already interpreted the 1992 law as mandating equality. According to press reports, on August 4, a demonstration in Tel Aviv comprised of approximately 90,000 members of the Druze community and Jewish supporters protested the law. A week later, press reported that 30,000 Arab citizen protestors and their Jewish supporters also took part in a protest against the law in Tel Aviv. Political leaders conceded the need to address the criticisms of the Druze community. As of the end of the year, multiple lawsuits challenging the Nation State Law were pending with the Supreme Court.
On May 5, the government announced it had begun recruiting women as legal advisors in rabbinical courts, following a petition to the Supreme Court by ITIM and Bar Ilan University’s Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women. In 2017, the Rabbinical Courts Administration named a female deputy director-general for the first time. Because only men may become rabbis under Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law, there were no female judges in rabbinical courts, although some women have acted as rabbinic pleaders (equivalent to lawyers) since 1995.
The MOI continued to rely on the sole discretion and approval of the Jewish Agency, a parastatal organization, to determine who qualified to immigrate as a Jew or descendant of a Jew. The government continued to deny applications from individuals whom the government said became ineligible when they converted to another religion, including those holding Messianic or Christian beliefs.
A group of Orthodox rabbis continued to operate a private conversion court for children of families whom the state or rabbinical courts did not recognize as Jews. In August, for the first time, the Jerusalem District Court recognized a non-Rabbinate Orthodox conversion through the NGO Giyur k’Halacha. The Chief Rabbinate continued not to recognize non-Orthodox converts to Judaism as Jews, although they remained eligible for immigration under the Law of Return if they converted outside the country.
A Supreme Court case to grant immigration rights to those who completed Reform or Conservative conversions inside the country continued through year’s end.
On June 3, a committee headed by former Justice Minister Moshe Nissim made recommendations for proposed legislation on a new conversion law. Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed the committee in 2017 in response to the 2005 Supreme Court petition by the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements for recognition of non-Orthodox conversions inside the country. The recommendations did not receive political support from any of the Jewish Knesset factions, and the government did not act on them by the end of the year. At a Supreme Court hearing on December 17, the government requested a six-month extension for the presentation of its plan. By year’s end, the court had not rendered a decision on the extension request.
On January 15, the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption, and Diaspora Affairs discussed incidents in which the Population and Immigration Authority incorrectly registered as Christian immigrants from the former Soviet Union who self-identified as Jewish. Ha’aretz reported in September 2017 that the Chief Rabbinate had changed the registration status of 900 persons from Jewish to non-Jewish or “pending clarification” in 2015 and 2016. ITIM petitioned the Supreme Court against these changes and the case continued at year’s end.
In October an individual petitioned the District Court in Haifa to change his registration from Jewish to “lacking religion.” The court scheduled a hearing for January 2019.
Several municipalities filed legal challenges in the Supreme Court against the January 8 law granting the minister of interior wider discretion to approve or reject bylaws allowing commercial activity on Shabbat. These challenges followed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri’s rejection from June to August of five municipalities’ bylaws that would have legalized commerce on Shabbat, according to media reports. Sources stated some non-kosher restaurants that opened on Shabbat paid fines that varied according to local laws.
On July 19, Minister of Culture and Sport Miri Regev signed a regulation conditioning government funding of Israeli sports associations, except soccer associations, on their accommodation of Shabbat-observant athletes.
The MRS listed 21 dedicated cemeteries in Israel and the West Bank for persons the government defined as “lacking religion,” but only two were available for use to the broader general public regardless of residence. The one MRS-administered cemetery in the West Bank was available only for the burial of Israel citizens. Additionally, 13 MRS-administered cemeteries in 10 agricultural localities were authorized to conduct civil burial (i.e., not affiliated to a religion) for these localities and nearby residents. Some persons, however, who sought a civil burial for a relative reported several civil cemeteries near Tel Aviv were unusable because they were full or restricted to local residents. On May 29, the MRS published a call for proposals to develop or expand cemeteries for civil burials, following a 2016 report by the state comptroller that criticized the MRS for not implementing the civil burial law and thereby preventing the right of citizens to civil burial.
On February 19, the government passed a motion to recognize more Ethiopian Jewish religious leaders (keisim) and integrate them into Jewish religious councils. According to recommendations published November 7 by a special government committee, keisim would be allowed to conduct some community religious functions but not marriages and funerals, unless they underwent the rabbinical ordination process and applied individually to the Chief Rabbinate. On October 7, the cabinet approved a plan to facilitate immigration of approximately 1,000 parents from Ethiopia’s Falash Mura community whose children were already in Israel.
In 2017, the government cable and satellite-broadcasting regulator fined Channel 20, the “Heritage Channel,” 100,800 shekels ($26,900) for excluding the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements from its programming, because its license described the outlet as a platform for all streams of Judaism. Channel 20 appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. On May 9, the court ruled an administrative court would adjudicate the appeal. The case was ongoing in the Court for Administrative Affairs in Jerusalem as of the end of the year.
In June, following a Supreme Court challenge by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, the government announced attendance at a presentation to introduce an expedited Orthodox Jewish conversion course would no longer be mandatory for IDF soldiers who self-identified as Jewish but were not recognized by the Rabbinate as Jewish. The government stated the IDF would instead send invitations to IDF soldiers for the presentation; those who do not wish to participate could be excused.
In September 2017, the Supreme Court struck down the existing arrangement to exempt ultra-Orthodox men from military service, and it set a deadline of one year to pass new legislation to reduce inequality in the burden of military service between ultra-Orthodox and other Jews. Some ultra-Orthodox communities stated that mandatory conscription was a violation of the right to conscientious objection on the basis of their religious beliefs. On October 14, the Ministry of Defense sent a letter to the Eda Haredit community rejecting this argument. Following a request from the government for more time to pass a new draft law, on December 2, the Supreme Court agreed to postpone the deadline to 2019.
Those exempt from compulsory military service continued to have the option to join the National Service, a civilian alternative in which volunteers work for two years to promote social welfare in schools, hospitals, or NGOs. According to government officials and NGOs, this alternative was more popular among women from “national religious” Jewish Orthodox backgrounds than other exempt groups.
The government continued to operate a special police unit for the investigation of “ideology-based offenses” in Israel and the West Bank, including “price tag” attacks, which refer to violence by Jewish individuals and groups against non-Jewish individuals and property with the stated purpose of exacting a “price” for actions taken by the government against the attackers’ interests. The government continued to classify any association using the phrase “price tag” as an illegal association and a price tag attack as a security (as opposed to criminal) offense. On March 29, the Lod District Court convicted one person of “membership in a terrorist organization” for a 2015 price tag attack, according to media reports.
The government maintained an agreement with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that no member of the Church “will engage in proselytizing of any kind” within Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, according to the website of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center. Some other nonrecognized Christian communities reported the MOI Department of Non-Jewish Affairs discouraged them from proselytizing or holding large public gatherings outside their houses of worship.
In April the Watchtower Association of Israel (Jehovah’s Witnesses) sued the government in the Supreme Court to process its application for a tax exemption from capital gains transactions, which it submitted in 2012. In 2016, the tax authority had approved its application and forwarded it to the Knesset Finance Committee, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Supreme Court scheduled a hearing for January 16, 2019.
Public Hebrew-language state schools taught Jewish history, culture, and some basic religious texts. Many ultra-Orthodox religious schools in the “recognized but not official” category continued not to offer the basic humanities, math, and science curriculum. However, the government included the basic curriculum in public ultra-Orthodox schools. This category included 43 schools with 5,652 students in the 2017-2018 school year, an increase of 20 percent from the previous year, according to media reports. Public Arabic-speaking schools continued to teach religion classes on the Quran and the Bible to both Muslim and Christian Arab students. A few independent mixed Jewish-Arab schools also offered religion classes. For example, the curriculum at the nonprofit school Hand-in-Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education, which received a third of its funding from the government, emphasized commonalities in the holy writings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
According to the NGO Noar Kahalacha, dozens of Jewish school girls were unable to attend ultra-Orthodox schools due to discrimination based on their Mizrahi ethnicity (those with ancestry from North Africa or the Middle East), despite a 2009 court ruling prohibiting ethnic segregation between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi schoolgirls. A 2017 report from the state comptroller criticized the Ministry of Education (MOE) for failing to respond effectively to discrimination in educational institutions, including discrimination against girls in ultra-Orthodox schools. The government stated the MOE did not tolerate any form of discrimination, and schools that refused to accept students for discriminatory reasons were summoned to hearings, sometimes leading to delays and denial of their budgets until the schools resolved the discrimination.
The government funded approximately 34 percent of the budget of Christian school systems in the “recognized but not official” category, in which schools have autonomy over hiring teachers, admitting students, and the use of school property, according to church officials. The government repeated its offer made in previous years to fund fully Christian schools if they became part of the public school system, but the churches rejected this option, stating they would lose autonomy over those decisions. Church leaders criticized the disparity in government funding between their school system and those affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox political parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, which were also categorized as “recognized but not official” but received full government funding.
The government maintained its policy of not accepting applications for official recognition from nonrecognized religious groups, including evangelical Christian churches and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The government stated no religious community had attempted to apply for recognition during the year. In April the Jehovah’s Witnesses submitted an appeal to the Supreme Court requesting official recognition as a religious community. A hearing was scheduled for January 2019. The government stated some leaders of nonrecognized religions were invited and participated along with the leaders of recognized religions at official events or ceremonies.
Seventh-day Adventists stated they faced difficulty traveling to their houses of worship in cities in which public transportation was unavailable on Shabbat, including Jerusalem. Some nonrecognized religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists, received a property tax exemption on their houses of worship, although others, such as Buddhists and the Church of Scientology, did not. The government has stated local authorities conducted tax collection from nonrecognized religions in accordance with the law. The government stated it was unaware of any recent case in which a religious house of worship in Israel was not granted a property tax exemption.
In February the Jerusalem municipality began to enforce collection of taxes on church properties used for nonworship activities, such as friars’ residences and parish halls, issuing retroactive fines and placing liens on bank accounts belonging to several churches. Then-Mayor of Jerusalem Nir Barkat said the city was owed 650 million shekels ($173.4 million) in uncollected taxes on church assets. On February 25, leaders of 14 Christian churches in Jerusalem, including the Greek Orthodox, Latin (Roman Catholic), and Armenian Orthodox Churches, issued a joint letter condemning the decision, after the Jerusalem municipality announced it would start collecting back taxes on church-owned property and freeze financial accounts used by churches for their day-to-day operations. Church leaders also expressed concern over the introduction of a draft Knesset bill that would allow the government to expropriate lands sold by a church to private investors, with compensation to the investors for the price they paid for the land. In their joint statement, the church leaders accused the government of a “systematic and unprecedented attack against Christians in the Holy Land.” The bill’s sponsor stated the purpose of the bill was to protect thousands of residents living in buildings built on church lands that private developers purchased from a church. Those residents reportedly feared massive price hikes or eviction when their leases expired.
In protest against the tax collection and the property expropriation bill, church leaders closed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on February 25, the first such closure since 1990. They reopened the church on February 28 after Prime Minister Netanyahu announced the government would freeze the tax collection and suspend consideration of the property expropriation bill and establish a working group led by Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi to examine the two issues. In a statement following Minister Hanegbi’s meeting with the working group on October 23, the MFA stated the government “has no intention to confiscate church lands or to cause any economic damage to the churches.” When church leaders learned the bill would come before the Knesset on November 11, they pressured the government, which again froze debate on the bill. Church leaders again expressed outrage when the bill was scheduled to be read in the Knesset on December 24, Christmas Eve. The bill did not progress further before the Knesset voted to dissolve itself on December 26.
Christian leaders reported little difficulty obtaining visas for clergy to serve in the country, except for Christian clergy from Arab countries, some of whom reported long delays and periodic denials of their visa applications. The government stated Christian clergy from Arab countries were subject to the same entry laws and similar security procedures as clergy from other parts of the world. The government also said there were some “unavoidable delays” in cases of applicants from states that did not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Church officials noted the clergy visa did not allow the bearer access to basic social benefits such as disability insurance or national health insurance, even for those who have served in the country for more than 30 years.
The government continued to approve annual “delays” of conscription to military service for individual Jehovah’s Witnesses upon presentation of documentation of their continued affiliation with their religious community, although without acknowledging their right to conscientious objection. Because members of the community were not exempt from military service, they could not participate in the national civil service program as alternative service.
On June 28, the Supreme Court rejected a petition from the organization Yesh Gvul demanding the government give equal weight to military exemption requests based on conscientious objection as for those based on religious beliefs. The court ruled the two kinds of exemptions were based on different parts of the Security Service Law; exemption for Orthodox Jewish women based on their religious beliefs was a right, while exemption of conscientious objectors was at the discretion of the defense minister.
The MOI continued to train Druze and Muslim clerical employees of the state on how to work with government ministries. The MOI appointed and funded approximately half of the Druze and Muslim clerics in the country. Muslim leaders again said the MOI routinely monitored and summoned for “talks” those whom the ministry suspected of opposing government policies. According to the government, the government did not monitor clerics, but government employees of all faiths were “expected not to incite against the state in their official capacities.” The government stated the remaining Druze and Muslim clerics were nonstate employees due to either the preference of the local community or lack of MOI budget. Muslim leaders stated sharia court judges, who were Ministry of Justice employees, were their preferred religious representatives. No Islamic seminaries remained in the country, and students of Islam traveled elsewhere, primarily Jordan or the West Bank, to study. The government stated there were “Islamic colleges” in Umm al-Fahm, Baqa’a al-Gharbia, and Kfar Baraa. Muslim leaders rejected this assertion, stating the institutes in Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Baraa, operated by an NGO that teaches some Islamic studies, were not recognized as educational institutions by the Israeli Council for Higher Education. The Muslim leaders also said Al-Qasemi College in Baqa’a al-Gharbia was a teachers’ college that includes a program for teaching Islam in schools. The leaders stated that none of those institutes was an Islamic seminary.
According to the NGO Negev Coexistence Forum for Civil Equality (NCF), 115 of the 126 Jewish communities in the Negev maintained admission committees to screen new residents, effectively excluding non-Jewish residents. Following objections by multiple NGOs, authorities canceled plans for new Jewish communities called Daya, Eshel HaNasi, and Neve Gurion to replace existing Bedouin villages. In August the National Planning and Building Council recommended that the government proceed with the establishment of a town called Ir Ovot, which was to include a zone for approximately 50 Bedouin Israelis to remain in their current locations.
On April 11, Bedouin residents of Umm al-Hiran signed an agreement with the Ministry of Agriculture Authority for the Development and Settlement of Bedouin in the Negev to self-demolish their structures and relocate to vacant plots in the Bedouin town of Hura. This decision followed years of legal battles and negotiations, in preparation for replacing Umm al-Hiran with a Jewish community called Hiran. Jewish families sponsored by the OR Movement (an organization dedicated to expanding the Jewish population of the Negev region), who planned to move to Hiran, remained in the forest outside Umm al-Hiran, living in mobile homes donated by the Jewish National Fund, while waiting for the village land to become available.
Some former mosques and cemeteries remained sealed and inaccessible, including to Muslims. These sites belonging to the defunct prestate Waqf (not to be confused with the Jordanian-administered Waqf of the Haram al-Sharif) until confiscated by the state after the 1948 War of Independence. Other former mosques continued to be used for secular purposes. On December 5, following a decades-long legal battle between the Jaffa Muslim community and a real estate developer, the government approved a request from the Tel Aviv Municipality to recognize Tasou cemetery in Jaffa as a Muslim cemetery. This decision included authority for the Muslim community to manage the cemetery but did not transfer its ownership. The Islamic Council in Jaffa welcomed the decision, publicly calling it “a just decision that’s been waiting for more than 70 years.” In November MK Ayman Odeh raised 160,000 shekels ($42,700) to help the Haifa Muslim community repurchase a section of the Independence Mosque in Haifa that government-appointed trustees had previously sold.
Muslim community leaders reported no difficulties obtaining municipal approval for construction of mosques in Muslim-majority localities, but they sometimes faced difficulty in Jewish-majority localities. For example, Be’er Sheva’s Muslim population of approximately 10,000 continued to travel to nearby Bedouin towns to pray because e they could not use an Ottoman-era Be’er Sheva mosque the government previously converted to a museum of Islamic culture and the government would not authorize the construction of another mosque.
On July 30, the Ministry of Transportation ordered the expropriation of land previously allocated to a Karaite synagogue in Ramle for the purpose of building a highway interchange. The Karaites said the loss of land and the new interchange would disrupt their religious and communal activity. On December 11, the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal on procedural grounds, stating the case should be submitted to a lower court. The government subsequently reported the government and community reached an agreement that would minimize the amount of land expropriated and optimize use of the land for the synagogue’s needs.
The IDF continued to have only Orthodox Jewish chaplains; the government employed civilian non-Jewish clergy as chaplains at military burials when a non-Jewish soldier died in service. The MOI continued to provide imams to conduct military funerals according to Islamic customs. In 2017, the IDF issued new regulations allowing secular military funerals.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, private organizations posted “modesty signs” demanding women obscure themselves from public view to avoid distracting devout men. The local municipality of Beit Shemesh failed to comply with court orders from 2015 and 2016 to remove the signs, leading the Jerusalem District Court to rule in 2017 that the municipality would face a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,700) per day if the signs remained posted. In December 2017, the municipality took down six of the eight signs, but did not then remove the remaining two due to a protest. Local residents put up new signs to replace those the municipality removed. On February 18, the Supreme Court ordered the municipality to install security cameras and take action against individuals posting the signs. As of September police had not made any arrests. The municipality had not installed cameras as of November, according to media reports. The court case continued through December.
In some ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, vandals repeatedly tore down or defaced billboards showing pictures of women, including commercial advertisements, public awareness campaigns, and political advertisements. In July police arrested six ultra-Orthodox men for vandalizing campaign signs of a female candidate for mayor of Jerusalem, according to media reports.
In response to NGO Secular Forum’s petition against a ban on bringing leavened bread and similar foods into public hospitals during Passover, the government told the Supreme Court in July that it would expand the role of hospital security guards on Passover to include checking visitors’ belongings for such foods. The case was ongoing at year’s end.
The government continued to enforce the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry prohibiting non-Jewish Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza, including those who are spouses of Israeli residents or citizens, from obtaining resident status unless the MOI made a special determination, usually on humanitarian grounds. The government stated it has extended the law annually due to government reports that Palestinian family reunification allowed entry to a disproportionate number of persons who were later involved in acts of terrorism. The NGO HaMoked said that statistics from government documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests contradicted these terrorism allegations, and the denial of residency to Palestinians from the West Bank or Gaza for the purposes of family reunification led to cases of family separation.
According to HaMoked, there were approximately 10,000 Palestinians living in Israel, including Jerusalem, on temporary stay permits because of the citizenship and entry law, with no legal guarantee they could continue living with their families. There were also cases of Palestinian residents’ Palestinian spouses living in East Jerusalem without legal status. Some Palestinian residents moved to Jerusalem neighborhoods outside the security barrier to live with their nonresident spouse and children while maintaining Jerusalem residency. According to Christian religious leaders, this situation remained an especially acute problem for Christians because of their small population and consequent tendency to marry foreign Christians (Christians who hold neither citizenship nor residency). Christian religious leaders expressed concern this was a significant element in the continuing decline of the Christian population, including in Jerusalem, which negatively impacted the long-term viability of their communities. Other factors included political instability; the inability to obtain residency permits for spouses due to the 2003 Law of Citizenship and Entry; limited ability of Christian communities in the Jerusalem area to expand due to building restrictions; difficulties Christian clergy experienced in obtaining Israeli visas and residency permits; loss of confidence in the peace process; and economic hardships created by the establishment of the security barrier and the imposition of travel restrictions. The government stated such difficulties stemmed from the “complex political and security reality” and not from any restriction on the Christian community.
While the law does not authorize the Israel Land Authority (ILA), which administers the 93 percent of the country in the public domain, to lease land to foreigners, in practice, foreigners have been allowed to lease if they could show they would qualify as Jewish under the Law of Return. The application of ILA restrictions historically limited the ability of Muslim and Christian residents of Jerusalem who are not citizens to purchase property built on state land, including in parts of Jerusalem. In recent years, however, an increasing number of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem have acquired property built on ILA-owned land.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that during the year the government positively addressed two longstanding visa cases involving foreigners married to citizens.
NGOs reported incidents in which authorities violated the freedom not to practice religion, particularly in the secular public education system and the military. For example, the Secular Forum criticized the MOE’s “Jewish Israeli culture curriculum” for students in first to ninth grade, referring to it as “religious indoctrination to young children.” The Secular Forum also opposed religious programs in those schools by private religious organizations, such as presentations about Passover in March by the Chabad ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement. The government denied students were subjected to religious indoctrination or coercion, stating the secular public school curriculum included lessons “on the culture of the Jewish people,” including elements of the Jewish faith and traditions, such as the Jewish calendar and holidays.
In some instances, the IDF did not permit soldiers to cook or heat water for a shower on Shabbat, according to media reports. The government stated soldiers were expected to respect Shabbat and kashrut in IDF base kitchens “in order to accommodate religious and kosher-observant soldiers.” The government said it was not aware of limitations on heating water for showers on bases.
Women’s rights organizations cited a growing trend of gender segregation reflecting increased incorporation of Jewish religious observance in government institutions, including in the IDF, as accommodation to increase the enlistment of participants who follow strict interpretations of Jewish law prohibiting mixing of the sexes. For example, IDF commanders sometimes asked female soldiers serving in leadership or instructor positions to allow a male colleague to assume their duties when religious soldiers who objected to interacting with females were present, according to the Israel Women’s Network. In response to this claim and similar allegations in media reports, IDF Chief of Personnel Director Major General Almoz said such practices “are in violation of Army orders and policy, do unnecessary harm to large groups serving in the Army, and are inconsistent with IDF commanders’ responsibility.” According to many observers, the trend in recent years has been toward greater inclusion of women in the IDF, including in combat roles and senior leadership positions.
NGOs monitoring archaeological practices in Jerusalem continued to state the IAA emphasized archaeological finds that bolstered Jewish claims while minimizing historically significant archaeological finds of other religions. In 2017, the Supreme Court upheld the MRS’ declaration that the Western Wall tunnels were an exclusively Jewish holy site, but ruled that the MRS and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation must ensure those sections of the tunnels significant to Muslims and Christians – including excavations of a Christian chapel, an Islamic school, and Islamic Mamluk-era buildings – were properly managed to protect the antiquities and to ensure access for members of other religions. The government stated the IAA conducted impartial evaluations of all unearthed archeological finds and by law the IAA must document, preserve, and publish all findings from excavations. It added that IAA researchers “have greatly intensified their research of ‘non-Jewish’ periods in the history of the land of Israel, [including] the Prehistoric, Early Bronze, Byzantine, Muslim, Mamluk, and Ottoman periods.”
The interreligious council convened on May 8 and discussed the integration of Bedouin Muslims into the Israeli economy and higher education, according to the government.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religious and national identities were often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to missionary organizations, societal attitudes toward missionary activities and conversion to other religions continued to be negative. Some Jews continued to oppose missionary activity directed at Jews, saying it amounted to religious harassment, and reacted with hostility toward Jewish converts to Christianity, such as Messianic Jews. For example, security camera footage showed ultra-Orthodox men vandalizing the Beit Hallel Messianic Jewish house of worship in Ashdod in September, and members of the Ashdod Messianic Jewish community complained of stalking, verbal abuse, and harassment from anti-missionary organizations.
Jehovah’s Witnesses stated that on February 17, a man pepper-sprayed two Jehovah’s Witnesses who had knocked on the door of his home in Ashdod. Police closed the case on the grounds the suspect was unknown, even though the victims provided police with the address of the house where the attack occurred. Jehovah’s Witnesses said a television reporter conducted an “ambush interview” on June 14 in front of a Jehovah’s Witnesses literature display in Tel Aviv, selecting a member of Yad L’Achim, a Jewish group that opposes conversion of Jews to other religions, to comment about the Jehovah’s Witnesses. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Yad L’Achim activist made numerous discriminatory and derogatory statements about them.
Lehava, described by press as a radical right-wing Jewish group opposing romantic relationships between Jews and non-Jews, continued to assault Arab men whom they perceived to be consorting with Jewish women, according to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). Following a 2017 IRAC petition to the High Court demanding Lehava leader Ben-Tzion Gopstein be indicted on a series of offenses, the Jerusalem District Attorney held a pre-indictment hearing for Gopstein on March 8 on charges of incitement to violence, racism, terrorism, and obstruction of justice. On March 14, IRAC withdrew its petition after the government stated to the court that it would decide whether to indict Gopstein. In August IRAC wrote a letter to the state attorney requesting a decision regarding an indictment. Prosecutors had not filed an indictment as of the end of the year.
In April authorities indicted seven Jewish Israelis on charges of terrorism targeting Arab (Muslim or Christian) citizens of Israel in a series of attacks, including a stabbing, in Be’er Sheva that began in 2016, according to media reports. According to the indictment, on several occasions the defendants assaulted men whom they believed were Arab to deter them from dating Jewish women. In a plea bargain, the Be’er Sheva District Court issued a five and a half year sentence to Raz Amitzur, the “main spirit of a group that perpetrated these attacks with a racist motive,” according to prosecutors. The court sentenced four other members of the group to community service, according to media reports.
There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox Jews in public areas of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods harassing, with verbal abuse, spitting, or throwing stones, individuals who did not conform to Jewish Orthodox traditions, such as by not wearing modest dress or driving on Shabbat. For example, on July 15, a widely publicized video showed a group of ultra-Orthodox men in Beit Shemesh chasing and yelling at a girl for dressing in a way they perceived as immodest. There continued to be reports of ultra-Orthodox men spitting at individuals wearing Christian clerical clothing, according to church leaders. In Jerusalem, these incidents often occurred in the Old City and near the shared holy site of the Cenacle (devotional site of the Last Supper)/David’s Tomb outside the southeastern wall of the Old City.
Muslim activists reported hijab-wearing women sometimes experienced harassment by non-Muslims on public buses in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
Tension continued between the ultra-Orthodox community and other citizens, including concerns related to service in the IDF, housing, public transportation, and participation in the workforce. On March 22, in a demonstration by the ultra-Orthodox Hapeleg Hayerushalmi group against the arrest of a military deserter, clashes broke out between demonstrators and police. According to media reports, demonstrators threw stones and other objects at police, used tear gas against police officers, and vandalized cars. Police dispersed protesters with “skunk water” (a foul-smelling, nonlethal liquid used by the government for crowd control) and arrested more than 30 protesters. In a separate incident on April 4, police used stun grenades against ultra-Orthodox protestors who threw objects at cars, according to media reports.
In June Yad L’Achim posted videos of their activists harassing alleged proselytizers. The organization also claimed to have “rescued” individuals from Messianic Jewish congregations and continued to offer assistance to Jewish women and their children to “escape” cohabitation with Arab men, sometimes by “launching military-like rescues from hostile Arab villages,” according to Yad L’Achim’s website. Media reported in October, in the context of municipal elections, that the Ramle branch of the Jewish Home party posted billboards warning against marriages between Jews and Muslims. The national Jewish Home party reportedly disavowed the billboards. The October wedding of Muslim news anchor Lucy Aharish and Jewish actor Tzahi Halevi drew rebukes from Jewish politicians who opposed marriage between Jews and non-Jews.
Unknown suspects vandalized a Conservative synagogue in Netanya in three incidents in May. According to media reports, an unidentified individual spray-painted Nazi symbols on the Mikdash Moshe Synagogue in Petakh Tikva on August 13, and vandals placed a pig’s head at the entrance to the Sukkat Shaul Synagogue in Ramat Hasharon on November 9.
The most common “price tag” offenses, according to police, were attacks on vehicles, defacement of real estate, damage to Muslim and Christian holy sites, assault, and damage to agricultural lands. For example, according to the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, in October vandals damaged tombs and broke crosses at the cemetery of the Salesian Monastery at Beit Jimal near Beit Shemesh, the third attack on the monastery in three years. An October 18 statement from the Latin Patriarchate criticized Israeli authorities for failing to apprehend the culprits in any of the preceding cases. The same day, the MFA condemned the desecration of the cemetery. The MOI offered to pay for the repair of the damaged cemetery markers and headstones.
On April 25, vandals burned two cars and spray-painted anti-Arab graffiti in the village of Iksal in the northern part of the country in a suspected “price tag” attack. Police had not arrested any suspects as of October. On October 26, vandals punctured tires and spray-painted “revenge” and “price tag” in Hebrew on 20 cars in Yafia, near Nazareth, according to media reports. The NGO Tag Meir continued to organize visits to areas where “price tag” attacks occurred and sponsored activities to promote tolerance in response to the attacks.
Although the Chief Rabbinate and rabbis of many denominations continued to discourage Jewish visits to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif site due to concerns relating to Jewish religious beliefs, some Orthodox rabbis continued to say entering the site was permissible . Increasing numbers of the self-identified “national religious” Zionist community stated they found meaning in setting foot on the site. Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful and the Temple Institute continued to call for increased Jewish access and prayer there, as well as the construction of a third Jewish temple on the site. In some cases, Israeli police acted to prevent individuals from praying and removed them, but in other cases reported on social media and by NGOs, police appeared not to notice the acts. Some Jewish groups escorted by Israeli police performed religious acts such as prayers, wedding rituals, and prostration. According to the Jerusalem Waqf and Temple Mount activist groups, visits by activists associated with the Temple Mount movement increased during the year to record levels, including a single day record of 1,451 visits on “Jerusalem Day” in May, a national holiday commemorating Israel’s establishment of control over all Jerusalem in the 1967 war. According to Temple Mount activist groups and the Waqf, during the weeklong Jewish holiday of Sukkot, activists conducted 3,009 visits, a 25 percent increase over 2017.
Individuals affiliated with the Northern Islamic Movement, which the government declared illegal in 2015, continued to speak of the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif as being “under attack” by Israeli authorities and an increasing number of Jewish visitors. Some small Jewish groups continued to call for the destruction of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque to enable the building of a third Jewish temple.
In October, following press reports Jews had purchased property in Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter owned by Adeeb Joudeh al-Husseini, the representative of a Muslim family historically entrusted with safeguarding the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, members of the Palestinian community called on al-Husseini to relinquish the keys to the church. According to Ha’aretz, in November every cemetery in East Jerusalem refused to bury a victim of a car accident because his name was associated with the sale of a house to Jews.
NGOs reported that some LGBTI minors who revealed their sexual orientation in religious communities faced expulsion from their homes and stigmatization from rabbis as suffering from mental illness, leading some to attempt suicide. Other NGOs noted increasing numbers of rabbis, educators, and community leaders in Orthodox Jewish communities were adopting a more inclusive approach to LGBTI minors.
On February 6, Tzohar, a network of Zionist Orthodox rabbis, announced it was opening a nongovernmental certification authority for businesses adhering to Jewish dietary laws. Tzohar’s decision followed a September 2017 Supreme Court ruling allowing a business to display “a true presentation regarding the standards it observes and the manner of supervising their observance,” but without using the word “kashrut,” which the court affirmed only the Chief Rabbinate had authority to determine.
In June media reported the Barkan kosher winery had removed workers of Ethiopian descent from their positions in the production of wine after the NGO Badatz Eda Haredit expressed doubt that Ethiopian-Israelis were Jewish. Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef criticized the winery and the Badatz Eda Haredit, and stated categorically that Jews of Ethiopian descent were Jewish. Barkan Winery subsequently issued a statement that their products with a Badatz Eda Haredit kashrut certificate would be destroyed, according to Kan Radio.
According to sources who conducted Jewish weddings outside the Rabbinate’s authority (i.e., did not register them), the vague wording of the law dealing with those who conducted such weddings and the government’s nonenforcement of the law enabled non-Rabbinate Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish weddings to occur openly, often as an act of protest against the Rabbinate’s authority. According to the NGO Panim, more than 2,400 Jewish weddings took place outside of the Rabbinate’s authority in 2017, an increase of 8 percent from 2016. Most Jewish citizens, including those who were secular, continued to use Rabbinate-approved Orthodox rabbis to conduct their weddings. The only mechanism for Jews to gain state recognition of a non-Orthodox wedding or a non-Rabbinate Orthodox wedding, however, remained to wed outside the country and then register the marriage with the MOI. Approximately 15 percent of marriages registered with the MOI in 2016, the most recent year available, occurred abroad, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. According to data from the MRS, most of these weddings involved Israelis who had emigrated from the former Soviet Union.
In July, after police detained and questioned a Conservative rabbi in Haifa for conducting weddings outside of the Rabbinate, dozens of officiants and couples who had married outside of the Rabbinate turned themselves in at police stations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and others “confessed” their crime on social media. Police declined to arrest any of the individuals involved.
According to the Rackman Center, thousands of Jewish women were “trapped” in various stages of informal or formal get refusal, especially in the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. In two cases of get refusal, the NGOs Center for Women’s Justice and Mavoi Satum helped women receive marriage nullification decrees from nongovernmental Orthodox rabbinical courts in June and July.
The Rackman Center stated that in some instances a woman’s husband made granting a get contingent on his wife conceding to extortionate demands, such as those relating to property ownership or child custody. One in three Jewish women who divorced faced such demands, according to the Center for Women’s Justice. A child born to a woman still married to another man is considered a mamzer (child of an unpermitted relationship) under Jewish law, which restricts the child’s future marriage prospects in the Jewish community.
In June the Israel Women’s Network asked the Tel Aviv Municipality and the deputy attorney general not to allow an ultra-Orthodox group to hold a gender-segregated event in Tel Aviv. The municipality canceled the event, and then accepted a Tel Aviv District Court suggestion to allow the event with partial gender segregation on June 24. According to a media report citing government data, the Office for Development of the Periphery, Negev, and Galilee funded more than 80 gender-segregated events during the year to accommodate strict interpretations of halacha.
A variety of NGOs continued to try to build understanding and create dialogue among religious groups and between religious and secular Jewish communities, including Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, the Abraham Fund Initiative, Givat Haviva, the Hagar and Hand-in-Hand integrated Jewish-Arab bilingual schools, Hiddush, Israeli Religious Action Center, Mosaica, and Interfaith Encounter Association (IEA). For example, IEA held 245 interfaith encounters in Israel (including Jerusalem), of which 120 included Palestinians residents of the West Bank. The number of children studying at integrated Jewish-Arab schools in the school year beginning in September was 1,700, up from 1,100 five years earlier, according to media reports.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
During a visit in January, the U.S. Vice President met with the prime minister, the president, and other government officials. Discussions included combating religious-based violence and building a future of trust, harmony, tolerance, and respect for members of all faiths. The Vice President visited religious sites and the Yad Vashem memorial for Holocaust victims in Jerusalem.
Senior U.S. officials spoke publicly about the importance of maintaining the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. In meetings with government officials and at public events, embassy officials also stressed the importance of religious pluralism and respect for all religious groups, including in two embassy-hosted live discussions of religious freedom on social media in November. The online discussions addressed topics including religion in public schools, democracy and religious freedom, and prevention of societal attacks on religious minorities.
Embassy-supported initiatives focused on interreligious dialogue and community development and advocated a shared society for Arab and Jewish populations, including conferences at which embassy officials advocated for the right of persons from all faiths to practice their religion peacefully, while also respecting the beliefs and customs of their neighbors.
Throughout the year, embassy officials participated in religious events organized by Jewish, Muslim, Druze, Christian, and Baha’i communities and used embassy social media platforms to express U.S. support for tolerance and the importance of openness to members of other religious groups.
Embassy-hosted events included an interfaith Ramadan iftar, an interfaith Rosh Hashanah reception, and an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. The embassy also promoted the reduction of tensions between religious communities and an increase in interreligious communication and partnerships by bringing together representatives of many faith communities to advance shared goals and exchange knowledge and experience. Embassy programs supported mixed Jewish-Arab educational and community initiatives to reduce societal tensions and violence, including a project by the Citizens Accord Forum that brought together ultra-Orthodox, Muslim, and Christian citizens to create a shared civic agenda and implement activities related to social issues of common concern in their communities. Another project supported dialogue between religious Jewish, Muslim, and Christian women.
The embassy worked to mitigate interreligious and intercommunal tensions between the country’s non-Jewish and Jewish citizens through the greater integration of the Arab minority into the broader national economy. For example, the Ambassador and Minister of Social Equality Gila Gamliel hosted an investment conference promoting Arab high-tech startups with Israeli Jewish and international investors in Nazareth on December 11.
The embassy supported a project to bring together Jewish, Muslim, and Christian female artists in Haifa, Jerusalem, and Lod to foster economic empowerment and encourage interfaith dialogue.
The embassy and consulate jointly provided a grant to the Abu Tor Good Neighbors project to advance cooperation and mutually beneficial community services for Jews and Arabs living in the mixed Jerusalem residential neighborhood of Abu Tor, where Jews and Arabs live on opposite sides of a road without much interaction.
IN THIS SECTION: ISRAEL (ABOVE) | WEST BANK AND GAZA
The constitution bars the federal and state governments from adopting a state religion, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for individuals’ freedom to choose, practice, propagate, or change their religion. Members of the armed forces fired on Shia Muslims participating in the Arba’een Symbolic Trek organized by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) on October 27, killing at least three persons, and again on October 29, killing 39 and injuring over100, according to human rights organizations. The government reported t conducted an investigation into these incidents but did not release its findings publicly. The government did not keep its commitments to ensure accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and a soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. On November 7, the Kaduna State High Court denied the bail request for the leader of the IMN Shia group, despite a December 2016 court ruling that the government should release him by January 2017. Authorities arrested a Christian man for inciting violence after attempting to convert a Muslim girl. A Muslim law graduate was called to the bar wearing her hijab after initially being denied. The federal government launched military operations in Middle Belt states with the stated aim of stemming resource-driven rural violence, which frequently played out along ethnic and religious lines. Members of regional minority religious groups continued to report some state and local government laws discriminated against them, including by limiting their rights to freedom of expression and assembly and in obtaining government employment.
Terrorist organizations Boko Haram and Islamic State-West Africa (ISIS-WA) continued to attack population centers and religious targets. On January 3, a Boko Haram suicide bomber attacked a Gambaru mosque, killing 14 and injuring 15. According to international news, on April 22, two suicide bombers killed three in a Bama, Borno State mosque. On May 1, twin suicide bombings in Mubi, one in a mosque and another in a market, killed at least 27 and injured more than 60 persons. According to Christian news outlets, on June 12, Boko Haram burned 22 buildings, including part of a Catechetical Training Center in Kaya, Adamawa State. On June 16, two Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked the town of Damboa, killing 31 persons returning from Ramadan celebrations on Eid al-Fitr. On July 23, a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed eight worshippers in a mosque in Mainari. Boko Haram also conducted limited attacks in Adamawa, while ISIS-WA also attacked targets in Yobe. Although government intervention reduced the amount of territory these groups controlled, the two insurgencies maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the Northeast.
There were incidents of violence reflecting tension between different ethnic groups involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and predominantly Christian farmers. Scholars and other experts assessed that ethnicity, politics, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources were among the drivers of the violence, but religious identity and affiliation were also factors. In January and May Fulani herdsmen attacked several villages in northern Benue State, resulting in the deaths of more than 200, mostly Christian, Tiv farmers. During the year, clashes between farmers and herders in Adamawa and Taraba States resulted in more than 250 deaths. In June Fulani herdsmen attacked several villages in Barkin Ladi Local Government Area (LGA) of Plateau State, killing approximately 200 ethnic Berom farmers. The following day, Berom youth set up roadblocks and killed dozens of Muslim passersby. In March the Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC), which includes the nation’s most influential religious leaders and addresses interfaith collaboration, met for the first time in five years. In September religious leaders throughout the country met in Abuja to sign a peace pact and pledged to combat ethnoreligious divisions.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and interreligious tolerance in discussions throughout the year with government officials, religious leaders, and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to help reduce bias in their reporting and prevent tensions from becoming further inflamed. The U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Abuja, Kaduna, and Lagos to engage with relevant stakeholders and highlight U.S. government support for interfaith cooperation.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 203.5 million (July 2018 estimate). A 2012 survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life estimated the population to be 49.3 percent Christian and 48.8 percent Muslim, while the remaining 2 percent belong to other or no religions. Many individuals combine indigenous beliefs and practices with Islam or Christianity. A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identified as Sunni and 12 percent as Shia, with the remainder declining to answer or identifying as “something else” (5 percent) or “just a Muslim” (42 percent). Included among the Sunnis are several Sufi groups, including Tijaniyah and Qadiriyyah. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi Muslims. Christian groups include evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other groups include Jews, Baha’is, and individuals who do not follow any religion.
The Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim northern states. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa-Fulani and Kanuri, also reside in the north. Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the central region and southwestern states, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group, whose members include both Muslims and Christians, predominates. In the southeastern states, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where the Ogoni and Ijaw ethnic groups predominate, Christians form a substantial majority, and a very small minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the central and southern regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution stipulates neither the federal nor the state governments shall establish a state religion and prohibits discrimination on religious grounds. It provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion and to manifest and propagate religion “in worship, teaching, practice, and observance,” provided these rights are consistent with the interests of defense, public safety, order, morality, or health, and protecting the rights of others. The constitution also states it shall be the duty of the state to encourage interfaith marriages and to promote the formation of associations that cut across religious lines and promote “national integration.” It prohibits political parties that limit membership on the basis of religion or with names that have a religious connotation.
The constitution provides that, in addition to common law courts, states may establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law. Sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. The nature of a case and the consent of the parties usually determine what type of court has jurisdiction. The constitution specifically recognizes sharia courts for “civil proceedings”; they do not have the authority to compel participation, whether by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires civil cases in which all litigants are Muslim be heard in sharia courts, with the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in the sharia courts if they wish.
The constitution is silent on the use of sharia courts for criminal cases. In addition to civil matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for “hudud” offenses (serious criminal offenses with punishments prescribed in the Quran) that provide for punishments such as caning, amputation, and death by stoning. Defendants have the right to challenge the constitutionality of sharia criminal statutes through common law appellate courts. The highest appellate court for sharia-based decisions is the Supreme Court, staffed by common law judges who are not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code. Sharia experts often advise them.
Kano and Zamfara’s state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, distribute licenses to imams, and attempt to resolve religious disputes between Muslims in those states. The states of Bauchi, Borno, Katsina, and Yobe maintain state-level Christian and Muslim religious affairs ministries or bureaus with varying mandates and authorities, while many other state governors appoint interfaith special advisers on religious affairs.
To build places of worship, open bank accounts, receive tax exemptions, or sign contracts, religious groups must register with the Corporate Affairs Commission as an incorporated trustee, which involves submitting an application form, proof of public notice, a copy of the organization’s constitution, a list of trustees, and a fee of 20,000 naira ($55).
Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution states schools may not require students to receive religious instruction or to participate in or attend any religious ceremony or observance pertaining to any religion other than their own. State officials and many religious leaders have stated students have the right to request a teacher of their own religious beliefs to provide an alternative to any instruction offered in a religion other than their own. The constitution also says no religious community will be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place maintained wholly by that community.
Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools of registered religious groups. A Katsina State law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,400) for operating without a license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
As in previous years, international and domestic media reported significant violence against the IMN, the country’s largest Shia organization, by security forces. According to media, on October 27, members of the armed forces fired on Shia Muslims participating in the Arba’een Symbolic Trek organized by the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) on October 27, killing at least three persons. IMN members marched from Suleja to Abuja for the Arba’een Symbolic Trek, marking the Shia Muslim commemoration of the end of the 40-day period following Ashura. The army released a statement saying the IMN had set up illegal roadblocks in Abuja, blocking the path of an army convoy transporting missiles. The army also said it met “resistance” from IMN members who attempted to steal missiles and threw stones and other objects. The army stated it opened fire in response, killing three civilians, while the IMN said 10 of its members died in the incident. On October 29, with IMN marchers confirmed by the press to be approaching the city along at least three major feeder thoroughfares, an additional clash occurred at a military checkpoint at the border between Nasarawa State and the Federal Capital Territory near Abuja, in which the army used live rounds to break up the crowd. Amnesty International Nigeria reported at least 39 deaths and numerous injuries among the marchers. The government reported it opened an internal investigation of this incident but did not publish its findings, and no military or police were held accountable. On December 17, the New York Times reported that video footage appeared to show armed forces members beating and shooting unarmed protesters. The video contained no evidence the soldiers were provoked.
The federal government continued to detain IMN leader Sheikh Ibrahim El Zakzaky despite a December 2016 court ruling the government should release him. Hundreds of IMN members regularly protested in Abuja against Zakzaky’s continued detention. In April the Kaduna State government charged Zakzaky in state court with multiple felonies stemming from the death of the soldier in Zaria. The charges include culpable homicide, which can carry the death penalty. At year’s end, the case was pending.
There were no reports of accountability for soldiers implicated in the December 2015 clash between the army and IMN members that, according to a Kaduna State government report, left at least 348 IMN members and one soldier dead, with IMN members buried in a mass grave. In July a Kaduna High Court dismissed charges of aiding and abetting culpable homicide against more than 80 IMN members. The Kaduna State government appealed the ruling, and at year’s end the case remained pending. Approximately 100 additional IMN members remained in detention.
According to international media reports, on December 25, unidentified gunmen abducted two Catholic priests from St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in Umueze Anam, Anambra State, as they were returning from an official function. Haruna Mohammed, the state’s Police Public Relations Officer, said police secured their release on December 27.
Both Muslim and Christian groups again said there was a lack of just handling of their mutual disputes and inadequate protection by federal, state, and local authorities, especially in central regions, where there were longstanding, often violent, disputes among ethnic groups. In disputes between primarily Christian farmers and Muslim herders, herders stated they did not receive justice when their members were killed or their cattle stolen by farming communities, which they said caused them to carry out retaliatory attacks. Farmers stated security forces did not intervene when herdsmen attacked their villages.
In June the High Court in Yola, Adamawa State sentenced five men to death for killing a Fulani herdsman. Christian groups, including the Pentecostal Fellowship of Nigeria and the Christian Association of Nigeria, criticized the ruling. They said the sentences highlighted the government’s bias in dealing with communal violence, noting the five men convicted were Christians who killed a Muslim, but there were no similar convictions when Fulani herdsmen killed Christians.
In July the Nigeria Body of Benchers, a body that regulates legal practice in the country, admitted Firdaus Amasa to the Nigerian Bar Association. Amasa was denied participation in the call to the bar ceremony in December 2017 for refusing to remove her hijab, according to media reports. After nationwide criticism from Muslim associations, including the Nigerian Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (NSCIA), the body reversed its earlier decision.
According to international media, on November 13, the Lagos State government ordered the tutor-general and permanent secretaries and principals to permit use of the hijab in public schools immediately. According to the government, since the case of wearing hijabs was still pending in the Supreme Court, schools should revert to the status quo, allowing the use of hijabs with school uniforms.
In February the federal government launched Exercise Ayem Apatuma (Cat Race) to combat armed ethnoreligious conflict in Benue, Taraba, and Kogi States. In March the federal government sent security forces to halt the increasing rural violence occurring in several Middle Belt states, where several conflicts occurred between Muslim and Christian groups. In May the military launched Operation Whirl Stroke to increase security in Benue, Taraba, Nasarawa, and Zamfara States, where some of the ethnoreligious violence took place.
In July the Plateau Peacebuilding Agency organized a three-day peace and security summit, which included participation from religious leaders, traditional youth leaders, and female leaders, along with state government ministries and heads of the security agencies operating within the state. The summit’s mission was to address ethnoreligious tensions and conflicts in the state and find a path towards sustainable peace. In August the Kaduna State Peace Commission inaugurated its committees in all 23 LGAs of the state. The committees in each LGA were to be comprised of traditional, religious, and youth leaders, who would cooperate on peacebuilding among ethnic and religious groups.
In August the Office of the Vice President (OVP) collaborated with the U.S. Institute for Peace, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), and the Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) to organize a two-day Justice and Security National Dialogue (JSD). The event included government, military, paramilitary, traditional, and religious leaders, along with civil society organizations and representatives from farming and herding communities. The participants agreed to set up state-level JSD models developed during the event to manage ethnoreligious conflicts, as well as criminal activities, which sources stated often exacerbated conflicts. State-level stakeholders began preparing to set up the models, and as of the end of the year, the state-level police commands had nominated officers to attend training in 2019 that is expected to be designed and conducted by the OVP, NHRC, and IPCR.
A pending bill in Kaduna State that would require all preachers to obtain preaching licenses or risk fines and/or imprisonment for up to two years was deferred indefinitely after widespread opposition from Muslim and Christian religious leaders.
Christian groups reported authorities in some northern states refused to respond to requests for building permits for minority religious communities for construction of new places of worship, expansion and renovation of existing facilities, or reconstruction of buildings that had been demolished. A Christian religious leader in Kano noted Christians could build churches freely in Sabon Gari, a part of town reserved for Christians, but only very old churches had valid permits; he added new permits had not been granted in decades.
The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Zamfara noted a case where a Christian businessman sold land and the certificate of occupancy to a Christian church during the year. The church attempted to register the sale with the state government, but the sale was not approved because, according to the church, the government was concerned it would build a church. CAN also said Christians in local communities in Zamfara occasionally did not inform the government when building a church because they feared the government would have it demolished. He noted some Muslim traditional rulers have also had difficulty getting the sales approved when they have sold land to Christian churches.
Muslim students at Rivers State University of Science and Technology continued to complain they were unable to construct a place of worship. In 2012 the university prevented Muslim students from constructing a mosque, leaving them with no place of worship. The Muslim students filed a suit against the university, and the court ruled in their favor, but the university had not granted them a license to build the mosque by year’s end.
The Hisbah continued to arrest street beggars and prostitutes, and destroy confiscated bottles of alcohol. There were no reports of Christians being forced to use sharia courts. In January the Kano State Hisbah arrested 94 individuals who violated the law banning street begging, and in April the Hisbah received 36 cases of prostitution. In May Zamfara State signed a bill conferring more powers on the state Hisbah commission to interrogate and arrest individuals and to undertake searches for evidence of anti-sharia activities or substances banned by sharia. In September the Kano State Hisbah stated it confiscated 12 million bottles of beer within the past seven years, including more than 17,000 confiscated in September. In April the Jigawa State Hisbah Board announced it had “saved” 4,000 marriages in the past two years by settling marriage disputes. According to international media, in December Hisbah arrested 11 women for planning a lesbian wedding in Kano. Director-General Abba Sufi stated “We can’t allow such despicable acts to find roots in our society. Both Islam and Nigerian laws prohibit same-sex relationships.”
Christian and Muslim groups continued to report that individual administrators of government-run universities and technical schools in several states refused to admit certain individuals or delayed the issuance of their degrees and licenses because of religion or ethnicity. A Christian pastor in Yobe said while Christians could gain entry into universities dominated by Muslims, they were relegated to the “lower” subjects and found it difficult to study for degrees in more desirable areas such as engineering, medicine, finance, and law. A Muslim leader in southern Kaduna stated all government positions in the region were reserved for Christians. He said Hausa and Fulani Muslims earned livelihoods predominantly in the private sector because there was no alternative. According to Christian and Muslim groups and NGOs such as Human Rights Watch, the issue was connected to the country’s indigene-settler conflict, whereby state governments granted benefits, such as access to government services, to ethnic groups considered to be indigenous to a particular state, and distinguished them from ethnic groups considered to be settlers, even if their families had lived in the state for generations. In certain states, especially in the Middle Belt, the divide between Christian indigenes and Muslim settlers was religious as well as ethnic and economic.
According to international reporting, on May 10, the Southern Kaduna Peace and Reconciliation Committee brought together security agencies in the state including police, army, civil defense, Department of State Security, and civil society, including religious leaders. In the previous two years, southern Kaduna had experienced large-scale ethnoreligious violence, and the event was organized to foster trust through dialogue between the religious communities and security agencies. Participants discussed the importance of resolving issues peacefully, how to focus on things the communities have in common instead of what divides them, and how security services could serve as assets in conflict mitigation.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Although the U.S.-designated terrorist organization Boko Haram split into two factions in 2016, one pledging allegiance to ISIS and calling itself ISIS-WA, headed by Abu Musab al Barnawi, and another headed by Abubakar Shekau and retaining the traditional Boko Haram name, Jama’atu Ahl as-Sunnah li-Da’awati wal-Jihad (JASDJ), most residents and government officials continued to refer to both groups collectively as Boko Haram.
Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets in Borno State. Boko Haram also conducted limited attacks in Adamawa, while ISIS-WA attacked targets in Yobe. While Boko Haram no longer controlled as much territory as it once did, the two insurgencies nevertheless maintained the ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian targets across the Northeast.
Boko Haram continued to employ suicide bombings targeting the local civilian population, including places of worship. On January 3, a Boko Haram suicide bomber attacked a Gambaru mosque, killing 14 and injuring 15. According to international news, on April 22, two suicide bombers killed three in a Bama, Borno State mosque. On May 1, twin suicide bombings in Mubi, one in a mosque and another in a market, killed at least 27 and injured more than 60 persons. According to Christian news outlets, on June 12, Boko Haram burned 22 buildings, including part of a catechetical training center in Kaya, Adamawa state. On June 16, two Boko Haram suicide bombers attacked Damboa killing 31 persons returning from Ramadan celebrations on Eid al-Fitr. On July 23, a Boko Haram suicide bomber killed eight worshippers in a mosque in Mainari.
On September 8, ISIS-WA militants, in what was reported as an effort to spread its religious ideology, launched an attack lasting several hours on Gudumbali town in Guzamala LGA of Borno State, but security forces repelled them. According to estimates from the NGO Nigeria Watch, which did not appear to differentiate between Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, 1,911 persons, including Boko Haram members, died because of the group’s activities during the year, compared with 1,749 killed in 2017.
Approximately half of the students abducted by Boko Haram from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in 2014 remained in captivity. In January the army reported the rescue of one girl in Borno State. On February 19, ISIS-WA abducted 111 girls from the town of Dapchi, Yobe State. According to press reports, five of the girls died during the abduction, while 105 were released on March 22 for unknown reasons. Leah Sharibu remained with the insurgents, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity. All other abductees were Muslims. The CAN reported more than 900 churches were destroyed by Boko Haram in the Northeast since the insurgency began in 2010.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Numerous fatal clashes occurred throughout the year in the central Middle Belt region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Fulani Muslim herders. Scholars and other experts assessed ethnicity, politics, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources because of population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from other forms of violence and criminality occurring in the north were among the drivers of the violence, but religious identity and affiliation were also factors. According to international news reports, on April 24, Fulani herdsmen killed 17 worshippers and two priests during a Mass in Mbalom, Benue State. The reports also stated local youth engaged in reprisal attacks and killed nine persons in Muslim Hausa settlements and raided two mosques. According to international media, on May 28, herdsmen beat two priests and shot another in the leg in Jalingo, Taraba State.
In January and May Fulani herdsmen attacked several villages in Guma, Logo, Gwer East, and Gwer West LGAs in Benue State, killing more than 200 ethnic Tiv Christians. The Benue government said the attackers were headquartered in neighboring Nasarawa State, where most Fulani herdsmen fled after Benue State began enforcing the ban on open grazing in November 2017. The Nasarawa government rejected the claim, stating the situation was caused by the implementation of Benue’s anti-grazing law and that Nasarawa was hosting more than 7,000 IDPs from Benue State.
From the beginning of the year, clashes between Fulani herdsmen and ethnic, primarily Christian, Bachama, Nyandan, and Mumuye farmers in Adamawa and Taraba States resulted in more than 250 deaths. The conflict began after a Bachama farmer was found dead on his farm in Numan LGA, Adamawa State in November 2017, and followed by a reprisal attack on a Fulani settlement, killing more than 50 persons. That attack was followed by a series of reprisals by the Bachama in Numan and the Fulanis who fled to neighboring Demsa LGA, and then into Lau LGA of Taraba State. Cross-border attacks continued throughout the year, including a September 15 attack by Fulani herdsmen on villages in Numan LGA, resulting in more than 50 deaths.
On June 23, Fulani herdsmen attacked several villages in Barkin Ladi LGA, Plateau State, killing approximately 200 Berom Christians. According to international news reports, the following day Berom youth in Barkin Ladi, Riyom, and Jos South set up roadblocks and killed dozens of travelers who appeared to be Muslim. The state government imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew in the three affected LGAs. The impetus for the initial attack was reported to have been a series of incidents between the Fulani and Berom communities that resulted in the deaths of some members on both sides and the theft of some cattle. In the midst of the June 23 attacks in Barkin Ladi, Imam Abdullahi Abubakar sheltered his Christian neighbors in his home and in the mosque while confronting the attackers, and he refused to allow them entry.
On October 18, ethnoreligious riots broke out in the town Kasuwan Magani in Kajuru LGA, Kaduna State, resulting in 55 deaths and 22 arrests. The state government imposed a 24-hour curfew on the town, which it lifted on December 21. On October 24, Kaduna State representatives from CAN and Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), the Islamic umbrella organization, held a joint press conference in Kasuwan Magani to condemn the violence, call for peace and calm, and urge the government to investigate the incident. On October 30, the Secretary General of the JNI, Dr. Khalid Aliyu, the Kaduna State Chairman of CAN, Bishop George Dodo, and the Emir of Zazzau, Chairman of the Kaduna State traditional council, Dr. Shehu Idris, held a press conference and said the authorities must investigate pastors and imams who preach hate and division.
In August authorities in Yobe State arrested a Hausa Christian convert after he proselytized to, and converted, a 19-year old Muslim woman. According to a Christian pastor with knowledge of the situation, the woman converted back to Islam after pressure from her mother and the community, and she and her mother brought a case against the Christian man. He was charged in customary court with unlawful trespassing and instigating violence. Initially, the police refused to release him on bail, reportedly because of fear the youth in the community would harm him; however, he was released in September and awaited trial at year’s end.
In October local Muslim youth in Bungudu LGA beat and hospitalized a Hausa Christian convert. The Hausa man converted from Islam to Christianity in 2017 and was sent to Jos after threats against him. He was attacked after returning home for a visit in October 2018. The CAN worked with Muslim traditional and religious leaders to calm the situation and clarify that all Nigerians are free to choose their religion.
On March 22, the NIREC, the highest interreligious body in the country, met for the first time in five years. The Sultan of Sokoto and president of CAN cochaired the NIREC; council members included 50 of the highest-ranking Muslim and 25 Christian religious leaders in the country. Christian and Muslim religious leaders discussed the necessity of a functioning NIREC in fostering peaceful coexistence in the country, and stressed they must continue to engage in dialogue no matter how difficult their problems became. NIREC met again on November 21 to plan engagement regarding the February 2019 national elections.
On November 24, NIREC Youth organized a summit bringing together 250 Muslim and Christian youth leaders in Abuja for training on peace messaging and encouraged youth leaders not to allow religious or community leaders to encourage them to resort to violence, especially in areas where parties may be associated with a particular religion, during the upcoming national elections. The event also included 50 NIREC religious leaders and presentations by the sultan and CAN president.
On September 18, the Nigerian Interfaith Action Association organized a national peace summit, at which Christian and Muslim religious leaders signed a peace pact. CAN President Samson Ayokunle, represented by Prelate of the Methodist Church Reverend Samuel Uche, and Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III, represented by Emir of Keffi Dr. Shehu Chindo-Yamusa, were signatories. The religious leaders pledged not to use religion to promote conflict and violence, to denounce hate speech and violence, and to promote peace and understanding throughout their communities.
On November 19, University of Ibadan International School shut down as members of the Muslim Parents Forum protested a restriction prohibiting their daughters from wearing the hijab in the school. On November 21, Concerned Parents of Students of the International School, University of Ibadan, held a counterprotest and argued the Muslim Parents Forum was fostering disunity and religious strife. After a week of closure, the school’s board announced it would resume classes on November 26, and the students must comply with the status quo dress code (no hijab), adding parents must go through the proper process to change the dress code.
On May 22, Catholic bishops led nationwide protests over the April attacks in Benue and the government’s inability to hold accountable those responsible for farmer-herder violence. The protests took place the same day the two priests and 17 worshippers were buried.
In May the Church of the Brethren hosted an Interfaith Peace Conference in Yola, Adamawa State, to discuss peaceful messaging at religious services, elections, and countering violent extremism.
On January 19, Muslim and Christian women under the auspices of the Interfaith Council of Women Associations met in southern Kaduna to observe a day of prayer for an end to the violence affecting their communities.
On November 13, Emir of Kano Muhammadu Sanusi II called on the government to enact legislation to regulate preaching in the country. He made the call during a three-day conference on the Boko Haram insurgency organized by the Center for Islamic Civilization and Interfaith Dialogue at Bayero University in Kano.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials and visiting U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and interreligious tolerance in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the vice president, secretary to the government of the federation, governors, and national assembly members. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials hosted interfaith dinners, participated in interfaith conferences, and conducted press interviews to promote interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored training sessions for journalists that emphasized ways to report on ethnoreligious conflicts without further inflaming the situations.
In March the Ambassador participated in the reconvening of NIREC. In his remarks, he highlighted the significance of the leaders coming together at a time when rural violence appeared to be dividing the nation along ethnic and religious lines. The Ambassador also hosted a number of interfaith dinners bringing together Muslim and Christian religious leaders, NGOs, and journalists to encourage interfaith dialogue.
The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials participated in multiple interfaith conferences and summits throughout the year encouraging religious, traditional, government, and community leaders to continue to dialogue and work towards sustainable peace. They also spread this messaging in media interviews during multiple trips to states affected by ethnoreligious conflict, including Kaduna, Plateau, Benue, Taraba, and Adamawa States.
In July and August a senior embassy official made three visits to Jos after deadly ethnoreligious attacks claimed the lives of more than 200 persons. During the trips, he visited two of the affected villages and participated in a state-level interfaith summit that included Muslim and Christian religious leaders, traditional leaders, NGOs, and security and government personnel. He also conducted media interviews expressing condolences to the victims and stressing the importance of dialogue in resolving conflict.
The embassy hosted a number of training sessions in Abuja and Jos for journalists who report on ethnoreligious conflicts to increase professionalism and reduce bias in reporting on sensitive matters. The embassy also funded peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states, such as Kaduna, Plateau, and Nasarawa. The programs were designed to train farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts.
In June the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom visited Abuja, Kaduna, and Lagos, engaging with government and religious leaders as well as NGOs to highlight U.S. support for interfaith cooperation in the country and to encourage greater efforts to combat ethnoreligious violence. The Ambassador at Large met with the deputy governor of Kaduna State, the vice president, the governors of Benue and Taraba States, the Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, and the head imam of the National Mosque.
The U.S. Consul General in Lagos continued to discuss religious tolerance and interfaith relationship building with a wide range of religious leaders.
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution also states, “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” It also states “a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), is a non-Muslim.” The courts continued to enforce blasphemy laws, punishment for which ranges from life in prison to execution for a range of charges, including “defiling the Prophet Muhammad.” According to civil society reports, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 of whom had received death sentences, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year but were not previously widely known. According to data provided by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), police registered at least seven new blasphemy cases against seven individuals. On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. In what was described as an effort to end widespread violent protests orchestrated by the antiblasphemy movement Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) against the government in the wake of Bibi’s acquittal, the government promised protestors it would not oppose a petition seeking further judicial review of the case. Following violent antistate threats, the government later undertook a sustained campaign of detentions and legal charges against the TLP leadership and violent protestors. The original accuser’s petition for a judicial review of Bibi’s case remained pending at year’s end, although most sources believed it was likely to be dismissed. In October Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Noor-ul Haq Qadri said the government would “forcefully oppose” any change to the blasphemy laws. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders and human rights organizations continued to express concerns that the government targeted Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, and Ahmadis continued to be affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation that denied them basic rights. Throughout the year, including during the general election campaign, some government officials engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities, and perpetrators of such abuses often faced no legal consequences due to what the NGOs said was a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in public schools and tertiary education, and in private and civil service employment. In September the newly-elected government withdrew its invitation to economist and Ahmadi Muslim Atif Mian to join the Economic Advisory Council after significant public criticism, including from religious leaders. In a conference organized by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed in October, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said the “Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan will always stand against Ahmadis.” In March the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam.
Armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government as extremist, as well as groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Christians and Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) however, both the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups and the number of casualties decreased compared to 2017, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. On November 23, a suicide bombing near a Shia prayer hall in Orakzai district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa killed 33 people, including Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as some Sikhs. Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) claimed responsibility. There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia in Dera Ismail Khan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although it was often unclear whether religion was the primary motivation. In February and May several Shia residents were killed by alleged Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militants, the same group believed to be responsible for multiple subsequent killings in the same area in August. On April 2, gunmen shot and killed a Christian family of four traveling by rickshaw in Quetta, Balochistan. An affiliate group of ISIS-K claimed responsibility. The government continued to implement the 2014 National Action Plan (NAP) against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism, as well as military and law enforcement operations against terrorist groups; however, according to Ahmadi civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, despite this being a component of the NAP. Civil society groups expressed ongoing concerns about the safety of religious minorities.
Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, who are largely Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. According to the SATP, attacks against Shia members of the minority Hazara ethnic group decreased relative to 2017. In four separate incidents, unidentified assailants shot and killed six members of the Hazara Shia community in Quetta in April. Assailants killed a member of the Ahmadiyya community in Lahore on June 25 in what appeared to be a targeted attack, and robbers shot and killed another man in his jewelry shop in Syedwala on August 29 after singling him out as an Ahmadi. Human rights activists reported numerous instances of societal violence related to allegations of blasphemy; of efforts by individuals to coerce religious minorities to convert to Islam, including forced conversions of young women; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. There also continued to be reports of attacks on the holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of the Christian and Ahmadiyya minorities.
Senior officials from the U.S. Department of State, including the Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, and embassy officers met with senior advisors to the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs, the minister for human rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss the need to combat sectarian violence, to ensure the protection of religious minorities, and blasphemy law reform. Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts to discuss ways to combat intolerance and promote dialogue on interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of the Shia, Ahmadiyya, Christian, Hindu, Sikh, and other minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The U.S. government provided training for provincial police officers on human rights and protecting religious minorities. The Department of State publicly condemned terrorist attacks throughout the year, including the November attack near a Shia place of worship in Orakzai District, Khyber Pakhtunkha.
On November 28, the Secretary of State designated Pakistan as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interests of the United States.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 207.9 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017, 96 percent of the population is Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom Pakistani law does not recognize as Muslim), Hindus, Christians, Parsis/Zoroastrians, Baha’is, Sikhs, Buddhists, Kalash, Kihals, and Jains. Most of the historic Jewish community has emigrated.
Sources vary on the precise breakdown of the Muslim population between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunnis are generally believed to be 80-85 percent of the Muslim population and Shia are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. According to 2014 media accounts, although there are 2.9 million non-Muslims registered with the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA), the actual number exceeds 3.5 million. Religious community representatives estimate minority religious groups constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.
According to the 2014 government registration documents cited by the press, there are approximately 1.4 million Hindus, 1.3 million Christians, 126,000 Ahmadis, 34,000 Baha’is, 6,000 Sikhs, and 4,000 Parsis. Taking account of the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000-600,000. Estimates of the Zikri Muslim community, located in Balochistan, range between 500,000 and 800,000 individuals. Several minority rights advocacy groups dispute the provisional results of the 2017 census and state the numbers underrepresent their true population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but states “subject to law, public order, and morality, every citizen shall have the right to profess, practice, and propagate his religion.” A 1984 amendment to the penal code restricted the rights of members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community to propagate their faith. According to the constitution, every citizen has the right to freedom of speech, subject to “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the glory of Islam,” as stipulated in the penal code. According to the penal code, the punishments for persons convicted of blasphemy include the death penalty for “defiling the Prophet Muhammad,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and 10 years’ imprisonment for “insulting another’s religious feelings.” Speech or action intended to incite religious hatred is punishable by up to seven years’ imprisonment. Under the 2016 Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for reviewing internet traffic and reporting blasphemous or offensive content to the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) for possible removal, or to the Federal Investigative Agency (FIA) for possible criminal prosecution. In 2017 the Lahore High Court directed the government to amend PECA to align the punishments for blasphemy online with the penal code punishments for blasphemy. At years’ end the amendment was still under consideration.
The constitution defines “Muslim” as a person who “believes in the unity and oneness of Almighty Allah, in the absolute and unqualified finality of the Prophethood of Muhammad … the last of the prophets, and does not believe in, or recognize as a prophet or religious reformer, any person who claimed or claims to be a prophet after Muhammad.” It also states “a person belonging to the Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Parsi community, a person of the Qadiani group or the Lahori group (who call themselves Ahmadis), or a Baha’i, and a person belonging to any of the scheduled castes” is a “non-Muslim.”
According to the constitution and the penal code, Ahmadis may not call themselves Muslims or assert they are adherents of Islam. The penal code bans them from preaching or propagating their religious beliefs, proselytizing, or “insulting the religious feelings of Muslims.” The punishment for violating these provisions is imprisonment for up to three years and a fine. On February 7, the government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir amended its interim constitution to declare Ahmadis non-Muslim.
The penal code criminalizes “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and provides for a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
A 2015 constitutional amendment allows military courts to try civilians for terrorism, sectarian violence, and other charges; this authority was renewed in 2017 for an additional two years. The government may also use special civilian terrorism courts to try cases involving violent crimes, terrorist activities, and acts or speech deemed by the government to foment religious hatred, including blasphemy.
The constitution states no person shall be required to take part in any religious ceremony or attend religious worship relating to a religion other than the person’s own.
The constitution provides for “freedom to manage religious institutions.” It states every religious denomination shall have the right to establish and maintain its own institutions. The constitution states no person shall be compelled to pay any special tax for the propagation or maintenance of a religion other than the person’s own. The government collects a 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims and distributes the funds to Sunni mosques, madrassahs, and charities.
The constitution mandates the government take steps to enable Muslims, individually and collectively, to order their lives in accordance with the fundamental principles and basic concepts of Islam and to promote the observance of Islamic moral standards. It directs the state to endeavor to secure the proper organization of Islamic tithes, religious foundations, and places of worship.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony is responsible for organizing participation in the Hajj and other Islamic religious pilgrimages. Authorities also consult the ministry on matters such as blasphemy and Islamic education. The ministry’s budget covers assistance to indigent minorities, repair of minority places of worship, establishment of minority-run small development projects, celebration of minority religious festivals, and provision of scholarships for religious minority students.
The law prohibits publishing any criticism of Islam, or its prophets, or insults to others’ religious beliefs. The law bans the sale of Ahmadiyya religious literature.
The provincial and federal governments have legal responsibility for certain minority religious properties abandoned during the 1947 partition of British India.
The constitution states no person attending any educational institution shall be required to attend religious instruction or take part in any religious ceremony relating to a religion other than the person’s own. It also states no religious denomination shall be prevented from providing religious instruction for pupils of its denomination in an educational institution maintained by the denomination.
The constitution states the government shall make Islamic studies compulsory for all Muslim students in state-run schools. Although students of other religious groups are not legally required to study Islam, schools do not always offer parallel studies in their own religious beliefs. In some schools, however, non-Muslim students may study ethics. Parents may send children to private schools, including religious schools, at the family’s expense. In Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, private schools are also required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students.
By law, madrassahs are prohibited from teaching or encouraging sectarian or religious hatred or violence. Wafaqs (independent academic boards) register seminaries, regulate curricula, and issue degrees. The five wafaqs each represent major streams of Islamic thought in Pakistan: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the suprasectarian Jamaat-i-Islami. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan (ITMP), to represent their interests to the government. The NAP requires all madrassahs to register with one of five wafaqs or directly with the government.
The constitution states “all existing laws shall be brought into conformity with the injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah [Islam’s body of traditional social and legal custom and practice].” It further states no law shall be enacted which is “repugnant” to Islam. The constitution states this requirement shall not affect the “personal laws of non-Muslim citizens” or their status as citizens. Most personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from pre-partition British legislation.
The constitution establishes a Federal Shariat Court (FSC) composed of Muslim judges to examine and decide whether any law or provision is “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.” The constitution gives the FSC the power to examine a law of its own accord or at the request of the government or a private citizen. The constitution requires the government to amend the law as directed by the court. The constitution also empowers the FSC to review criminal cases relating to certain crimes under the Hudood Ordinance, including rape and those linked to Islamic morality, such as extramarital sex, alcohol use, and gambling. The court may suspend or increase the sentence given by a criminal court in these cases. The FSC exercises “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) in such cases in lower courts, a power which applies whether the cases involve Muslims or non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may not appear before the FSC. If represented by a Muslim lawyer, however, non-Muslims may consult the FSC in other matters such as questions of sharia or Islamic practice which affect them or violate their rights if they so choose. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench.
The constitution establishes a Council of Islamic Ideology to make recommendations, at the request of the parliament and provincial assemblies, as to “the ways and means of enabling and encouraging Muslims to order their lives in accordance with the principles of Islam.” The constitution further empowers the council to advise the legislative and executive branches when they choose to refer a question to the council, as to whether a proposed law is or is not “repugnant to the injunctions of Islam.”
In the absence of specific language in the law authorizing civil or common law marriage, marriage certificates are signed by religious authorities and registered with the local marriage registrar. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act (applying to all other provinces) codified legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. The 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion or by fraud.” The 2017 Hindu Marriage Act allows for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. On August 8, the Sindh provincial government enacted amendments to its 2016 legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. Before the passage of the amendments in Sindh, Hindu women were not allowed to remarry as a community custom once they were widowed, and the law did not recognize the divorce of Hindu couples.
The government considers the marriage of a non-Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man dissolved if she converts to Islam, although the marriage of a non-Muslim man who converts remains recognized. Children born to a non-Muslim couple are considered illegitimate and ineligible for inheritance if their mother converts to Islam. The only way to legitimize the marriage and the children is for the husband also to convert to Islam. The children of a Muslim man and a Muslim woman who both convert to another religious group are considered illegitimate, and by law the government may take custody of the children.
The constitution directs the state to “safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities,” to secure the well-being of the people irrespective of creed, and to discourage sectarian prejudices. It forbids discrimination against any religious community in the taxation of religious institutions. The National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR), an independent government-funded agency that reports to parliament, is required to receive petitions, conduct investigations, and request remediation of human rights violations. The NCHR is also mandated to monitor the government’s implementation of human rights and review and propose legislation. It has quasi-judicial powers and may refer cases for prosecution but does not have arrest authority. The 18th Amendment, passed in 2010, expanded the powers of the prime minister and devolved responsibility for education, health care, women’s development, and minorities’ affairs, including religious minorities, to the provinces.
According to the constitution, there shall be no discrimination on the basis of religion in appointing individuals to government service, provided they are otherwise qualified. There is a 5 percent minimum quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level.
The constitution prohibits discriminatory admission based on religious affiliation to any governmental educational institution. According to regulations, the only factors affecting admission to government schools are students’ grades and home provinces; however, students must declare their religious affiliation on application forms. This declaration is also required for private educational institutions, including universities. Students who identify themselves as Muslims must declare in writing they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet. Non-Muslims are required to have the head of their local religious communities verify their religious affiliation. There is no provision in the law for atheists.
The NADRA designates religious affiliation on passports and requires religious information in national identity card and passport applications. Those wishing to be listed as Muslims must swear they believe the Prophet Muhammad is the final prophet, and must denounce the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder as a false prophet and his followers as non-Muslim. There is no option to state “no religion.” National identity cards are required for all citizens upon reaching the age of 18. Identification cards are used for voting, pension disbursement, social and financial inclusion programs and other services.
The constitution requires the president and prime minister to be Muslims. All senior officials, including members of parliament, must swear an oath to protect the country’s Islamic identity. The law requires that elected Muslim officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam.
There are reserved seats for religious minority members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for religious minorities. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for religious minorities, one from each province. In the provincial assemblies, there are three such reserved seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa; eight in Punjab; nine in Sindh; and three in Balochistan. Political parties elected by the general electorate choose the minority individuals who hold these seats; they are not elected directly by the minority constituencies they represent.
The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and maintains two reservations: first, that ICCPR Article 3 regarding equal rights of men and women would be “applied as to be in conformity with Personal Law of the citizens and Qanoon-e-Shahadat (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men is given greater weight than that of women; and second, that ICCPR Article 25, on the equal right for citizens to take part in public service would be subject to articles of the constitution mandating that the president and prime minister be Muslims.
According to civil society reports, there were at least 77 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 28 under sentence of death, although the government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. Some of these cases began before the beginning of the year and were not previously widely known. According to data provided by NGOs, authorities registered at least seven new blasphemy cases against seven individuals during the year. The Supreme Court acquitted two persons charged with blasphemy during the year; a third case was closed due to the death of the accused while awaiting trial, while other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least three individuals were accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under a 2016 law criminalizing online blasphemy. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately impacted members of religious minority communities. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses. NGOs continued to report lower courts often failed to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases.
On October 31, the Supreme Court acquitted Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Authorities arrested Bibi in June 2009 after a group of Muslim women with whom she was arguing accused her of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. In a supporting opinion, Justice Asif Saeed Khosa criticized the false testimony of the prosecution witnesses and warned that the witnesses’ insults to Bibi’s religion combined with false testimony was also “not short of being blasphemous.” While Bibi was officially released from jail following the Supreme Court ruling, she remained in government’s protective custody because of threats to her life. Media reported that her family went into hiding after the verdict.
The Supreme Court ruling on the Bibi case was followed by three days of violent, nationwide protests by the antiblasphemy movement TLP, whose leaders called for the assassination of the judges who ruled in the case. On October 31, immediately after the verdict, Prime Minister Imran Khan condemned threats against the judiciary and military and said the government would act, if necessary, to counter disruptions by protesters. Minister of State for Interior Shehryar Afridi, however, blamed violence during the protests on opposition parties, rather than the TLP, and said the government would seek dialogue with the TLP. Protestors sought a judicial review of the court’s judgement, for which Bibi’s original accuser later petitioned. In what was described as an effort to end the violent protests, the government pledged it would not oppose further judicial review of the case; the review remained pending at year’s end. The government later undertook a sustained campaign of detentions and legal charges against TLP leadership and violent protestors. It characterized its crackdown as an assertion that laws and courts rather than street justice would prevail when blasphemy charges were under consideration. The original accuser’s petition for a judicial review of Bibi’s case remained pending at year’s end, although most sources believed it was likely to be dismissed.
Media reported that a Lahore district judge sentenced two Christian brothers from Lahore, Qaisar and Amoon Ayub, to death on December 13 for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in articles and portraits posted on their website in 2010. The brothers had been in Jhelum Prison since 2014.
In January authorities in Lahore arrested two young Christian cousins, Patras and Sajid Masih, for alleged blasphemy after protestors threatened to burn them and their family home with gasoline. Family members said Patras Masih had been framed for blasphemy on social media when he took his mobile phone to a repair shop, while media said he got into a dispute with Muslim youths over a cricket match. Sajid Masih was severely injured after jumping from the fourth floor window of an FIA interrogation room. According to media reports, he said police tortured him and ordered him to sexually assault his cousin, and he leaped out the window to escape. Patras Masih remained in custody, and many Christian families fled the neighborhood.
According to NGOs, the Lahore High Court’s Rawalpindi bench postponed hearing the appeal of Zafar Bhatti multiple times. Bhatti, a Christian, was sentenced to life in prison for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages in 2012.
In October police arrested a Muslim man in Sadiqabad, Khanewal District, Punjab, who claimed to be the “11th Caliph.” Police arrested the man and charged him with blasphemy after videos of his statements circulated online. At year’s end, he was awaiting trial.
Courts again overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal, after the accused had spent years in prison. On March 13, Punjab provincial judges acquitted Christian school director Anjum Sandhu of blasphemy after an Anti-Terror Court (ATC) sentenced him to death in 2016. According to media reports, two men had fabricated a recording of what was termed blasphemous speech and attempted to use it to extort money from Sandhu. When Sandhu went to police to register a complaint of extortion, police had demanded more money from Sandhu and brought a blasphemy case against him.
According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted in well-publicized blasphemy cases from previous years – including Nadeem James, Prakash Kumar, Taimoor Raza, Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed, Sawan Masih, Shafqat Emmanuel, Shagufta Kausar, Sajjad Masih Gill, and Liaquat Ali – remained in jail and continued to await action on their appeals.
In February an ATC convicted 31 individuals for their role in the 2017 killing of university student Mashal Khan for alleged blasphemy. The ATC sentenced the primary shooter to death, five others to life in prison, and 25 individuals to four years’ imprisonment. The Peshawar High Court later suspended the sentences and released on bail the group of 25 individuals.
Authorities charged 15 Ahmadis in connection with the practice of their faith during the year, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders. Among these, two Ahmadis were arrested and charged with blasphemy, and two others were charged for offering a sacrifice at Eid al-Adha. According to Ahmadiyya community members and media reports, authorities took no action to prevent attacks on mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set Ahmadi mosques on fire. The government sealed an Ahmadi mosque in Sialkot on May 14. Social media videos of a crowd demolishing the mosque on May 24 showed a city administration official taking part in the demolition and thanking local authorities, including the police, for their “support” in allowing the crowd to attack the site. According to the media reports, the official was a member of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, which assumed power later in the year, although the party denied this and condemned the attack.
In September the newly-elected government withdrew its invitation to economist and Ahmadi Muslim Atif Mian to join the Economic Advisory Council after significant public criticism, including from religious leaders. Clerics urged the government to take further steps to ensure no Ahmadis could serve in key government positions. In a conference organized by UN-designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed in October, Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said the “Government and the Prime Minister of Pakistan will always stand against Ahmadis.” In March the IHC issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the army, judiciary, and civil services and directed parliament to amend laws to ensure Ahmadis did not use “Islamic” terms or have names associated with Islam. Neither the National Assembly nor the Senate had acted on this judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said the NADRA began requiring Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the IHC judgment.
According to civil society and media reports, there were instances in which the government intervened in cases of intercommunal mob violence. In September government officials negotiated a “peace accord” in Faisalabad, Punjab, after a dispute between largely Sunni Muslim and Ahmadi Muslim youths led to an attack on an Ahmadi mosque. The agreement bound both sides to eschew further violence but required the Ahmadis to pay for the damage to their mosque.
Police also intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On April 19, a crowd surrounded a family in Karachi, reportedly believing they were the source of blasphemous graffiti. Police moved the family to a safe location, registered a blasphemy case against “unknown subjects,” and dispersed the crowd. According to media reports, in August police prevented a crowd from setting fire to Christian homes in Gujranwala after a Christian man, Farhan Aziz, was arrested for allegedly sending blasphemous text messages.
On July 31, police filed charges against Parachand Kohli, a 19-year-old Hindu man in Mirpurkhas, Sindh, for posting blasphemous remarks on Facebook. Local journalists reported that the suspect was deeply upset by his sister’s conversion to Islam and the intent of other family members to convert.
More than 40 Christian men remained in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, accused of lynching two Muslim men after terrorists bombed two Christian churches in March 2015. An ATC indicted the men on charges of murder and terrorism in 2016. The trial had not concluded at year’s end, and media and other sources reported that the deputy district prosecutor offered to drop charges against anyone who would convert to Islam. Multiple legal advocacy groups representing the men reported conditions in the jail continued to be poor and had already contributed to the death of two prisoners in previous years.
Historically, Hindu and Sikh leaders had noted the legal uncertainty surrounding the process of registering marriages for their communities created difficulties for Hindu and Sikh women in obtaining inheritances, accessing health services, voting, obtaining a passport, and buying or selling property. Observers stated the enactment of the 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and its 2018 amendments and the 2017 Hindu Marriage Act addressed many of these problems and also codified the right to divorce. In September the first intercaste Hindu marriage in Sindh was registered under the 2016 Sindh Hindu Marriage Act, and media cited the law as helping the intercaste couple contract their free-will marriage despite community opposition.
Religious minorities said they remained concerned that government action to address coerced conversions of religious minorities to Islam was inadequate. Minority rights activists in Sindh cited the failure to pass a 2016 Sindh bill against forced conversions as an example of government retreating in the face of pressure from religious parties. Media and NGOs, however, reported some cases of law enforcement helping in situations of attempted forced conversion. In March the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) reported one victim of a forced marriage and conversion, Kinza, obtained a restraining order against her husband after she returned to her parents’ home. She had previously testified in court that she wanted to live with her Muslim husband. On October 23, police recovered an 11-year-old Hindu girl in Matiari, Sindh two days after she was abducted by a Muslim man who claimed he had married her after she converted to Islam. The girl told police she was abducted and raped. According to local police, the court returned the girl to her family and charged the accused with abduction, then released him on bail.
The government selectively enforced its previous bans on the activities of, and membership in, some religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist. The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of groups that were either banned or had their activities monitored and curtailed (Schedule 1) and individuals whose activities in the public sphere could also be curtailed, including during religious holidays such as Ashura (Schedule 4). In February then President Mamnoon Hussain issued a decree to ban UN-listed Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD, a political front of terrorist organization Lashkar-e-Tayyiba) and its charity wing Falah-i-Insaniyat Foundation, but did not place either group on Schedule 1, which would have mandated the government detain group leader Hafiz Saeed. The ban lapsed in October after the government failed to convert the presidential decree into law. Other groups including LeJ, Sipah-i-Sahaba Pakistan, and Jaish-e-Muhammad remained on Schedule 1, but groups widely believed to be affiliated with them continued to operate to various degrees. The government permitted some of these parties and individuals affiliated with banned organizations to contest the July 25 general elections, including anti-Shia group Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), whose ban the Ministry of Interior lifted shortly before the elections.
According to Ahmadiyya community leaders, authorities continued to target and harass Ahmadi Muslims for blasphemy, violations of “anti-Ahmadi laws,” and other crimes. Ahmadiyya leaders stated the ambiguous wording of the legal provision forbidding Ahmadis from directly or indirectly identifying themselves as Muslims enabled officials to bring charges against members of the community for using the standard Islamic greeting or for naming their children Muhammad.
While the law required a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint could be filed, NGOs and legal observers continued to state that police did not uniformly follow this procedure, and that if an objective investigation were carried out by a senior authority, many blasphemy cases would be dismissed. According to religious organizations and human rights groups, while the majority of those convicted of blasphemy were Muslim, religious minorities continued to be disproportionately accused of blasphemy relative to their small percentage of the population. NGOs and legal observers also stated police continued not to file charges against many individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.
In October proposed amendments to the penal code to discourage individuals from making false blasphemy accusations, initiated by the Senate Human Rights Committee in December 2016, failed after the ruling PTI party withdrew support. Senior PTI leaders requested adjournment of discussion of the amendments in the National Assembly and the Senate in September and October, and the media reported Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Qadri said PTI members would “forcefully oppose” any change to the blasphemy laws. Despite an August 2017 directive from the IHC, the parliament took no public action to amend the penal code to make the penalties for false accusations of blasphemy commensurate with those for committing blasphemy, and the PTI withdrew the related bill in September.
Some sources said there were instances in which government entities, including law enforcement entities, were complicit in the practice of initiating blasphemy complaints against neighbors, peers, or business associates to intimidate them or to settle personal grievances. Legal observers also said some police failed to adhere to legal safeguards and basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases. Sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, not a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, as required by law, or a thorough investigation would not be carried out. At the same time, media reports and legal observers said some authorities took steps to protect individuals from unfounded accusations of blasphemy, often at risk to their own safety.
Ahmadiyya leaders continued to report the government hindered Ahmadis from obtaining legal documents and pressured community members to deny their beliefs by requiring individuals wishing to be listed as Muslim on identity cards and passports to swear the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet of Islam and the Ahmadiyya movement’s founder was a false prophet. Ahmadiyya community representatives reported the word “Ahmadi” was written on their passports if they identified themselves as such. According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of prophethood”, something against Ahmadi belief, in order to register as Muslims. Since voters who registered as Ahmadis were kept on a separate voter list, they said they were more exposed to threats and physical intimidation, and many Ahmadis continued their longstanding boycott of the political process by not voting in the July 25 general elections.
Members of the Sikh community reported that although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages, they were seeking a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered part of the Hindu religion. Some local administrative bodies continued to deny Christian and Ahmadi marriage registrations; advocates called for a new law governing Christian marriages, as the existing regulation dated to 1872.
The government continued to fund and facilitate Hajj travel for most Muslims, but Ahmadis were unable to participate in the Hajj, community leaders said, because of passport application requirements to list religious affiliation and denounce the Ahmadiyya prophet.
The government continued to prohibit citizens, regardless of religious affiliation, from traveling to Israel. Representatives of the Baha’i community said this policy particularly affected them because the Baha’i World Center – the spiritual and administrative center of the community – was located in Israel.
According to media reports and law enforcement contacts, in the weeks leading up to and during the Islamic month of Muharram – religiously significant for Shia Muslims – authorities at the federal and provincial levels restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4. According to civil society and media reports, the government restricted the movement and activities of these individuals because they were known for exacerbating sectarian tensions. Provincial governments deployed hundreds of thousands of police and other security personnel to protect Shia religious ceremonies across the country during the commemoration of Ashura, which passed peacefully for the second year in a row.
Religious minority leaders continued to state the system of selecting minority parliamentarians through the internal deliberations of mainstream parties resulted in the appointment of party stalwarts or those who could afford to “buy the seats,” rather than legislators who genuinely represented minority communities. They also stated the system discouraged the election of minority women, who were rarely in a position of sufficient influence within the major political parties to contend for a seat. In the July 25 general elections, Mahesh Kumar Malani became the first Hindu to be directly elected to the National Assembly rather than picked for a reserved seat, 16 years after non-Muslims won the right to vote and contest for general seats. Another Hindu candidate, Hari Ram Kishori Lal, was directly elected to the Sindh Provincial Assembly in the general elections.
The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that the Prophet Muhammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. In order to seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so as non-Muslims, despite self-identifying as Muslim.
The government continued to permit limited non-Muslim foreign missionary activity and to allow missionaries to proselytize as long as they did not preach against Islam and they acknowledged they were not Muslim. According to the government’s immigration website, it grants visas to foreign missionaries valid from one to two years and allows two entries into the country per year, although only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. Non-Muslim missionaries, some of whom had been working in the country for many years, said they continued to be denied visas, given short extensions, or received no response from immigration authorities before their visas expired. Others were allowed to remain in the country while appeals of their denials were pending.
The government continued its campaign against blasphemy on social media, although with less intensity than in 2017. Media observers reported a decline in political statements and in the number of text messages sent by the PTA warning them that uploading or sharing blasphemous content on social media were punishable offenses under the law. The decline in political rhetoric and official warnings corresponded with the conclusion of general elections on July 25; however, the broader crackdown on online blasphemous content continued. In July the Senate directed the PTA to immediately block all websites and pages containing blasphemous material, due to what was reported to be increased concern regarding blasphemous content on social media. In a 2017-2018 report, the PTA stated it had blocked 31,963 websites for containing blasphemous material. Human rights activists continued to express concern the government would use this initiative as a pretext to suppress views on the internet that differed from those of the government, including on religious issues.
According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.
According to Ahmadiyya community members, Ahmadi mosques previously sealed by the government and later demolished remained sealed and unrepaired.
Legal experts and NGOs continued to state that the full legal framework for minority rights remained unclear. While the Ministry of Law and Justice was officially responsible for ensuring the legal rights of all citizens, in practice the Ministry for Human Rights assumed primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations into allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests.
Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the federal Ministry of Law and Justice, as well as by the federal Ministry of Human Rights and its provincial counterparts. They also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadiyya Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadiyya Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.
Legal observers continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, which led to some convicted persons spending years in jail before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, lower courts reportedly continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups such as the TLP often threatening the defendant’s attorneys, family members, and supporters. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to free defendants on bail or acquit them persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely in an effort to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.
In January then-Minister of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony Sardar Muhammad Yousuf declared 2018 the year of “Khatm-e-Nabuwat” (finality of the Prophet), a theological declaration frequently used to target Ahmadi Muslims. The minister called for seminaries and universities to establish “Khatm-e-Nabuwat chairs” and elevate the topic in their curricula. Multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat conferences held in Lahore in January, March, and November, as well as in Islamabad and at other religious sites around the country, attracted politicians and government officials. According to media reports, Prime Minister Khan spoke at Khatm-e-Nabuwat conferences in Islamabad in January and October. On March 8, Yousuf and several Islamic clerics attended another Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Lahore’s Badshahi Mosque.
Minority religious leaders stated members of their communities continued to experience discrimination in admission to colleges and universities. Ahmadi representatives said the wording of the declaration students needed to sign on their applications for admission to university continued to prevent Ahmadis from declaring themselves as Muslims. Their refusal to sign the statement meant they were automatically disqualified from fulfilling the admissions requirements. The government said Ahmadis could qualify for admission as long as they did not claim to be Muslims. Ahmadiyya community leaders reported an Ahmadi graduate student was expelled from the National Institute of Biotechnology in September after not disclosing her religious affiliation at her initial admission.
Religious minority community members stated public schools gave Muslim students bonus grade points for memorizing the Quran, but there were no analogous opportunities for extra academic credit available for religious minority students.
Most religious minority groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. While there remained a 5 percent quota for hiring religious minorities at the federal level, minority organizations said government employers did not enforce it. According to religious minority members and media reports, provincial governments in Punjab, Sindh, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also failed to meet such quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service. Minority rights activists said almost all government job advertisements for janitorial staff listed being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting.
Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions. Although there were no official obstacles to advancement of minority religious group members in the military service, they said in practice non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.