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Afghanistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but stipulates followers of religions other than Islam may exercise their faith within the limits of the law. Conversion from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy, punishable by death, imprisonment, or confiscation of property, according to the Sunni Islam Hanafi school of jurisprudence. The constitution states the Hanafi school of jurisprudence shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case.” The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. Representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say the government’s provision of security in Shia-predominant areas was insufficient. Shia representatives said they saw no increase in Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) protection; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the Shia community ahead of large Shia gatherings. Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) in March that targeted Sikhs and killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of the lack of security and insufficient government protection. According to the Hindu and Sikh communities, their members continued to avoid settling commercial and civil disputes in the courts due to fear of retaliation by the local community and instead chose to settle disputes through community councils.

There were reports that ISIS-K, an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, continued to target and kill members of minority religious communities and that the Taliban targeted and killed individuals because of their religious beliefs or their links to the government. During the year, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other antigovernment elements targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019 – causing 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. According UNAMA, consistent with trends observed in the past four years, many of the suicide and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on civilians targeted Shia Muslims, particularly ethnic Hazaras. Two major attacks on the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, two gunmen opened fire on participants, primarily Shia Hazara, attending a commemorative ceremony in Kabul, killing 32; ISIS-K claimed responsibility. On May 12, three gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and health-care workers; no group claimed responsibility, although the government believed ISIS-K was responsible. On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara (house of worship and community gathering place) in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one person. Police also found and defused two other IEDs targeting Sikhs on March 26 and 27. The Taliban continued to kill or issue death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to its interpretation of Islam. Taliban gunmen killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country. The Taliban continued to warn mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. Media reported an Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission statement that on June 19, Taliban physically abused and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing funeral rites for a local police commander. Insurgents claiming affiliation with ISIS-K reportedly engaged in similar activities. According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted Sunni mosques, including attacking two mosques in June, leading to the deaths of two imams and other worshippers. During the year, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minority groups reported verbal harassment by some Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public. Hindus and Sikhs said their children were harassed by fellow students in public schools, sometimes to the point that parents withdrew them from classes. According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. Christian groups reported public sentiment, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile towards converts and to Christian proselytization. They said individuals who converted or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members. Christians and Ahmadi Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution. One mullah in Herat reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia; authorities did not restrain his activities, citing the need to focus on the Taliban. Women of several different faiths reported continued harassment by local Muslim religious leaders over their attire, which they said made it necessary for almost all women, both local and foreign, to wear some form of head covering. Observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as music concerts, they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine. According to minority religious leaders, due to the small size of their communities, only a few places of worship remained open for Sikhs and Hindus, who said they continued to emigrate because of violent attacks on the community, societal discrimination, and lack of employment opportunities. Hindu and Sikh groups also reported continued interference with efforts to cremate the remains of their dead, in accordance with their customs, by individuals who lived near cremation sites. Despite requesting and receiving local authority support for security during their cremation ceremonies, the Hindu and Sikh communities continued to face protests and threats of violence that prevented them from carrying out the sacred practice. Before every cremation ceremony, the community requested the support of police, who sent security forces to the area to help avoid any disturbance. According to members of the community, at year’s end, approximately 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year.

U.S. Embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. To enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism, facilitate creation of a national strategy against such extremism, and create policies to foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), among other government agencies. The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers. Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost Province with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. The embassy used virtual platforms to engage communities so these discussions could continue despite COVID-19 restrictions. The embassy continued to sponsor programs for religious leaders to increase interreligious dialogue, identify ways to counter violent religious extremism, empower female religious leaders, and promote tolerance for religious diversity. The embassy also used social media to condemn attacks on places of worship.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 36.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). There are no reliable statistics available concerning the percentages of Sunni and Shia Muslims in the country; the government’s Central Statistics Office does not track disaggregated population data. According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent of the population.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but it also includes Ismailis. Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population. According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 400 members of the Sikh community remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 600 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017. Most of the community is located in Kabul, with smaller groups in Nangarhar and Ghazni Provinces. Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Afghan Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadi Muslim community estimates it has 450 adherents nationwide, down from 600 in 2017. Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available. There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions, including at least one Jew.

Hazaras live predominantly in the central and western provinces as well as in Kabul; Ismaili Muslims live mainly in Kabul and in the central and northern provinces. Followers of the Baha’i faith live predominantly in Kabul, with a small community in Kandahar. Ahmadi Muslims largely live in Kabul.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam the official state religion and says no law may contravene the tenets and provisions of the “sacred religion of Islam.” It further states there shall be no amendment to the constitution’s provisions with respect to adherence to the fundamentals of Islam. According to the constitution, followers of religions other than Islam are “free to exercise their faith and perform their religious rites within the limits of the provisions of the law.”

The penal code contains provisions that criminalize verbal and physical assaults on religion and protects individuals’ right to exercise their beliefs for any religion. The penal code includes punishments for verbal and physical assaults on a follower of any religion and punishment for insults or distortions directed towards Islam, including in cyberspace. An article in the penal code specifies what constitutes an insult to religion, stating, “A person who intentionally insults a religion or disrupts its rites or destroys its permitted places of worship shall be deemed as a perpetrator of the crime of insulting religions and shall be punished according to provisions of this chapter.” The penal code specifies that deliberate insults or distortions directed towards Islamic beliefs or laws carry a prison sentence of one to five years and specifies imprisonment for persons using a computer system, program, or data to insult Islam.

Another article of the penal code states persons who forcibly stop the conduct of rituals of any religion, destroy or damage “permitted places of worship” (a term not defined by the code) where religious rituals are conducted, or destroy or damage any sign or symbol of any religion are subject to imprisonment of three months to one year or a fine ranging from 30,000 to 60,000 afghanis ($390-$780). In cases where killings or physical injury result from the disturbance of religious rites or ceremonies, the accused individual is tried according to crimes of murder and physical injury as defined by law.

While apostasy is not specifically provided for under the penal code, it falls under the seven offenses making up hudood crimes as defined by sharia. According to the penal code, perpetrators of hudood crimes are punished according to sharia as interpreted by the Sunni school of Hanafi jurisprudence. According to Sunni Hanafi jurisprudence, which the constitution states shall apply “if there is no provision in the constitution or other laws about a case,” beheading is appropriate for male apostates, while life imprisonment is appropriate for female apostates, unless the individual repents. A judge may also impose a lesser penalty, such as short-term imprisonment or lashes, if doubt about the apostasy exists. Under Hanafi jurisprudence, the government may also confiscate the property of apostates or prevent apostates from inheriting property. This guidance applies to individuals who are of sound mind and have reached the age of maturity. Civil law states the age of maturity for citizens is 18, although it is 16 for females with regard to marriage. Islamic law defines age of maturity as the point at which one shows signs of puberty, and puberty is usually applied as the marriageable age, particularly for girls.

Conversion from Islam to another religion is apostasy according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence applicable in the courts. If someone converts to another religion from Islam, he or she shall have three days to recant the conversion. If the person does not recant, then he or she shall be subject to the punishment for apostasy. Proselytizing to try to convert individuals from Islam to another religion is also illegal according to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which is applied in the courts. Those accused of proselytizing are subject to the same punishment as those who convert from Islam.

Blasphemy, which may include anti-Islamic writings or speech, is a capital crime according to the Hanafi school. Accused blasphemers, like apostates, have three days to recant or face death, although there is no clear process for recanting under sharia. Some hadiths (sayings or traditions that serve as a source of Islamic law or guidance) suggest discussion and negotiation with an apostate to encourage the apostate to recant.

According to a 2007 ruling from the General Directorate of Fatwas and Accounts under the Supreme Court, the Baha’i Faith is distinct from Islam and is a form of blasphemy. All Muslims who convert to it are considered apostates; Baha’is are labeled infidels by other Muslims.

Licensing and registration of religious groups by the MOHRA are not required. Registration as a group (which gives the group the status of a council, known as a shura) or an association conveys official recognition and the benefit of government provision of facilities for seminars and conferences. By law, anyone who is 18 years of age or older may establish a social or political organization. Such an entity must have a central office as well as a charter consistent with domestic laws. Both groups and associations may register with the Ministry of Justice. The ministry may dissolve such organizations through a judicial order. Groups recognized as shuras may cooperate with one another on religious issues. Associations may conduct business with the government or the society as a whole.

A mass media law prohibits the production, reproduction, printing, and publishing of works and materials contrary to the principles of Islam or offensive to other religions and denominations. It also prohibits publicizing and promoting religions other than Islam and bans articles on any topic the government deems might harm the physical, spiritual, and moral well-being of persons, especially children and adolescents. The law instructs National Radio and Television Afghanistan, a government agency, to provide broadcasting content reflecting the religious beliefs of all ethnic groups in the country, all based on Islam. Some radio stations provide religious programming for Sunni Muslims, and a smaller number of radio stations provide religious programming for Shia Muslims. The law also obligates the agency to adjust its programs to reflect Islamic principles as well as national and spiritual values.

According to the constitution, the “state shall devise and implement a unified educational curriculum based on the provisions of the sacred religion of Islam, national culture, as well as academic principles” and develop courses on religion based on the “Islamic sects” in the country. The national curriculum includes materials designed separately for Sunni-majority schools and Shia-majority schools as well as textbooks that emphasize nonviolent Islamic terms and principles. The curriculum includes courses on Islam but not on other religions. Non-Muslims are not required to study Islam in public schools, but there are no alternatives offered. The registration process for madrassahs requires a school to demonstrate it has suitable buildings, classrooms, accredited teachers, and dormitories if students live on campus. MOHRA registers madrassahs collocated with mosques, while the Ministry of Education registers madrassahs not associated with mosques. In MOHRA-registered madrassahs, students receive instruction, with one imam teaching approximately 50 to 70 children studying at various levels. Only certificates issued by registered madrassahs allow students to pursue higher education at government universities.

According to the law, all funds contributed to madrassahs by private or international sources must be channeled through the Ministry of Education.

The civil and penal codes derive their authority from the constitution. The constitution stipulates the courts shall apply constitutional provisions as well as the law in ruling on cases. For instances in which neither the constitution nor the penal or civil codes addresses a specific case, the constitution declares the courts may apply Hanafi jurisprudence within the limits set by the constitution to attain justice. The constitution also allows courts to apply Shia law in cases involving Shia followers. Non-Muslims may not provide testimony in matters requiring Hanafi jurisprudence. The constitution makes no mention of separate laws applying to non-Muslims.

A Muslim man may marry a non-Muslim woman, but the woman must first convert if she is not an adherent of one of the other two Abrahamic faiths – Christianity or Judaism. It is illegal for a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man.

The government’s national identity cards indicate an individual’s religion as well as nationality, tribe, and ethnicity. Individuals are not required to declare belief in Islam to receive citizenship.

The constitution requires the President and two Vice Presidents to be Muslim. Other senior officials (ministers, members of parliament, judges) must swear allegiance and obedience to the principles of Islam as part of their oath of office.

The constitution allows the formation of political parties, provided the program and charter of a party are “not contrary to the principles of the sacred religion of Islam.” The constitution states political parties may not be based on sectarianism.

The law mandates an additional seat in parliament’s lower house be reserved for a member of the Hindu or Sikh communities. The person occupying the seat is not obliged to swear allegiance to Islam, only to obey the law and serve all citizens and the state.

MOHRA is responsible for managing Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, revenue collection for religious activities, acquisition of property for religious purposes, issuance of fatwas, educational testing of imams, sermon preparation and distribution for government-supported mosques, and raising public awareness of religious issues.

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

Government Practices

Media reported and representatives from the predominantly Shia Hazara community continued to say government security and development initiatives in Shia-predominant areas were insufficient, merely symbolic measures – and that the government failed to implement effective measures to protect the community, including from nonstate actors. Members of the Shia community reported they saw no increase in ANDSF protection during the year; however, they said the government distributed arms directly to the community ahead of large Shia gatherings. The Ministry of Interior again promised to increase security around Shia mosques and authorized the arming of Shia civilians under police authority to provide extra security for the Ashura commemoration. According to media reports, security forces took special precautions to reduce street traffic in the affected neighborhoods of Kabul during the Ashura commemoration period. There were no reports of violence during Ashura processions.

Following a series of deadly attacks by ISIS-K in March that killed 25 persons, approximately 200 members of the Sikh community departed the country for India, indicating they left because of lack of security and insufficient government protection.

There were no reports of government prosecutions for blasphemy or apostasy; however, individuals converting from Islam reported they continued to risk annulment of their marriages, rejection by their families and communities, loss of employment, and possibly the death penalty. Baha’is continued to be labeled as “infidels” by many Muslims, although they were not always considered converts from Islam (apostates); as such, they were not charged with either crime.

MOHRA officials said the ministry had no official statistics on the number of mullahs and mosques in the country because it lacked the financial resources to generate a comprehensive registry, but they estimated there were approximately 160,000 mosques. MOHRA reported that at year’s end, of the approximately 120,000 mullahs in the country, 7,000 mullahs were registered with and paid by MOHRA. They said registered mullahs working directly for MOHRA continued to receive monthly salaries of between 7,710 and 15,420 afghanis ($100-$200) from the government, depending on their location, the size of their congregation, and the knowledge of the mullah. MOHRA reported that just 7,000 mosques in the country were registered with the ministry.

MOHRA reported it continued to allocate approximately 65 percent of its budget (188 million afghanis – $2.44 million) for the construction of new mosques, although local groups remained the source of most of the funds for the new mosques. Unless the local groups requested financial or other assistance from the ministry, they were not required to inform the ministry about new construction.

Hindu and Sikh groups again reported they remained free to build places of worship and to train other Hindus and Sikhs to become clergy but not to spread information about their religion or encourage others to practice it. Hindu and Sikh community members said they continued to avoid pursuing commercial and civil disputes in the courts for fear of retaliation and that they avoided pursuing land disputes through the courts for the same reason, especially if powerful local leaders occupied their property.

Although the government provided land to use as cremation sites, Sikh leaders stated the distance from any major urban area and the lack of security continued to make the land unusable. Hindus and Sikhs also reported that individuals who lived near the cremation site continued to interfere with their efforts to cremate the remains of their dead. In response, the government continued to provide police support to protect the Sikh and Hindu communities while they performed their cremation rituals. The government allocated 80 million afghanis ($1.04 million) for the repair of places of worship, including for Sikh and Hindu sites, of which 40 million afghanis ($520,000) were expended as of October 2020. Community leaders reported that MOHRA provided free water and electricity and was making efforts to provide repair services for a few remaining Sikh and Hindu temples.

According to MOHRA, due to insecurity, the ministry did not have access to most of the country, especially in districts, villages, and rural areas. MOHRA officials said there were hundreds or thousands of unregistered mosques and madrassahs located in Taliban-controlled areas. They said that in rural areas and most villages, mosques were used as madrassahs and that because most mosques were not registered, most madrassahs were not either. In November, the First Vice President, Amrullah Saleh, ordered the Central Statistics Office to register all teachers and students of the 362 madrassahs in Kabul City and of the 130 madrassahs in the other districts of Kabul Province. Once registration was complete in Kabul Province, the office was expected to conduct the same process throughout the country. According to MOHRA, there was no system or mechanism for opening a new madrassah, particularly at the district level and in villages. MOHRA officials said it did not have a database or information on the number of madrassahs or mosques, except for information on the number of mosques located at provincial or district centers with imams on the MOHRA’s payroll. According to media reporting, there were approximately 5,000 madrassahs and “Quran learning centers” throughout the country registered with MOHRA. More than 300,000 students were enrolled in these registered madrassahs during the year, mostly in Kabul, Balkh, Nangarhar, and Herat Provinces, according to MOHRA’s estimates. The government stated that because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not have sufficient resources to consolidate data on the enrollment of students in religious institutions.

MOHRA officials said the government continued its efforts to raise awareness of the benefits of registering madrassahs, including recognition of graduation certificates and financial and material assistance, such as furniture or stationery. Government officials said they were concerned about their inability to supervise unregistered madrassas that could teach violent extremist curricula intolerant of religious minorities and become recruitment centers for antigovernment groups.

Mosques continued to handle primary-level religious studies. Approximately 80 Ministry of Education-registered public madrassahs offered two-year degree programs at the secondary level. An estimated 1,000 public madrassahs were registered with the ministry, each receiving financial support from the government. There were no estimates of the number of unregistered madrassas available.

Members of the Ulema Council, the highest religious body in the country, continued to receive financial support from the state, although it officially remained independent from the government. The council also provided advice to some provincial governments; however, according to scholars and NGOs, most legal decision making in villages and rural areas continued to be based on local interpretations of Islamic law and tradition. President Ashraf Ghani held meetings with Ulema Council members on promoting intrafaith tolerance and “moderate practices” of Islam.

Minority religious groups reported the courts continued not to apply the protections provided to those groups by law, and the courts denied non-Muslims equal access to the courts and other legal redress, even when the non-Muslims were legally entitled to those same rights.

Representatives from non-Muslim religious minorities, including Sikhs and Hindus, reported a consistent pattern of discrimination at all levels of the justice system. As Taliban representatives engaged in peace process discussions, some Sikhs and Hindus expressed concern that in a postconflict environment they might be required to wear yellow (forehead) dots, badges, or armbands, as the Taliban had mandated during its 1996-2001 rule. Non-Muslims said they continued to risk being tried according to Hanafi jurisprudence. Instead, their members continued to settle disputes within their communities.

Leaders of both Hindu and Sikh communities continued to state they faced discrimination in the judicial system, including long delays in resolving cases, particularly regarding the continued appropriation of Sikh properties.

MOHRA’s office dedicated to assisting religious minorities, specifically Sikhs and Hindus, focused on helping Sikhs and Hindus secure passports and visas so they could permanently leave the country, most often to India.

Some Shia continued to hold senior positions in the government, including Second Vice President Sarwar Danish and a number of deputy ministers, governors, and one member of the Supreme Court, but no cabinet-level positions, unlike in previous years. Shia leaders continued to state the proportion of official positions held by Shia did not reflect their estimate of the country’s demographics, which they attributed to the government’s marginalization of minority groups and the lack of a supportive social environment. Sunni members of the Ulema Council continued to state, however, that Shia were overrepresented in government based on Sunni estimates of the percentage of Shia in the population. According to some observers, Hazaras, who are mostly Shia Muslims, often faced discrimination based on their ethnicity and religion. Some observers also said the country’s Shia were underrepresented in government not because of their religion, but because of their Hazara ethnicity. According to NGOs, the government frequently assigned Hazara police officers to symbolic positions with little authority within the Ministry of Interior. NGOs also reported that Hazara ANDSF officers were more likely than non-Hazara officers to be posted to insecure areas of the country.

A small and decreasing number of Sikhs continued to serve in government positions, including one as a presidentially appointed member of the upper house of parliament, one as an elected member in the lower house, and one as a presidential advisor on Sikh and Hindu affairs.

Three Ismaili Muslims were members of parliament, down one from 2019, and State Minister for Peace Sadat Mansoor Naderi is also an Ismaili Muslim. Ismaili community leaders continued to report concerns about what they called the exclusion of Ismailis from other positions of political authority.

The government continued to support the efforts of judicial, constitutional, and human rights commissions composed of members of different Islamic religious groups (Sunni and Shia) to promote Muslim intrafaith reconciliation. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs and MOHRA continued working toward their stated goal of gaining nationwide acceptance of the practice of allowing women to attend mosques. The Ulema Council, the Islamic Brotherhood Council (a Shia-led initiative with some Sunni members), and MOHRA continued their work on intrafaith reconciliation. On October 25 and November 12, they held meetings in Kabul to address concerns and find areas of mutual cooperation. On October 1, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani organized the country’s first women’s Ulema conference, held in Kabul. Ministry officials and NGOs promoting religious tolerance, however, said it was difficult to continue their programs due to funding and capacity constraints.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to journalists, local observers, and UNAMA, attacks by ISIS-K and other insurgent groups continued to target specific religious and ethnoreligious groups, including the Shia Hazara. During the year, UNAMA documented a reduction from 2019 in civilian casualties from attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers. UNAMA recorded 19 attacks targeting places of worship, religious leaders, and worshippers, compared with 20 attacks in 2019. The attacks caused 115 civilian casualties (60 deaths and 55 injured), compared with 236 civilian casualties (80 deaths and 156 injured) in 2019. The report attributed all the attacks to antigovernment elements.

UNAMA continued to report high levels of ISIS-K-directed, sectarian-motivated violence, primarily targeting the Shia Muslim, mostly ethnic Hazara, population. It documented 10 incidents of sectarian-motivated violence against Shia Muslims, Sufi Muslims, and Sikhs, resulting in 308 civilian casualties (112 killed and 196 injured), compared with 2019 when there were 10 incidents resulting in 485 civilian casualties (117 killed and 368 injured).

Several major attacks against the Shia Hazara community occurred during the year. On March 6, gunmen attacked a ceremony in Kabul attended primarily by Shia Hazara, killing 32 persons; ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On May 12, three unidentified gunmen stormed a maternity clinic in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons, including mothers, infants, and healthcare workers; no group claimed responsibility. On October 24, a suicide bomber staged an attack on an educational center in the same Shia Hazara-dominant neighborhood of Kabul, killing 24 persons and wounding 57. Most of the casualties were between the ages of 15 and 25. ISIS-K claimed responsibility.

On March 25, gunmen attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul, killing 25 and injuring 11 during a six-hour siege. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for this attack. On March 26, an IED detonated during funeral services for the Sikh victims, injuring one. On March 27, police found and defused another IED near the Kabul gurdwara. In the months that followed, many Sikh families departed the country, primarily to India, due to threats against Sikhs and what they perceived to be inadequate government protection.

Progovernment Islamic scholars were killed in attacks for which no group claimed responsibility. Media reported that on January 28, the district director of the Hajj and Religious Department for Pashtun-Zarghon District in Herat Province, Mullah Abdulhamid Ahmadi, was shot and killed by unidentified individuals. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Media reported that on February 2, unidentified gunmen killed one person praying in a Shia mosque in Herat. On February 11, five children were killed and three others wounded when a bomb exploded at their Sunni madrassah in Kunduz Province. All the children were under the age of 14. On May 13, unknown gunmen attacked worshippers praying at a Sunni mosque in Khost Province. One person was killed and another wounded. On May 19, unidentified gunmen killed three persons and wounded another in a Sunni mosque in Khost. Also on May 19, in Parwan Province, gunmen opened fire on worshippers gathered at a Sunni mosque, killing 12, including four children, and wounding six. None of the perpetrators was identified.

On June 18, a bomb killed at least seven students at a seminary in Takhar Province. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, and there was no investigation of the incident by year’s end.

According to media, antigovernment forces also targeted progovernment Sunni mosques. On June 2, a bomb exploded inside the Sunni Wazir Akber Khan Mosque in Kabul, killing the imam and one other worshipper attending evening prayers. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. On June 12, a bomb in the Sunni Sher Shah Suri Mosque in Kabul killed four men gathered for Friday prayers, including the imam. No group claimed responsibility for the attack. Following these attacks on two mosques in June, clerics gathered in Kabul to demand government protection of religious figures. Media reported that the Ministry of Interior said it had assigned a team to investigate the incidents.

The Taliban continued to kill religious leaders and threaten them with death for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam or its political agenda. Media reported that on December 22, the Taliban killed Imam Mawlawi Ghullam Sakhi Khatib in Farah because of his progovernment messaging.

In several cases, the responsibility for attacks on progovernment religious leaders was unclear. In these instances, although no individual or group claimed responsibility, local authorities said they suspected that ISIS-K or, less frequently, the Taliban were responsible. On June 13, an imam in Takhar Province was killed and two of his companions wounded by unidentified gunmen as the imam returned from prayers. No group claimed responsibility. On October 17, a religious scholar was killed by a bomb that exploded inside the seminary where he studied in Nangarhar Province; no group claimed responsibility.

There continued to be reports of the Taliban monitoring the social practices of local populations in areas under their control and imposing punishments on residents according to their interpretation of Islamic law. According to observers, the Taliban applied its interpretation of Islam in conducting a parallel system of justice. In February, in Baghlan Province, the Taliban shot and killed a pregnant woman named Fatima, who was accused of adultery. The man with whom she was reportedly involved escaped. Media reported that on August 4, the Taliban killed a local singer in Takhar Province as he returned home from a wedding because the Taliban considered singing to be prohibited in Islam.

There were again reports of Taliban warnings to mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for government security officials. As a result, according to MOHRA officials, imams continued to state they feared performing funeral rites for members of the ANDSF and other government employees. According to media, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission reported that on June 19, the Taliban tortured and killed the imam of a mosque in Baghlan Province for performing the funeral rites of a local police commander.

According to religious community leaders, some mullahs in unregistered mosques continued to preach in support of the Taliban or ISIS-K in their sermons.

There again were reports of the Taliban taking over schools in areas under their control and imposing their own curricula; however, it was difficult to obtain information in Taliban-controlled territory.

Shia Hazara leaders said the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations in Doha offered a chance for a peaceful future but were concerned a postsettlement Taliban would “turn back the clock” to a time when human rights, including religious freedom, were not respected in Afghanistan. Hazara leaders expressed concern that, if the Taliban established an Islamic emirate in the country, the Taliban would not accept Shia Islam as a formal religion and would ignore laws currently in place that protect Shia. In March, the UN Security Council issued UN Security Council Resolution 2513 noting that the Security Council did not support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The Islamic Republic’s negotiating team for the Afghanistan Peace Negotiations included Shia Hazara representatives.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Since religion and ethnicity in the country are often closely linked, it was often difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity. Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions. Members of the Hindu community reported they faced fewer cases of harassment, including verbal abuse, than Sikhs, which they ascribed to their lack of a distinctive male headdress.

According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians lived in constant fear of exposure and were reluctant to reveal their religious identities to anyone. According to some sources, converts to Christianity and individuals studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members opposed to their interest in Christianity. Christian sources estimated there were “dozens” of Christian missionaries in the country, mostly foreign but some local.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution.

Women of several different faiths, including Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire. As a result, some women said they continued to wear burqas or other modest dress in public in rural areas and in some districts in urban areas, including in Kabul, in contrast to other more secure, government-controlled areas, where women said they felt comfortable not wearing what they considered conservative clothing. Almost all women reported wearing some form of head covering. Some women said they did so by personal choice, but many said they did so due to societal pressure and a desire to avoid harassment and increase their security in public.

Ahmadi Muslims continued to report verbal abuse on the street and harassment when neighbors or coworkers learned of their faith. They said they also faced accusations of being “spies” for communicating with other Ahmadi Muslim community congregations abroad. They said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution. Ahmadis continued to report the increasing need to conceal their identity to avoid unwanted attention in public and their intent to depart the country permanently if there was a peace agreement with the Taliban. Ahmadis said they received direct as well as indirect threats against their safety in the form of notes, telephone messages, and other menacing communications because of their faith. Ahmadis representatives said they did not report these threats to police because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from police and other officials.

Christian representatives continued to report public opinion remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization. They said Christians continued to worship alone or in small congregations, sometimes 10 or fewer persons, in private homes due to fear of societal discrimination and persecution. They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam. The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection. There continued to be no public Christian churches.

According to minority religious leaders, the decreasing numbers of Sikhs, Hindus, and other religious minorities had only a few remaining places of worship. According to the Sikh and Hindu Council, which advocates with the government on behalf of the Sikh and Hindu communities, there were a total of 70 gurdwaras and mandirs (Hindu temples) remaining in the country, although they did not specify how many of each. Buddhist foreigners remained free to worship in Hindu temples. Members of the Hindu and Sikh communities said their complaints over seizures of their places of worship in Ghazni, Herat, Kandahar, Khost, Nangarhar, Paktiya, and Parwan Provinces – some pending since 2016 – remained unresolved at year’s end. The ONSC established a commission to assist in the restoration of these properties, but no further action was taken by year’s end.

Community leaders continued to say they considered the large number of butchers selling beef near a Sikh temple in Kabul a deliberate insult because neighbors were aware that Sikhs and Hindus do not eat beef for religious reasons. Sikh and Hindu leaders again reported neighboring residents tended to place household trash in their temples of worship. Although they filed official complaints to police, neither local authorities nor local imams took action to remedy the situation.

According to members of the Sikh and Hindu communities, they continued to refuse to send their children to public schools due to harassment from other students, although there were only a few private school options available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances. The Sikh and Hindu Council reported one school in Nangarhar and one school in Kabul remained operational. Sikh and Hindu representatives, however, again said these schools lacked capable teachers, books, and other items necessary to teach students.

While in past years Sikh leaders stated the main cause of Sikh emigration was lack of employment opportunities, due in part to illiteracy resulting from lack of access to education, during the year they said threats from antigovernment groups, inadequate government protection, and multiple attacks on the community in March caused many families to emigrate or consider doing so. Many left for India, where international Sikh organizations facilitated their relocation. Sikh leaders said many families in Kabul lived at community temples because they could not afford permanent housing. Both Sikh and Hindu communities stated emigration would increase as economic conditions declined and security concerns increased. Community leaders estimated fewer than 400 members of the Sikh and Hindu community remained in the country at year’s end, down from approximately 600 at the start of the year. They said the departure mirrored events in 2018, when 500 to 600 Sikhs fled the country following a major attack on the community. Some Sikhs and Hindus also reported that they faced frequent calls to convert to Islam.

Media published reports of both Shia and Sunni leaders condemning particular secular events as contrary to Islam; however, there were no prominent reports of joint condemnations. Media reported a cleric in the city of Herat banned public music and concerts, stating that certain television programs and social media platforms were un-Islamic. The cleric enjoyed the support of hundreds of supporters; according to press and other observers, local law enforcement rarely interfered with the cleric’s strict interpretation and enforcement of sharia. The same mullah reportedly detained and punished with beatings more than 100 persons for what he said were violations of sharia, such as women not covering their hair or public contact between unrelated men and women.

Kabul’s lone synagogue remained occupied by the self-proclaimed last remaining Jew in the country, and a nearby abandoned Jewish cemetery was still utilized as an unofficial dump; reportedly many abandoned Islamic cemeteries were also used as dumping sites. The lone Jew said it was becoming more difficult for him to perform his religious rituals. He said that in the past, Jews from international military forces and foreign embassies had attended the synagogue, but they could no longer do so due to security concerns.

Worship facilities for noncitizens of various faiths continued to be located at coalition military facilities and at embassies in Kabul, but security restrictions limited access.

Media continued to report efforts by local Muslim religious leaders to limit social activities they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine, such as education for females or female participation in sports. Women who swam at a private swimming club in Kabul and exercised at a gym in Kandahar told media they experienced harassment from men when going to and from these facilities and sometimes faced the disapproval of their families due to traditional attitudes against women’s participation in sports.

NGOs reported some Muslims remained suspicious of development assistance projects, which they often viewed as surreptitious efforts to advance Christianity or engage in proselytization.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials continued to work with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and why it is important as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities in meetings with senior government officials. In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials continued to promote understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism. Senior embassy officials met with government officials to emphasize the need to accept and protect religious minorities, although COVID-19 restrictions changed the platforms for engagement used by embassy officials, and many discussions were held virtually.

Senior embassy officials met with leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities following the March attacks on the Sikh community to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith. On March 28, senior embassy officials met with Shia Hazara leaders to discuss the peace process and the protection of Afghan ethnic and religious minorities. On October 14, senior embassy officials met virtually with members of the Shia Hazara community to discuss their perspectives on the peace negotiations and how they might affect their community, including religious freedom.

Embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to discuss the issue of ensuring madrassahs did not offer a curriculum encouraging religiously motivated violent extremism, which could foment intolerance towards the country’s religious minorities. The embassy continued to coordinate with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.

Embassy officials held regular meetings with government officials from MOHRA; leaders of religious minorities, including Shias, Sikhs, Hindus, and Ahmadis; imams; scholars; and NGOs to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, especially in the context of peace negotiations. The embassy reaffirmed the U.S. government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and tolerance. It coordinated events with researchers and religious scholars throughout the provinces to discuss religion as an avenue to promote tolerance. On February 17, embassy officials conducted a discussion via the Lincoln Learning Center in Khost with students, civil activists, and youth to explore how religious freedom is promoted in the United States. On February 20, representatives of the Lincoln Learning Center in Gardiz visited the Sikh minority community of Gardiz to highlight interfaith tolerance. On May 21, the Lincoln Learning Center network hosted a speaker who shared his personal experience about how Muslim Americans observe Ramadan in the United States. In addition, in the context of the connections between ethnicity and religious identities in the country, embassy officials hosted panel discussions to analyze antiracism efforts through an Islamic lens.

The embassy hosted in-person and virtual roundtables with researchers, Sunni and Shia religious scholars, Ulema Council members, including members of the Women’s Ulema, and MOHRA representatives to discuss means to counter violent extremism related to religion and to promote tolerance.

The embassy also used social media to support religious freedom. On January 16, U.S. Religious Freedom Day, the embassy highlighted on Twitter and Facebook a roundtable with faith communities that centered on how tolerance promotes peace and underscored the U.S. government’s support for religious freedom. Senior Department of State officials condemned the late March attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul through tweets and media statements. In drawing attention to diversity in June, the Charge d’Affaires shared a quote on social media expressing U.S. commitment to stand with an Afghanistan that promotes freedoms for all its citizens, including in following their faith. The Charge d’Affaires condemned through Twitter the June 2 attack on a Kabul mosque that resulted in the death of its imam and other worshippers.

Algeria

Executive Summary

The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship. The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam. The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations. Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense. Proselytizing to Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime. In a constitutional referendum passed on November 1 and effective December 30, voters approved a new constitution that removes language providing for “freedom of conscience.” Christian leaders expressed concern the change could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities. In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law. In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi Muslim leader to two years’ imprisonment on “unauthorized gathering” charges that followed a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. On December 22, a court in Tizi Ouzou sentenced four Ahmadis to two months’ suspended sentences and 20,000-dinar ($150) fines while releasing 27 other Ahmadis whom authorities arrested in November. Lawyers for the Ahmadis said their clients were arrested for “disseminating leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” There were 220 cases pertaining to Ahmadi Muslims pending with the Supreme Court at year’s end, mostly involving unauthorized gatherings. Ahmadi religious leaders said the government continued to be unresponsive to religious groups’ requests to register or reregister. The Ministry of Justice completed, but did not release, an investigation into the 2019 death following a 60-day hunger strike in pretrial detention of Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar. A court sentenced a prominent opposition leader active in mass popular demonstrations (known as the hirak) to 10 years in prison and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600) on charges of denigrating Islam following a raid on his house, during which police found a damaged Quran. The 18 Christian churches affiliated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) and closed by the government since 2017 all remain closed. Catholic foreign religious workers faced visa delays and refusals that hindered the Church’s work. Catholic leaders in Algiers reported the government refused to renew the residency permit of a Catholic priest in Tamanrasset, citing a meeting with foreign officials.

Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity. Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media. In April, the press reported that the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.” Media sometimes criticized Ahmadi Islam and Shia Islam as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign.” Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they consider government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed with them the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. Embassy officers focused on pluralism and religious moderation in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups as well as with other members of the public. The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance, although COVID-19 pandemic restrictions curtailed some of these activities during the year.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school. Religious groups together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia. Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians. Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000. According to the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern, there are approximately 600,000 Christians. According to government officials and religious leaders, foreign residents make up most of the Christian population. Among the Christian population, the proportion of students and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa without legal status has also increased in recent years. Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in Algiers and the Provinces of Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, Ouargla, and Oran.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from engaging in behavior incompatible with Islamic values. The 2016 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable. The new constitution, passed in a November 1 national referendum and effective December 30, removed language from the previous constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience. The previous constitution says, “Freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion shall be inviolable. Freedom of worship shall be guaranteed in compliance with the law.” The new constitution’s language reads, “The freedom of opinion is inviolable. The freedom to exercise worship is guaranteed if it is exercised in accordance with the law. The state ensures the protection of places of worship from any political or ideological influence.”

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense. The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,600) and five years’ imprisonment for anyone who “incites, constrains, or utilizes means of seduction intending to convert a Muslim to another religion; or by using establishments of teaching, education, health, social, culture, training…or any financial means.” Making, storing, or distributing printed documents or audiovisual materials with the intent of “shaking the faith” of a Muslim is also illegal and subject to the same penalties.

The law criminalizes “offending the Prophet Muhammad” or any other prophets. The penal code provides punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($380-$760) for denigrating the creed or prophets of Islam through writing, drawing, declaration, or any other means. The law also criminalizes insults directed at any other religion, with the same penalties.

The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion if they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review. The President appoints the members of the council and oversees its work. The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the President on its activities. A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals and correct understanding of the religion. The council may issue fatwas at the request of the President.

The law requires any group, religious or otherwise, to register with the government as an association prior to conducting any activities. Under the Associations Law passed in 2012, the government required all organizations previously registered to reregister. The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized. The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; provide police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; demonstrate they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters.

The law requires the Ministry of Interior to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all required documentation. The ministry has 60 days to respond to applicants following the submission of a completed application. If the ministry does not respond within the 60-day timeframe, the application is automatically approved, and the receipt may be used as proof of registration. If the ministry considers the application incomplete, it does not issue a receipt for the application. The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal. For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers. An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) has the right to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision. The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.

The National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, a government entity, facilitates the registration process for all non-Muslim groups. The MRA presides over the committee, composed of senior representatives of the Ministries of National Defense, Interior, and Foreign Affairs; the presidency; national police; national gendarmerie; and the governmental National Human Rights Council (CNDH).

The constitution requires a presidential candidate to be Muslim. Under the law, non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

The law prohibits religious associations from receiving funding from political parties or foreign entities. The constitution prohibits the establishment of political parties based on religion. Membership in the Islamic Salvation Front, a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place. The law states that religious demonstrations are subject to regulation, and the government may shut down any religious service taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval. Except for daily prayers, which are permissible anywhere, Islamic services may take place only in state-sanctioned mosques. Friday prayers are further limited to certain specified mosques.

Non-Islamic religious services must take place only in buildings registered with the state for the exclusive purpose of religious practice, be run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior. A request for permission to observe special non-Islamic religious events must be submitted to the relevant governor at least five days before the event, and the event must occur in buildings accessible to the public. Requests must include information on three principal organizers of the event, its purpose, the number of attendees anticipated, a schedule of events, and its planned location. The individuals identified as the event’s organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali. The wali may request the organizers move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would endanger public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or “symbols of the revolution.” If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, police may disperse the participants. Individuals who fail to disperse at the behest of police are subject to arrest and a prison term of two to 12 months under the penal code.

The penal code states only government-authorized imams, whom the state hires and trains, may lead prayers in mosques and penalizes anyone else who preaches in a mosque with a fine of up to 100,000 dinars ($760) and a prison sentence of one to three years. Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,500) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge.” The law states that such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

By law, the MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel as well as for health care and retirement benefits. The law also provides for the payment of salaries and benefits to non-Muslim religious leaders who are citizens. The Ministry of Labor regulates the amount of an individual imam’s or mosque employee’s pay and likewise sets the salaries of citizen non-Muslim religious leaders based on their position within their individual churches.

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts and items, except those intended for personal use. Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.

The law gives authorities broad power to ban books that run counter to the constitution, “the Muslim religion and other religions, national sovereignty and unity, the national identity and cultural values of society, national security and defense concerns, public order concerns, and the dignity of the human being and individual and collective rights.” A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran. The decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information about the applicant and text. The ministry has three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application. A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.” The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days. A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection. Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

The law states the government must approve any modification of structures intended for non-Islamic collective worship.

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam, although authorities do not always enforce this provision. The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women. Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion. In the event of a divorce, a court determines the custody of any children.

The Ministries of National Education and Religious Affairs require, regulate, and fund the study of Islam in public schools. Religious education focuses on Islamic studies but includes information on Christianity and Judaism and is mandatory at the primary and secondary school levels. The Ministry of National Education requires private schools to adhere to curricula in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam, or risk closure.

The law states discrimination based on religion is prohibited and guarantees state protection for non-Muslims and for the “toleration and respect of different religions.” It does not prescribe penalties for religious discrimination.

In April, the government passed a hate speech law outlawing all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination. Expression related to religious belief or affiliation, however, was not among the categories covered by the law.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom. The law authorizes the CNDH to conduct investigations of alleged abuses, issue opinions and recommendations, conduct awareness campaigns, and work with other government authorities to address human rights issues. The CNDH may address religious concerns to appropriate government offices on behalf of individuals or groups it believes are not being treated fairly. The CNDH does not have the authority to enforce its decisions, but may refer matters to the relevant administrative or criminal court. It submits an annual report to the President, who appoints the committee’s members.

The government does not register religious affiliations of the citizenry and does not print religious affiliations on documents such as national identification cards.

By law, individuals who convert from Islam to another religion are ineligible to receive an inheritance via succession.

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

Government Practices

The government continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups. According to media reports, authorities continued to arrest, jail, and fine Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities unrelated to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

Mohamed Fali, the former head of the country’s Ahmadi Muslim community, remained in Morocco, having fled there to seek asylum in December 2019. He told the online Moroccan news outlet Yabiladi that he fled to escape religious persecution from the MRA and Ministry of Justice and said he had seven pending charges related to his faith. In September 2017, authorities arrested and charged Fali with unauthorized fundraising, insulting the Prophet Muhammad, and forming an unauthorized association. Courts convicted Fali and sentenced him to a six-month suspended prison term. Authorities seized his passport upon his conviction, but the government returned it in 2019, and he fled the country.

In October, authorities sentenced an Ahmadi leader to two years imprisonment for charges related to a 2018 meeting between Ahmadi leaders and police officers in Constantine. Authorities agreed to the officers’ meeting with the Ahmadi leaders at that time, but then arrested all seven of the Ahmadi participants on charges of “unauthorized gathering” after the meeting ended. In response, the Ahmadis said that they are nonviolent Muslims who want to cooperate with the government and that the meeting was intended to open a dialogue between Ahmadis and the government. In December, authorities convicted the other six Ahmadi Muslims of the same offenses.

On November 24, a court in Tizi Ouzou summoned a group of 31 Ahmadi Muslims for what their lawyers described as “the dissemination of leaflets with the aim of undermining the national interest, the occupation of a building for the practice of worship in a secret manner without authorization, collecting funds and donations without authorization, and preaching inside a building without authorization and without approval.” The lawyers said that authorities had arrested their clients for their Ahmadi beliefs. In the December 22 trial, the court sentenced four of the defendants to two-month suspended prison terms and fines of 20,000 dinars ($150) while releasing the remaining 27 Ahmadis.

In August, Ahmadi leaders reported authorities summoned a member of their community in Adrar and questioned him about his religious beliefs. Police searched his home and confiscated his computer, telephone, personal notes, and his Quran, which the authorities held as evidence for a future trial on unspecified charges.

On September 30, police searched the home of well-known opposition hirak activist Yacine Mebarki and arrested him after finding an old copy of the Quran with one of its pages ripped. The police charged Mebarki in connection with the damaged Quran, accusing him of inciting atheism, offending or denigrating the dogma and precepts of Islam, and undermining national unity. On October 8, a court sentenced Mebarki to 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 million dinars ($75,600). His lawyers said Mebarki stated he was a Muslim advocating for secularism and democracy.

In April, authorities arrested Hirak activist Walid Kechida in Setif Province and charged him with insulting the President and “offending the precepts of Islam” on Facebook. The government referred his case to the criminal court for trial. At year’s end, he remained in detention awaiting trial.

On December 15, a court in Amizour convicted Abdelghani Mameri, a Copt who promoted Christianity, for insulting the Prophet Muhammad and denigrating Islam. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($760). On December 3, the same court tried Mabrouk Bouakkaz, also known as Yuva, who was a Christian convert. The prosecution asked for a sentence of six months in prison and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,500) on the same charges as Mameri. According to social media, on December 17, the court sentenced Bouakkaz to three years imprisonment.

Ahmadi leaders stated there were 220 cases against community members pending with the Supreme Court at the end of the year. Charges included insulting the Prophet Muhammad, operating and belonging to an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, burning the Quran, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations. Community representatives said that in some cases, police confiscated passports, educational diplomas, and approximately 40 laptops and 400 books. Among these cases, employers placed Ahmadi Muslims who were under investigation on administrative leave, and the government dismissed 20 public sector teachers and doctors. Ahmadi representatives stated they believed these individuals would appear before the Supreme Court in the next three to six years and that in the meantime, they would be prohibited from working. The government confined Ahmadi Muslims with pending cases to their wilayas and required they physically report to the local court once a week.

During the year, the Ministry of Justice completed an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of prominent Berber Ibadi Muslim human rights activist Kamel Eddine Fekhar in 2019 but did not release the findings publicly. Fekhar died following a nearly 60-day hunger strike while in pretrial detention. Authorities arrested him on charges of “incitement of racial hatred” for a Facebook post in which he accused local officials in Ghardaia of discriminatory practices against Ibadi Muslims.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging the completed registration application submitted by the community to the government in 2012, to reregister the group under the 2012 Associations Law. Ahmadis also reported they had not received a government response to their outstanding 2018 request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns.

The Ahmadi community continued to report administrative difficulties and harassment since the community is not a registered association and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations. Members of the community said, after their initial attempt in 2012, the community again tried to reregister with the MRA and Ministry of Interior as a Muslim group in 2016 and in 2020, but the government refused to accept those applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims. The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis said they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church had yet to receive responses from the Ministry of Interior regarding their 2012 applications to renew their registrations. Both groups submitted paperwork to renew the registrations that had been issued prior to the passage of the 2012 Associations Law. According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 application in 2015 and 2016 but was never reregistered despite several follow-ups with the government. Neither church received receipts for their registration attempts.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received a Ministry of Interior confirmation. Such groups stated, however, that service providers such as utilities and banks refused to provide services without proof of registration. As a result, these groups faced the same administrative obstacles as unregistered associations. They also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Numerous Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Committee for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration. A Christian NGO and Christian publication said there was no indication that the committee had ever met. They again stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment; the leaders attributed this to the emphasis of some Protestant groups on proselytizing and conversion, as well as to the EPA’s primarily Algerian composition.

The MRA said it does not view Ibadis as a minority group and considers the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community. Muslim scholars affirmed Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

In January, Morning Star News reported that a pastor of an Oran church affiliated with the EPA received an order to close the church on January 11. Authorities originally ordered the church closed in 2017 because it was not registered with the government as an association. Following appeals, a court issued a judgment to close the church on November 10 but had not delivered the order to the church by year’s end, according to the pastor.

According to media reports and EPA statements, since 2017 the government closed at least 18 EPA churches, all of which remained closed. In August, the administrative court rejected the EPA’s request to reopen the EPA-affiliated Spring of Life church in Makouda, which the government closed in 2019 for hosting unauthorized gatherings. The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

In December, an international group that described itself as being comprised “of organizations and individuals who are scholars, religious leaders, and human rights advocates” signed a letter to President Abdelmadjid Tebboune regarding “violations of freedom of religion and belief of Christians in Algeria, including closure of numerous churches and a failure to renew the registration of the [EPA].” According to the letter, the government closed 13 churches and ordered seven more to close since 2018 because they lacked the required permit to hold non-Islamic worship services. The letter also stated that the National Committee for Non-Muslim Religious Worship, which is responsible for issuing permits, had not issued a single permit to EPA-affiliated churches.

In March, the government closed all places of worship as part of its COVID-19 response. In August, the MRA reopened larger mosques capable of supporting social distancing measures, although Friday prayer services remained limited to smaller, neighborhood mosques. Catholic and Anglican churches also reopened in August, but the government denied the EPA’s request to reopen its churches, including those which were closed prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In July, the EPA submitted a complaint to the governor of Tizi Ouzou for closing its churches and requested permission to reopen, but local authorities ruled in the governor’s favor and denied the request. Seventh-day Adventists said they intended to reopen when mosques reopened fully.

Pastor Salah Chalah reported that the Protestant Church of the Full Gospel in Tizi Ouzou, which Human Rights Watch described as the largest Protestant church in the country, remained closed. Police closed the church in October 2019.

Some Christian citizens said they continued to use homes or businesses as “house churches” due to government delays in issuing the necessary legal authorizations. Other Christian groups, particularly in the country’s primarily Berber Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab. Authorities continued to instruct some female government employees, such as security force members, not to wear head and face coverings that they said could complicate the performance of their official duties.

MRA officials said the government did not regularly prescreen and approve sermons before imams delivered them during Friday prayers. They also stated the government sometimes provided preapproved sermon topics for Friday prayers to address the public’s concerns following major events or to encourage civic participation through activities such as voting in elections. The MRA said it did not punish imams who did not discuss the suggested sermon topics.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and limited resources, it was unclear if the government continued the MRA’s stated practice of monitoring sermons delivered in mosques. According to MRA officials in the past, if a ministry inspector suspected an imam’s sermon was inappropriate, particularly if it supported violent extremism, the inspector had the authority to summon the imam to a “scientific council” composed of Islamic law scholars and other imams who assessed the sermon’s “correctness.” The government could decide to relieve an imam of duty if he was summoned multiple times. The government also monitored activities in mosques for possible security-related offenses, such as recruitment by extremist groups, and prohibited the use of mosques as public meeting places outside of regular prayer hours.

Catholic, Anglican, Protestant, and Seventh-day Adventists leaders reported they did not attempt to import religious literature during the year. Anglican leaders said most parishioners preferred to download the Bible and prayer applications on their cell phones rather than carry a physical Bible. Anglican leaders also reported it remained illegal to print copies of religious texts.

Non-Islamic religious texts, music, and video media continued to be available on the informal market, and stores and vendors in the capital sold Bibles in several languages, including Arabic, French, and Tamazight. In 2019, the government approved the first versions of the Quran in the Berber language, Tamazight, in the Arabic script.

The government continued to enforce its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

On November 1, voters approved a new constitution. According to the BBC, the major Islamic parties, including the Movement for the Society of Peace, the Movement for Justice and Development, and the Nahda Movement, said the proposed new constitution was “against the Islamic values of the Algerian society,” “a threat to the future of the nation,” and backed a “no” vote. The Association of Algerian Ulema expressed its reservations about some of the articles in the draft constitution before the vote, stating, “There is…ambiguity regarding issues such as freedom of worship, national unity, and language.” Christians stated that one change regarding religious freedom in the new constitution, the deletion of a reference guaranteeing the freedom of conscience, was concerning. As one Christian publication stated, unlike the previous constitution, “There is no more ‘freedom of conscience,’ possibly a way to stop churches and their members from discussing Christianity online or having web-based religious services.” Another stated that “the new constitution’s protection of places of worship means little, given the government’s track record regarding freedom of religion.” A representative of International Christian Concern told the U.S.-based website Crux, “This removal [of the freedom of conscience] is what worries many Christians as something which could cause future legal difficulties.”

Christian leaders said courts were sometimes biased against non-Muslims in family law cases, such as divorce or custody proceedings.

The MRA required that couples present a government-issued marriage certificate before permitting imams to conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

According to religious community leaders, some local administrations did not always verify religions before conducting marriage ceremonies. As such, some couples were able to marry despite the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

EPA leaders reported public and private institutions fired some of its members due to their Christian faith and that in the public sector, the government frequently withheld promotions from non-Muslims.

Both private and state-run media continued to produce reports throughout the year examining what they said were foreign ties and dangers of religious groups such as Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Salafists.

Church groups continued to say the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for foreign religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in de facto visa refusals. Catholic leaders continued to say their greatest issue with the government was the long and unpredictable wait times for religious workers’ visas. Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as significantly hindering religious practice, although Anglican leadership reported they usually received visas in a timely manner. One religious leader again identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization. Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups. Catholic leaders in Algiers said the government denied a Tamanrasset-based priest’s residency renewal following his November 2019 meeting with foreign officials.

The government and public and private companies funded the preservation of some Catholic churches, particularly those of historical importance. The Province of Oran, for example, continued to work in partnership with local donors on an extensive renovation of Notre Dame de Santa Cruz as part of its cultural patrimony.

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic, although many Amazigh Christians said they would prefer services to be broadcast in Tamazight. The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism included dedicated state-run religious television and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media. After Friday prayers, state broadcasters aired religious programs countering extremism. Some examples included Au Coeur de Islam (At the Heart of Islam) on Radio Channel 3 and Dans le Sens de l’Islam (Understanding the Meaning of Islam) on national television.

Religious and civil society leaders reported that the Jewish community faced unofficial, religion-based obstacles to government employment and administrative difficulties when working with government bureaucracy. The MRA said it had not received requests to reopen the synagogues that closed during the period of the country’s struggle for independence.

Government officials continued to invite prominent Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions, such as Revolutionary Day celebrations at the People’s Palace on November 1.

Senior government officials continued to publicly condemn acts of violence committed in the name of Islam and urged all members of society to reject extremist behavior.

In July, the Ministry of Education required teachers in the Province of Tizi Ouzou to report their religious affiliations. EPA leaders expressed concerns that Christian teachers could face religious persecution and employment discrimination, as teachers are public-sector employees.

Authorities arrested Houssame Hatri in Maghnia on July 23 and said they would try him for his role in a 2014 violent anti-Semitic attack on a young couple in Paris. In the 90-minute attack, Hatri and his companions subjected the couple to physical and verbal abuse, destroyed many Jewish religious objects in the couple’s apartment, and made jokes referring to the Holocaust. After arrest and trial in France in 2018, Hatri escaped and fled to Algeria. According to press reports, under the terms of an extradition agreement with France, authorities will try Hatri in Algeria and he will not face extradition. A French security source told AFP, “It’s a good signal.”

The government, along with local private contributors, continued to fund mosque construction. On October 28, the government opened the Grand Mosque of Algiers, the third largest in the world and the largest in Africa. The Prime Minister and other officials attended the opening ceremony. According to press reports, the project cost one billion dollars and faced criticism for diverting funding from social needs and being a vanity project of former President Bouteflika. The seven-year construction work was completed in April, three years behind schedule.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some Christian converts said they and others in their communities continued to keep a low profile due to concern for their personal safety and the potential for legal, familial, career, and social problems. Other converts practiced their new religion openly, according to members of the Christian community.

Several Christian leaders said some Muslims who converted or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity were assaulted by family members or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

According to religious leaders, some individuals who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, pressured them to convert back to Islam, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Media criticized religious communities they portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims. Ahmadi leaders said news outlets continued to amplify what they considered government misinformation portraying Ahmadis as violent.

Christian leaders continued to say when Christian converts died, family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf. Christian groups reported some villages continued to prohibit Christians from being buried alongside Muslims. In these cases, Christians opted to be buried under Islamic rites so their remains could stay near those of their families.

In April, the former head of the Algerian Renewal Party, Noureddine Boukrouh, called for a suspension of Ramadan fasting in a Facebook post because it “poses a health risk and contributes to the outbreak of the coronavirus.” According to the website Middle East Monitor, the posting sparked a wave of controversy, especially on social media, where some attacked him for interfering “in a purely religious issues only Islamic and medical scholars can tackle.” Boukrouh later reported that his posting subjected him to “criticisms, insults, and death threats.”

In a poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 16 percent of respondents in Algeria either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement that “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels,” the lowest percentage in the region, which compared with 65 percent regionwide. In contrast, 63 percent of Algerians either disagreed or strongly disagreed with that statement.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 72 percent of the country’s citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 agreed that religion is “the most important” factor to their personal identity, which was the highest level for a single country in the region and compared with a level of 41 percent overall for youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey.

Some Christian leaders stated they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment. Christian and Muslim leaders hosted each other during the year. EPA leaders reported Catholic and Muslim leaders sent letters in support of the EPA to the MRA. Other faiths privately expressed support to Protestant leaders, and the EPA reported excellent interfaith dialogue within the religious community. The EPA reported some local authorities expressed regret for church closures, but stated they were duty-bound to follow government directives, regardless of their personal opinions.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with representatives of the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Interior, Justice, and Religious Affairs to discuss the difficulties Ahmadi and Shia Muslims, Christian, and other minority religious groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas. They also discussed church closures and jailed activists.

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities to discuss interreligious dialogue and tolerance and, in the case of religious minorities, their rights and legal status.

Embassy officials discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.

Burma

Executive Summary

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

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

Reports on Hong Kong, Macau, Tibet, and Xinjiang are appended at the end of this report.

The constitution of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which cites the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), states that citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief” but limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining “normal.” CCP members and members of the armed forces are required to be atheists and are forbidden from engaging in religious practices. National law prohibits organizations or individuals from interfering with the state educational system for minors younger than the age of 18, effectively barring them from participating in most religious activities or receiving religious education. Some provinces have additional laws on minors’ participation in religious activities. The government continued to assert control over religion and restrict the activities and personal freedom of religious adherents that it perceived as threatening state or CCP interests, according to religious groups, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and international media reports. The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned “patriotic religious associations” representing these religions are permitted to register with the government and officially permitted to hold worship services. There continued to be reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices. According to Minghui, a Falun Gong publication, police arrested more than 6,600 Falun Gong practitioners during the year. According to the annual report of The Church of the Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 7,000 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions. The CAG reported some individuals died in custody or as a result of police harassment. Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported instances of individuals being held for extended periods of time in psychiatric hospitals for practicing their religious beliefs, where authorities beat them and forced them to take medication. Authorities detained and arrested religious leaders trying to hold services online. The government continued its 2019-2024 campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, including by requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions, monitoring religious services, preapproving sermons, and altering religious texts, including, according to media, stories from the life of Jesus, to emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the State. In September, United Front Work Department (UFWD) vice head and State Administration for Religious Affairs (SARA) director general Wang Zuo’an announced foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in China. The government offered financial incentives to law enforcement to arrest religious practitioners and to citizens who reported “illegal religious activity.” The government continued its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, and maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong. From January to July, officials across the country shut down religious venues, including some that were affiliated with the authorized patriotic religious associations, in some but not all cases citing COVID restrictions. There were reports the government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to increase the surveillance and arrest of religious practitioners, including members of state-sanctioned groups, and to curtail private worship among religious groups. Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized publishing and copying businesses that handled religious materials. Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible. There were numerous reports that authorities closed or destroyed Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, and Taoist houses of worship and destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country. The government removed architectural features that identified churches and mosques as religious sites. It altered textbooks to delete references to religious holidays. Officials routinely made public statements denigrating the Dalai Lama. In October, the Holy See extended for another two years its 2018 provisional agreement with the government concerning the appointment of bishops. Critics stated the agreement did not alleviate government pressure on Catholic clergy to join the state-sponsored Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA).

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities. In Xinjiang and Tibet, authorities continued to suppress Uyghur and Tibetan language and culture, while promoting ethnic Han individuals in political, economic, and cultural life. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread.

In multiple public speeches, the U.S. Secretary of State criticized the government for curtailing religious freedom. In an October speech on tolerance given while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.” The Ambassador and other U.S. embassy and consulate general officials met with a range of government officials to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance, and for the release of individuals imprisoned for religious reasons. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officials met with members of registered and unregistered religious groups, family members of religious prisoners, NGOs, and others to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang. In July, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on four Chinese leaders and additional PRC entities pursuant to the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. During the year, the U.S. government added 20 PRC entities to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List that were implicated in human rights abuses in Xinjiang. The U.S. imposed visa restrictions on government and CCP officials for their responsibility for, or complicity in, human rights abuses in Xinjiang. When announcing the visa restrictions, the Secretary of State said, “The United States will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” The U.S. also prohibited import of merchandise believed to have been produced in Xinjiang with forced labor. At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.4 billion (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the State Council Information Office (SCIO) report Seeking Happiness for People: 70 Years of Progress on Human Rights in China, published in September 2019, there are more than 200 million religious adherents in the country. An SCIO April 2018 white paper on religion in the country states there are approximately 5,500 religious groups.

Local and regional figures for the number of religious followers, including those belonging to the five officially recognized religions, are unclear. Local governments do not release these statistics, and even official religious organizations do not have accurate numbers. The Pew Research Center and other observers say the numbers of adherents of many religious groups often are underreported. The U.S. government estimates that Buddhists comprise 18.2 percent of the country’s total population, Christians 5.1 percent, Muslims 1.8 percent, followers of folk religions 21.9 percent, and atheists or unaffiliated persons 52.2 percent, with Hindus, Jews, and Taoists comprising less than one percent. According to a February 2017 estimate by the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, there are more than 350 million religious adherents in the country, including 185 to 250 million Chinese Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions. According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2020 report, there are 97.2 million Christians. According to 2015 data from the World Jewish Congress, the country’s Jewish population is 2,500, concentrated in Beijing, Shanghai, and Kaifeng.

The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper found the number of Protestants to be 38 million. Among these, there are 20 million Protestants affiliated with the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM), the state-sanctioned umbrella organization for all officially recognized Protestant churches, according to information on TSPM’s website in March 2017. The SCIO report states there are six million Catholics, although media and international NGO estimates suggest there are 10-12 million, approximately half of whom practice in churches not affiliated with the CCPA. Accurate estimates on the numbers of Catholics and Protestants as well as other faiths are difficult to calculate because many adherents practice exclusively at home or in churches that are not state sanctioned.

According to the 2018 SCIO white paper, there are 10 ethnic minority groups totaling more than 20 million persons for whom Islam is the majority religion. Other sources indicate almost all Muslims are Sunni. The two largest Muslim ethnic minorities are Hui and Uyghur, with Hui Muslims concentrated primarily in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region and in Qinghai, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces. The SARA, also referred to as the National Religious Affairs Administration, estimates the Muslim Hui population at 10.6 million. Most Uyghur Muslims are concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 14.9 million residents, or 60 percent of the total population there.

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

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

Some ethnic minorities follow traditional religions, such as Dongba among the Naxi people in Yunnan Province and Buluotuo among the Zhuang in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The central government classifies worship of Mazu, a folk deity with Taoist roots, as an expression of “cultural heritage” rather than religious practice.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution, which cites the leadership of the CCP and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping Thought, states citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief,” but it limits protections for religious practice to “normal religious activities” without defining normal. It says religion may not be used to disrupt public order, impair the health of citizens, or interfere with the educational system. The constitution provides for the right to hold or not to hold a religious belief. It says state organs, public organizations, and individuals may not discriminate against citizens “who believe in or do not believe in any religion.” The constitution states, “Religious bodies and religious affairs are not subject to any foreign domination.”

The law does not allow legal action to be taken against the government based on the religious freedom protections afforded by the constitution. Criminal law allows the state to sentence government officials to up to two years in prison if they violate a citizen’s religious freedom.

The CCP is responsible for creating religious regulations and oversees the UFWD, which in turn manages SARA’s functions and responsibilities. SARA is responsible for implementing the CCP’s religious regulations and administers the provincial and local bureaus of religious affairs.

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

The law bans certain religious or spiritual groups. Criminal law defines banned groups as “cult organizations” and provides for criminal prosecution of individuals belonging to such groups and punishment of up to life in prison. There are no published criteria for determining or procedures for challenging such a designation. A national security law also explicitly bans cult organizations.

The CCP maintains an extralegal, party-run security apparatus to eliminate the Falun Gong movement and other organizations. The government continues to ban the Guanyin Method religious group (Guanyin Famen or the Way of the Goddess of Mercy) and Zhong Gong (a qigong exercise discipline). The government considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.” The government also considers several Christian groups to be “cults,” including the Shouters, The Church of the Almighty God (CAG, also known as Eastern Lightning), Society of Disciples (Mentu Hui), Full Scope Church (Quan Fanwei Jiaohui), Spirit Sect, New Testament Church, Three Grades of Servants (San Ban Puren), Association of Disciples, Established King Church, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

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

The government recognizes five official religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Islam, Protestantism, and Catholicism. Regulations require religious organizations to register with the government. Only religious groups belonging to one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations are permitted to register, and only these organizations may legally hold worship services. The five associations, which operate under the direction of the CCP’s UFWD, are the Buddhist Association of China (BAC), the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China (IAC), the Three Self Patriotic Movement Church (TSPM), and the CCPA. Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See, are not permitted to register as legal entities. The law does not provide a mechanism for religious groups independent of the five official patriotic religious associations to obtain legal status.

According to regulations, religious organizations must submit information about the organization’s historical background, members, doctrines, key publications, minimum funding requirements, and government sponsor, which must be one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations. Registration information is only required once, but religious organizations must reregister if changes are made to the required documentation.

Under revisions to the civil code passed by the National People’s Congress in June, a religious institution established according to law may apply for the status of a “legal person” (nonprofit entity) under Article 92 of the civil code. The revisions formalized the ability of organizations to possess property, publish approved materials, train staff, and collect donations, thereby facilitating authorities’ ability to track and regulate religious institutions. Previously, bank accounts and real estate holdings were commonly held in the name of individual staff members, making it difficult in some cases for authorities to separate the financial matters of members from those of the religious institution.

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

Government policy allows religious groups to engage in charitable work, but regulations specifically prohibit faith-based organizations from proselytizing while conducting charitable activities. Authorities require faith-based charities, like all other charitable groups, to register with the government. Once they are registered as official charities, authorities allow them to raise funds publicly and to receive tax benefits. The government does not permit unregistered charitable groups to raise funds openly, hire employees, open bank accounts, or own property. According to several unregistered religious groups, the government requires faith-based charities to obtain official cosponsorship of their registration application by the local official religious affairs bureau. Authorities often require these groups to affiliate with one of the five state-sanctioned religious associations.

Article 70 of the Regulations on Religious Affairs requires members of religious groups to seek approval to travel abroad for “religious training, conferences, pilgrimages, and other activities.” Anyone found organizing such activities without approval may be fined between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100 and $30,600). Illegally obtained income connected to the travel may be seized and “if the case constitutes a crime, criminal responsibility shall be investigated according to law.”

The regulations specify that no religious structure, including clergy housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as investments. SARA regulations place restrictions on religious groups conducting business or making investments by stipulating the property and income of religious groups, schools, and venues must not be distributed and should be used for activities and charity befitting their purposes; any individual or organization that donates funds to build religious venues is prohibited from owning the venues.

The regulations impose a limit on foreign donations to religious groups, stating such donations must be used for activities that authorities deem appropriate for the group and the site. Regulations ban donations from foreign groups and individuals if the donations come with any attached conditions, and they state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,300) must be submitted to the local government for review and approval. Religious groups, religious schools, and “religious activity sites” may not accept donations from foreign sources that have conditions attached.

The regulations require that religious activity “must not harm national security” or support “religious extremism.” The regulations do not define “extremism.” Penalties for “harm to national security” may include suspending groups and canceling the credentials of clergy.

National laws allow each provincial administration to issue its own regulations concerning religious affairs, including penalties for violations. Many provinces updated their regulations after the national 2018 regulations came into effect. In addition to the five officially recognized religions, local governments, at their discretion, may permit followers of certain unregistered religions to carry out religious practices. In Heilongjiang, Zhejiang, and Guangdong Provinces, for example, local governments allow members of Orthodox Christian communities to participate in unregistered religious activities.

SARA states, in a policy posted on its website, that family and friends have the right to meet at home for worship, including prayer and Bible study, without registering with the government. A provision states, however, that religious organizations should report the establishment of a religious site to the government for approval.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody. However, the PRC defines the right to religious faith differently than the right to religious activities, such as prayer facilities and access to clergy. Muslim prisoners are reportedly allowed to have meals with the “halal” label.

The law does not define what constitutes proselytizing. The constitution states that no state unit, social organization, or individual may force a citizen to believe or not believe in a religion. Offenders are subject to administrative and criminal penalties.

An amendment to the criminal law and a judicial interpretation by the national Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court published in 2016 criminalize the act of forcing others to wear “extremist” garments or symbols; doing so is punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment, short-term detention or controlled release, and a concurrent fine. Neither the amendment nor the judicial interpretation defines what garments or symbols the law considers “extremist.”

Publication and distribution of literature containing religious content must follow guidelines determined by the State Publishing Administration. Online activities (“online religious information services”) of religious groups require prior approval from the provincial religious affairs bureau. Religious texts published without authorization, including Bibles, Qurans, and Buddhist and Taoist texts, may be confiscated, and unauthorized publishing houses closed.

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

To establish places of worship, religious organizations must first receive approval from the religious affairs department of the local government when the facility is proposed, and again before services are first held at that location. Religious organizations must submit dozens of documents to register during these approval processes, including detailed management plans of their religious activities, exhaustive financial records, and personal information on all staff members. Religious communities not going through the formal registration process may not legally have a set facility or worship meeting space. Therefore, every time such groups want to reserve a space for worship, such as by renting a hotel room or an apartment, they must seek a separate approval from government authorities for that specific service. Worshipping in a space without prior approval, gained either through the formal registration process or by seeking an approval for each service, is considered an illegal religious activity and is subject to criminal or administrative penalties.

By regulation, if a religious structure is to be demolished or relocated because of city planning or the construction of “key” projects, the party responsible for demolishing the structure must consult with its local bureau of religious affairs (guided by SARA) and the religious group using the structure. If all parties agree to the demolition, the party conducting the demolition must agree to rebuild the structure or to provide compensation equal to its appraised market value.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs include registration requirements for schools that allow only the five state-sanctioned religious associations or their affiliates to form religious schools. Children younger than the age of 18 are prohibited from participating in religious activities and receiving religious education, even in schools run by religious organizations. Enforcement and implementation of these rules varied widely across and within regions. One regulation states that no individual may use religion to hinder the national education system and that no religious activities may be held in schools. The law mandates the teaching of atheism in schools, and a CCP directive provides guidance to universities on how to prevent foreign proselytizing of university students. The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the XUAR state, “Minors shall not participate in religious activities. No organization or individual may organize, induce or force minors to participate in religious activities.” Minors are also prohibited from entering religious venues. Multiple provinces send letters instructing parents that “teachers and parents should strictly enforce the principle of separation between education and religion and ensure that minors are not allowed to enter religious places, participate in religious activities, or to attend religious trainings.” Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

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

On February 1, the Administrative Measures for Religious Groups went into effect. These measures comprise six chapters and 41 articles dealing with the organization, function, offices, supervision, projects, and economic administration of communities and groups at the national and local levels. The measures state that only registered groups may operate legally and stipulate that religious organizations must support the leadership of the CCP, adhere to the direction of Sinicization, and implement the values of socialism. Article 17 states that religious organizations shall “follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, abide by laws, regulations, rules, and policies, correctly handle the relationship between national law and canon, and enhance national awareness, awareness of the rule of law, and citizenship.”

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

Government Practices

Police continued to arrest and otherwise detain leaders and members of religious groups, often those connected with groups not registered with the state-sanctioned religious associations. There were reports police used violence and beatings during arrest and detention. Authorities reportedly used vague or insubstantial charges, sometimes in connection with religious activity, to convict and sentence leaders and members of religious groups to years in prison.

Sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances, and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities had targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation. There were reports that authorities tortured detainees, including by depriving them of food, water, and sleep. NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The Political Prisoner Database (PPDB) maintained by the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,492 individuals imprisoned for “organizing or using a ‘cult’ to undermine implementation of the law.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that according to a government source, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission issued a confidential document in September ordering a nationwide, three-year crackdown on the CAG. The campaign outlined three main goals: “To destroy the Church’s system domestically completely, to substantially downsize its membership by preventing church activities and blocking new members from joining, and to curb the development of the church abroad.” Bitter Winter reported increased arrests of Church members following the issuance of this document, including 71 arrests in Xuzhou City, Jiangsu Province, in September and 160 arrests in Nanyang City, Henan Province, on November 10 alone.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 42,807 church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with 32,815 in 2019. The report stated that authorities harassed at least 35,752 church members (at least 26,683 in 2019), arrested 7,055 (6,132 in 2019), detained 4,045 (4,161 in 2019), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 5,587 (3,824 in 2019), sentenced 1,098 (1,355 in 2019), and seized at least RMB 270 million ($41.3 million) in church and personal assets. At least 21 church members died as a result of abuse or persecution (19 in 2019). The 21 included four who died as a result of physical abuse or forced labor, three who committed suicide as a result of authorities surveilling and pressuring them to renounce their faith, and four who died of medical complications during or following their detention.

According to the CAG annual report, in August, a woman named Qin Shiqin died in custody in Shandong Province 10 days after her arrest. Facial swelling and blood in the corners of her mouth could be seen on her remains. A 71-year-old woman identified as “Xiang Chen” died in prison in Sichuan Province while serving a three-year sentence because of her faith. Her remains appeared emaciated, her face was swollen and bruised, and a scar was visible under her nose. A man named Zou Jihuang died in custody in Hubei Province of liver cirrhosis. Zou had been arrested in 2017. During his imprisonment, he had developed a liver condition for which he was denied medical treatment, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor. In Shaanxi Province, a 77-year-old woman named Yang Fengying committed suicide after police went to her home multiple times over the course of three years to intimidate and threaten her.

According to the CAG annual report, at least 847 CAG members were arrested between February and April, many of whom were apprehended as a result of the CCP’s antipandemic household checks or at identity card checkpoints. Police extracted information on the church from these individuals through physical abuse, such as administering electric shocks and handcuffing them painfully, with one arm over a shoulder and one twisted up from below.

Media reported authorities used measures for preventing the spread of COVID-19, including facial recognition software and telephone tracking, to identify and arrest members of unregistered or banned religious groups. The government installed surveillance cameras outside unregistered churches during the pandemic. According to media reports, the government conducted door-to-door household inspections, during which they identified and arrested members of banned religious groups. One CAG member said she hid under the bed every time officials came for an inspection. A government employee in Shandong Province said his superiors ordered him to search for nonlocal tenants, particularly members of banned groups, such as the CAG and Falun Gong.

In May, Bitter Winter reported the political and legal affairs commission of a locality in northeastern China released a document stating the CCP had established “a stability maintenance mechanism” targeting religious groups, among other individuals and groups, that the government determined posed “a danger to social stability” during the pandemic.

Bitter Winter reported that between February and March, authorities used COVID-19-related mandatory identification checks and home inspections to arrest 325 CAG members. In February, authorities arrested two church members during an identification check, searched their home, and confiscated RMB 45,000 ($6,900) of church valuables. During interrogation, officers reportedly placed a plastic bag over the head of one of the Church members and beat him. They also strapped him to a “tiger bench” with his body tied in a stress position and shocked him with an electric baton. According to Bitter Winter, another church member was arrested when a pandemic inspection team that included community representatives, health personnel, and police officers came to his home. During his interrogation, officers reportedly covered his mouth with a plastic bag and hit him on the face with a desk calendar, stepped on his feet, beat his calves with an iron rod, and forced him to hold a live electric baton.

According to Minghui, police arrested 6,659 Falun Gong practitioners and harassed 8,576 practitioners during the year for refusing to renounce their faith, compared with 6,109 arrested and 3,582 harassed in 2019. The arrests occurred throughout the country. Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted. Those arrested included teachers, engineers, lawyers, journalists, authors, and dancers. Minghui stated individuals were tortured in custody. Minghui also reported that authorities sentenced 622 practitioners to prison throughout the country during the year. The sentences ranged from three months to 14 years, with the average sentence being three years and four months.

Minghui reported that during the year, 83 individuals from 20 provinces and centrally controlled municipalities died due to being persecuted for being Falun Gong practitioners. Some individuals died in custody as a result of physical abuse, including being deprived of sleep and food, forced into stress positions, and denied proper medical attention. Others died shortly after being released on medical parole. On May 13, authorities in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, arrested Zhang Zhiwen for distributing Falun Gong materials the previous August. Zheng’s husband attempted to bring her clothes and insulin for her diabetes, but authorities refused to accept the items, saying they would provide her medication. Zheng died in custody on May 17 and authorities sent the body directly to a funeral home without notifying her husband. Falun Gong practitioner Li Ling of Dazhangjia Village, Penglai City, Shandong Province, died on July 13 after reportedly being severely beaten following her arrest on June 28. Village authorities forced her family to cremate her remains on the same day. According to her family, her face was deformed, and she was covered in bruises. The village’s CCP secretary and a group of paramilitary soldiers took Li from her home on June 28 after a fellow villager reported seeing her with dozens of Falun Gong booklets.

According to Minghui, on September 22 and 23, authorities in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, arrested 27 Falun Gong practitioners and three family members who were not practitioners, and confiscated books, laptops, printers, money, photographs of Falun Gong’s founder Li Hongzhi, and other personal items. Authorities harassed eight other practitioners within days of the arrests. One practitioner returned home to find police ransacking her home. They confiscated books on Falun Gong and arrested the woman along with her husband, who was not a practitioner. Following a group arrest of Falun Gong practitioners in Changchun City, Jilin Province, in July, police beat one practitioner, hit his head against the wall, and dragged him around on the concrete floor. He suffered severe injuries to his knees as a result.

According to Bitter Winter, on May 18, authorities assaulted several individuals who were protesting the demolition of a Buddhist temple in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, that authorities declared was “a dilapidated building.” Police beat one woman for filming the scene. A witness said, “Three officers pressed her to the ground, hitting her collarbones until she lost consciousness, and the phone was destroyed.” Police injured a monk in his 70s for waving his walking stick at authorities and accused him of “assaulting the police.”

In March, the U.S.-based NGO Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) released a report, Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. In the report, VOC stated that Falun Gong practitioners and Uyghur Muslim prisoners of conscience were the most likely source of organs for sale in the country’s organ-transplant market. A related series of articles published during the year examining the country’s organ transplantation system questioned the plausibility of official government statistics about the sourcing of transplant organs, stating there was an overlap between medical personnel performing organ transplants and individuals involved in the anti-Falun Gong campaign.

On March 1, the China Tribunal, an independent tribunal established by the Australia-based NGO International Coalition to End Transplant Abuse in China, released its Full Judgment on the conditions of organ harvesting in the country. The report was a fuller account with appendices of the evidence the nongovernmental group had drawn on and methodology it had used to reach conclusions contained in its Short Form Conclusions and Summary Judgment report issued in June 2019. In the Full Judgment report, the group included accounts by individuals, including medical personnel, who stated they were eyewitnesses to abuses, including from medical personnel, and other evidence that documented what the NGO determined to be a decades-long and ongoing state-run program of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience, principally Falun Gong practitioners. The Full Judgment report also contained eyewitness accounts from Falun Gong and Uyghur individuals of involuntary medical examinations, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood tests, and DNA tests.

According to the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-affiliated news organization, on August 2, authorities broke into the home of a Falun Gong practitioner, pinned her down, and forcibly took a sample of her blood, telling her it was “required by the state.” One officer shouted, “The law does not apply to you. We’re going to wipe you all out.” The Epoch Times stated that dozens of other practitioners across the country reported similar incidents. On July 22, authorities in Gaomi County, Shandong Province, arrested and took blood samples from 46 practitioners. An attorney familiar with the cases said the blood sampling did not appear to be a routine physical checkup but rather was illegally “collecting people’s biological samples.”

According to the CAG annual report, harassment of members included the collection of biological data, such as blood samples and hair.

In April, Bitter Winter reported instances in which individuals were held against their will in psychiatric hospitals for extended periods of time for practicing their religion. According to a staff member in a psychiatric hospital in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, it was hospital practice to begin “treatment” of CAG members as soon as they were brought in, without any tests or examination. According to a member of the Church from Tianmen City, Hubei Province, who spent 157 days in a psychiatric hospital, “A doctor told me that because of my faith, I was a mental patient, and there was no need for further tests.” Nurses threatened to tie her up if she refused to take medication. One former patient said two doctors pressed her down on a desk and shocked her on the back, hands, and feet with an electric baton to force her to take medication. During the month she was in the hospital, doctors administered six electroshock treatments, causing her to suffer memory loss and numbness in her limbs. She said doctors threatened that her son’s job would be negatively affected if she continued to practice her faith.

International religious media outlets and human rights groups reported that local authorities in several districts around the country continued to award compensation to police officers for arresting religious practitioners from certain groups or confiscating donation money. Conversely, local officials were allegedly disciplined if they did not meet a certain quota for arrests of religious practitioners each month. For example, a government employee from Sanmenxia City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter the municipal government issued arrest quotas for CAG members to subordinate localities, leading to the arrest of 211 individuals. In Jiangxi Province, the police arrested 116 CAG members and confiscated RMB 378,000 ($57,800) of church and personal assets. Minghui reported police received an unknown amount of bonus pay for each Falun Gong practitioner arrested.

According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities raided the homes of and arrested at least eight members of the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during an online worship service on April 12, Easter Sunday. A pastor and a deputy deacon were among those arrested. According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), authorities continued to harass members in the weeks following the raid. On April 24, authorities took Church member Ran Yunfei to a police station shortly before he was scheduled to speak in an online service. He returned home later that same day. The NGO ChinaAid reported police summoned Ran again in November in connection with his participation in another online religious seminar.

The ICC reported that on May 23, authorities arrested a pastor from the Nanjing Road Church in Wuhan, Hebei Province, during an online evangelism event in which he was taking part. They interrogated him for approximately five hours before releasing him.

According to Bitter Winter, in February, police arrested 13 members of the Born Again Movement, also called the All Sphere or All Range Church, in Huai’an City, Jiangsu Province. Five of the members arrested were elderly and suffered from various illnesses. Police released the five after protests from their relatives but forced them to sign statements promising to stop their church activities. Police also came to the home of another church member who hosted church gatherings at her home and threatened to arrest her if she did not stop doing so. They said three generations of her descendants would be unable to take college entrance examinations, enroll in the army, or become public servants if she did not stop. The officers took samples of her blood and prints of her fingers and palms.

According to AsiaNews.it, on April 2, authorities took Zhao Huaiguo, founder and pastor of the Bethel Church in Cili County, Hunan Province, from his home and arrested him on a charge of “inciting subversion against state power.” Police returned to his apartment on April 15 to confiscate books, Bibles, and photocopies of books as evidence of “illegal trade” in books. His wife said he was likely arrested because he spoke to foreign news agencies about COVID-19 and had not affiliated his church with the TSPM church. ChinaAid reported the Zhangjiajie Intermediate Court tried Zhao in October for “inciting subversion of state power,” and prosecutors recommended an 18-month sentence.

In May, the ICC reported that authorities transferred Pastor Wang Yi of the ERCC from Chengdu City Detention Center to a prison in an unknown location. In December 2019, Wang had been sentenced to nine years in prison. According to the ICC, since his arrest, authorities had denied Wang’s parents the ability to visit him, either in person or virtually, despite their having the legal right to do so, and Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location under surveillance.

At year’s end, the whereabouts of Gao Zhisheng remained unknown, although media reported it was believed he remained in the custody of state security police. In September 2017, police had detained Gao, a human rights lawyer who had defended members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other groups. In September, the NGO Jubilee Campaign submitted a written statement to the 45th regular session of the UN Human Rights Council calling for the government to “release unconditionally and with immediate effect all political and religious prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Gao Zhisheng.” Gao’s daughter, Geng Ge, submitted a video statement to the council, stating, “As of today, I don’t know if he’s alive or not.”

In October, ChinaAid reported that since July, police in Zhaotong City, Yunnan Province, had threatened and harassed Pastor Wang Hai of the Trinity Church and his wife and detained other church leaders and members of Wang’s extended family. Wang said authorities had targeted the Church because its members belonged to the ethnic Miao minority and were Christian. He said that due to the ongoing harassment, church attendance had dropped from 100 worshippers to only a handful who attended Sunday services.

AsiaNews.it reported that on September 1, authorities from the Religious Affairs Bureau in Fujian Province arrested Rev. Liu Maochun, an underground priest of the Mindong Diocese, and held him incommunicado for 17 days to pressure him to join the CCPA. At least 20 underground priests in the region faced similar pressure from the religious affairs bureau, according to AsiaNews.it.

According to RFA, on April 19 and May 3, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province. Church pastor Yang Xibo told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM. According to multiple international press reports and mobile phone videos that Church members posted to Twitter, authorities forcibly entered a private residence in which Church members were holding a worship service, without a warrant or showing any form of identification. Authorities seized several congregants and tried to drag them out, injuring three; they detained at least nine members, releasing them approximately 12 hours later. According to RFA, authorities raided Xingguang Church again on June 11, taking away furniture and other church belongings, but did not arrest anyone. ChinaAid stated authorities broke into church members’ homes on July 22, destroying and removing property.

In January, RFA reported that authorities in Jinan City, Shandong Province, arrested Hui Muslim poet Cui Haoxin, known by his pen name An Ran, for Twitter posts in which he criticized the government for the imprisonment, surveillance, and persecution of Muslims in Xinjiang and throughout the country. He was held on suspicion of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.” According to RFA, this charge was “frequently leveled at peaceful critics of the ruling Chinese Communist Party.”

The Falun Dafa Information Center, a Falun Gong rights advocacy group, reported authorities in Beijing detained at least 40 persons ahead of the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference on May 22. Sources said police also harassed practitioners and searched their homes and that police told the individuals they were taking the actions because of the upcoming political meetings. On April 21, police forcibly entered the home of Wang Yuling by prying open her window. They ransacked the house and confiscated books and printed materials related to Falun Gong, as well as a printer and computer. They took Wang and her daughter into custody. On April 27, authorities forcibly entered the home of Yang Yuliang, searched it, and confiscated Falun Gong books and photographs of Falun Gong’s founder. They held Yang and his daughter, Yang Dandan, in custody for three days.

There continued to be reports of government officials, companies, and education authorities pressuring members of house churches and other Christians to sign documents renouncing their Christian faith and church membership. Media reported the government threatened to withhold social welfare benefits and to retaliate against family members. The NGO CSW stated authorities instructed schools to report the religious beliefs of students and staff.

Bitter Winter reported that on November 1, the government began the seventh national population census, collecting a broad range of personal and household data, including individuals’ identification numbers. According to several census takers, although there were no questions about religion on the census questionnaire, they were instructed when visiting people’s homes to pay attention to religious materials and symbols and to ascertain if the home was being used as a private religious venue. In one case, when five census takers entered a home in Zhengzhou City, Henan Province, they saw a Bible and asked the residents if they were Christian. They determined the home was being used as a house church and ordered the residents to stop hosting gatherings. A census taker in Yantai City, Shandong Province, said local police told him and his colleagues to report any households with images associated with Falun Gong. A census taker in Heze City, Shandong Province, said he was ordered to report to police any person who did not allow him inside the home, because refusal might indicate the person held religious beliefs or hosted unauthorized religious gatherings.

According to the ICC, on October 11, police arrested Elder Li Yingqiang of the ERCC in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, just before the church began an online service. During the arrest, police also threatened Li’s two young children. Police also arrested another church member, Jia Xuewei, and interrogated him for several hours about ERCC’s recent spiritual retreat and the worship that was about to take place. Both were released later that day. An ERCC member told the ICC that authorities likely detained Li and Jia to prevent the online service from taking place. According to the source, police told Li he would be taken from his home every week and that they would target his children if he posted about his experience online.

According to Bitter Winter, during the year, authorities in several provinces investigated the personal backgrounds of civil servants, hospital staff, teachers, students, and the family members of each to determine their religious status. In May, the Education Bureau of Jinan City, Shandong Province, required some primary and secondary schools to determine if any of their teachers, students, or their family members were religious.

There continued to be no uniform procedures for registering religious adherents. The government continued to recognize as “lawful” only those religious activities it sanctioned and controlled through the state-sanctioned religious associations. Only government-accredited religious personnel could conduct such activities, and only in government-approved places of religious activity.

SARA continued to maintain statistics on registered religious groups. According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered by the CCPA. The April 2018 white paper by the State Council Information Office (SCIO) stated there were approximately 144,000 places of worship registered for religious activities in the country, among which 33,500 were Buddhist temples (including 28,000 Han Buddhist temples, 3,800 Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and 1,700 Theravada Buddhist temples), 9,000 Taoist temples, 35,000 mosques, 6,000 CCPA churches and places of assembly spread across 98 dioceses, and 60,000 TSPM churches and places of assembly.

The 2018 SCIO white paper stated that by 2017, there were 91 religious schools in the country approved by SARA: 41 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, 9 Catholic, and 21 Protestant. Students younger than 18 were barred from receiving religious instruction. This report also stated there were six national-level religious colleges. Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said they regarded one of these institutions to be primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors. The SCIO report also estimated there were more than 384,000 religious personnel in the country: 222,000 Buddhist, 40,000 Taoist, 57,000 Islamic, 57,000 Protestant, and 8,000 Catholic.

The government continued to close down or hinder the activities of religious groups not affiliated with the state-sanctioned religious associations, including unregistered Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and other groups. At times, authorities said the closures were because the group or its activities were unregistered or, at other times, because the place of worship lacked necessary permits. Some local governments continued to restrict the growth of unregistered Protestant church networks and cross-congregational affiliations. Authorities allowed some unregistered groups to operate but did not recognize them legally. In some cases, authorities required unregistered religious groups to disband, leaving congregants from these groups with the sole option of attending services under a state-sanctioned religious leader. According to Union of Catholic Asian (UCA) News, Article 34 of the new Administrative Measures for Religious Groups regulation, which governs money and finances, if enforced, “will halt the activities of house churches, dissident Catholic communities, and other unregistered religious bodies.”

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 2019-2024 five-year nationwide campaign to “Sinicize religion” by altering doctrines and practices across all faith traditions to conform to and bolster CCP ideology and emphasize loyalty to the CCP and the state. The CCP’s Administrative Measures for Religious Organizations, promulgated in February, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity called for “incorporating Chinese elements into church worship services, hymns and songs, clerical attire, and the architectural style of church buildings,” and it proposed to “retranslate the Bible or rewrite biblical commentaries.” According to Bitter Winter, on April 13, the UFWD in Zibo City, Shandong Province, issued an order calling on religious groups and clergy to write essays on their “love for the country and the Communist Party.” A Catholic dean in Zibo said that on April 16, a religious affairs bureau official told him to study Xi Jinping Thought and the 19th National Congress of the CCP for an examination he would have to take later. On February 18, the Shenyang Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province issued a notice that the city’s religious groups should hold events to advance Xi Jinping’s policies. On April 14, the TSPM in Fujian Province issued a document stating, “Posters promoting the core socialist values shall be posted in prominent positions in all church venues. Clergy members should highlight the core socialist values in their sermons and use important festivals, major events, and other occasions to interpret and publicize the core socialist values, so that they are inserted into believers’ minds, their Sunday worship services, and daily lives.” Local government authorities reportedly threatened to close churches whose clergy refused to help spread government propaganda.

According to Bitter Winter, the government regularly pressured clergy to incorporate government messages into sermons. Following President Xi’s call in August to curb food waste in the country, two Chinese Christian Councils of Quanzhou, Fujian Province, demanded all TSPM churches integrate the president’s ideas into their sermons, so that “the policy reaches everyone in society.” In response, some clergy members reportedly integrated the president’s exhortation into the Biblical story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country. Many religious groups faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances. Following investigations, authorities shut down hundreds of churches that were reportedly unregistered or whose registration had not been updated under the new regulations. In late 2019, the Jilin Province Religious Affairs Bureau issued a document calling for investigations of churches related to or funded by overseas religious groups and blocking their activities online, and it began implementing these measures during the year. In Shandong Province, national security officers interrogated a house church pastor in February for evangelical activities abroad.

The government media outlet Xinhua reported that in September, UFWD vice head and SARA director general Wang announced that in the previous 70 years, through the development of the TSPM, foreign influence and control had been completely eliminated from Christianity in the country.

On May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association held a training session for Buddhist professionals and monks across the province. The training included advising monks on how to implement religious Sinicization, Xi Jinping’s remarks at the National Religious Work Conference, and the religious affairs regulations.

The BAC-affiliated Buddhist website AmituofoCN.com reported that on April 16, approximately 50 religious workers, including monks, pastors, imams, and other clergy from the five officially recognized religions, attended a mandatory training program organized by the Hainan Province UFWD, the Hainan Academy of Social Sciences, and the Hainan Party School. Participants studied the principles of the 19th National Congress of the CCP, Chairman Xi’s April 13, 2018, speech commemorating the 30th anniversary of the creation of the Hainan Special Economic Zone, and the Regulations on Religious Affairs. Hainan UFWD deputy director general Liu Geng in his opening remarks told the religious professionals to “make full use of religion to promote social harmony.” According to AmituofoCN.com, on May 29, the Hainan Buddhist Association organized another training session for clergy, teachers, and religious workers from various temples in the province. Song Xinghe, an official in the Hainan UFWD Religious Affairs Bureau, gave a lecture entitled, “Insistence on the Sinicization of Religion.”

According to Gospel Times, a Chinese Christian news website, from July 15 to 17, the Guangdong TSPM held a training session for 98 clergy to study new regulations and promote Sinicization in Guangdong Province. An associate professor from Jinling Union Theological Seminary gave a lecture on TSPM and the Sinicization of Christianity. Government officials also gave a lecture on “anticult” measures.

According to Bitter Winter, in some parts of the country, local authorities regularly reviewed sermons of TSPM pastors to ensure they were consistent with CCP ideology and contained praise for government leaders. The publication reported that on July 20, the Dandong City Religious Affairs Bureau in Liaoning Province required TSPM clergy to participate in a sermon competition on the Sinicization of religion. The clergy were told to prepare sermons by “looking for elements in the Bible that are relevant to the core socialist values and traditional Chinese culture,” in conformity with “the progress of the times.” One clergy member told Bitter Winter that only competition participants would pass the annual review to receive a clergy certificate.

In August, a conference to study the new civil code and volume three of Xi Jinping on Governance was held at the Guangxiao Buddhist Temple, organized by the Guangdong Buddhist Association. Approximately 800 leaders of all religious groups in Guangdong Province attended in-person and virtually.

The state-owned China News Service reported that on December 1, SARA director general Wang delivered remarks at the 10th National Congress of the BAC. Wang called on the BAC to “pursue political progress toward the adherence of Sinicization of Buddhism” to ensure Buddhist content was suitable for “contemporary social development.”

From August 10 to16, the Gansu provincial UFWD held what it described as the first round of training for Gansu Province’s main Islamic clerics and the directors of temple management committees at the Lanzhou Islamic Institute. A UFWD press release stated the training was intended to direct the Sinicization of Islam, promote the statement of CCP principles, Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and “increase political literacy, all while highlighting policies and regulations, history and culture, and national and provincial conditions through the lens of patriotic education.”

In November, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that an Islamic scholar in the northwestern part of the country said of Muslim community leaders, “There are no imams who dare to speak out. You can renounce your state-given imam certification and leave the mosque in order to speak out – but then you can be sure you will be constantly monitored.”

On October 13, the state-owned China National Daily News reported the Hubei Provincial Islamic Association released an outline for implementing the “five-year plan for Hubei Province to adhere to the Sinicization of Islam in China (2018-2022).” According to the article, measures to implement the plan included “strengthening political identity,” studying the works of Xi Jinping, studying the Regulations on Religious Affairs, and guiding imams to interpret the scriptures in accordance with “Chinese traditional culture and the core values of socialism.”

China News Service reported that on November 28, the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Taoist Association was held in Jurong, Jiangsu Province. In addition to passing a code of conduct for Taoist teachers, the congress elected Li Guangfu as the new Taoist Association chairman. Li stated that Taoism should “adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in the New Era” and “adhere to the Sinicization of Taoism.”

Media reported in September that Catholics in the country protested the distorted retelling of a Bible story in a textbook the government-run University of Electronic Science and Technology Press published to teach “professional ethics and law” in secondary vocational schools. In the original biblical story from the Gospel of John, Jesus forgave the sins of a woman who committed adultery and prevented a crowd from stoning her to death. In the textbook, Jesus disperses the crowd, but he says to the woman, “I, too, am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead,” and he then proceeds to stone her to death himself. According to UCA News, Catholic critics said the authors of the textbook “want to prove that the rule of law is supreme in China and such respect for law is essential for a smooth transfer to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Sources told media that authorities in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in north-central China, home to a majority of Hui Muslims, prevented public calls to prayer and banned sales of the Quran. Authorities also prohibited news broadcasts from showing images of pedestrians wearing skull caps or veils.

During the year, authorities reportedly pressured churches to display banners with messages of political ideology, recite the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and engage in other acts demonstrating loyalty to the CCP over the church. In a press release on October 1, the anniversary of the founding of the PRC, Pastor Wang Qingwen, senior pastor of Jinghe New City, Shaanxi Province, called on six Christian churches in the city to “unswervingly adhere to the three-self patriotic principle of teaching and strive to promote the theological construction of the Sinicization of Christianity.” In the press release, Wang urged churches to continue to adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and to “hold high the banner of patriotism.”

In December, the Jerusalem Post reported there were approximately 100 practicing Jews among the 1,000 individuals with Jewish ancestry in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Lacking access to the Torah, they used Christian Bibles containing the Old Testament. Members of the community said they worried about government crackdowns on religion and had to celebrate Hanukkah and hold other gatherings in secret. One community member said, “Every time we celebrate, we are scared.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities placed pastors of house churches and dissident Catholic priests under arrest to make sure they would not lead Christmas celebrations in churches or private homes. According to the publication, in Xiamen, Fujian Province, police stopped a group of Christians from singing Christmas songs at a mall, even though they had been invited to perform there. Authorities fined a Christian in Lushan County, Henan Province, RMB 160,000 ($24,500) for gathering people to pray and sing Christmas songs. The NGO Human Rights Defenders reported there was pressure on schools across the country to teach children that Christmas should not be celebrated and that gifts should not be exchanged. According to the NGO, the government gave permission for “spontaneous” street demonstrations by people carrying banners reading “Christmas, Get out of China.”

The government labeled several religious groups as “cults” (xie jiao – literally “heterodox teachings”), including the CAG, the Shouters, the Association of Disciples, and the All Sphere Church. The government also continued to ban certain groups, such as Falun Gong, which it classified as an illegal organization. In July, Bitter Winter reported that several provinces had introduced measures that encouraged individuals to report on members of what it called “cults,” which carried a penalty of between three and seven years’ imprisonment. According to the CAG’s annual report, authorities harassed and threatened with imprisonment more than 8,400 Church members across the country who refused to sign statements renouncing their faith. In Shandong Province, those who reported on suspected “cult” members could receive up to a RMB 2,500 ($380) award, while Hainan Province offered awards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300). Guangdong Province, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and Nanjing City introduced similar measures. Actions by cults to be reported included using the internet to produce or disseminate religious materials; producing or disseminating religious leaflets, pictures, slogans, newspapers, and other publications; and hanging religious banners and posters in public places. Sources told Bitter Winter the campaign against xie jiao was ubiquitous throughout the country. Bitter Winter posted photographs of a park in Yuchen County, Shangqiu City, Henan Province, that contained multiple large red banners with anti-xie jiao messages.

The government reportedly discriminated in employment against members of religious groups it labeled as cults and prevented government employees from participating in religious activities. Faluninfo.net reported that in June, a police supervisor in Yuzhou City, Henan Province, fired Falun Gong practitioner Zha Zhuolin from the force for refusing to write a statement denouncing the group. According to Zha, the supervisor, Xu Wang, said, “The first rule for a police officer is to be loyal to the [Chinese Communist] Party.”

Media reported that in Guangzhou, pandemic-control volunteers delivered anti-xie jiao brochures, along with facemasks and hand sanitizer, to residents at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, then broadcast anticult propaganda when an industrial park reopened in April.

According to media, police and local religious affairs bureau officials raided the Dongguan Branch of Guangzhou Bible Reformed Church on the evening of August 21 when more than 10 adherents were holding a Bible study session. Police accused the attendees of “spreading heterodox teachings” and detained three individuals. Two were released shortly, but the minister, Yang Jun, was detained until the next day on a fraud charge.

According to Bitter Winter, the government responded to protests against school reform in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region by blaming the unrest on banned religious groups, such as Falun Gong, or groups it labeled cults, such as the CAG. On August 28, the region’s Anticult Association launched “Prevention of Xie Jiao Propaganda Month.” Activities during the month included holding events, distributing brochures, and teaching “all ethnic groups in Inner Mongolia to guard against xie jiao.”

In October, CSW reported that some ethnic minority villages had established “village rules” to allow villagers to isolate and target Christians. According to CSW, in September, village authorities in Huang Fei Village, Yingjiang County, Yunnan Province, issued a notice stating that the traditional faith of the Dai community was Buddhism and that Christianity was an “evil cult.” The notice announced that anyone who violated the rules of the village “by believing in Jesus Christ and other sects” would have to pay a financial penalty to the community. CSW stated that individuals on social media reported the Li community in Hainan Province had also imposed a financial penalty on persons believing in Christianity.

From January to June or July, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bitter Winter reported, however, that authorities allowed Taoist temples displaying Mao Zedong images to stay open throughout the lockdown. Sources told Bitter Winter that people worshiped at the Arhat Temple in Zhumadian City, Henan Province, throughout the lockdown because it had a Mao Zedong wall painting. The director of the Chinese National Ancestors’ Temple in Shanqui City, Henan Province, said authorities allowed his temple to remain open during the pandemic because it had a Mao Zedong statue.

Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown. On February 23, Shandong Province’s two state-run Christian organizations, the TSPM and the Chinese Christian Council, issued a notice prohibiting live streaming of religious services. A former TSPM pastor from Jiangxi Province told Bitter Winter that in early February, police shut down a chatroom he was using for a religious gathering. The ICC reported that on August 11, the local religious affairs bureau in Yunnan Province fined Zhang Wenli of the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for conducting unauthorized online Bible study. A TSPM pastor in Binzhou City, Shandong Province, told Bitter Winter in April that the government blocked the link he shared with his congregation on WeChat, a Chinese social media application. A house church director in Qingdao City, Shandong Province, live-streamed a church service on YY, a video-based social network, but the service was suspended less than half an hour into the broadcast. An imam in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, reported that shortly after he discussed Islamic festivals on a social media platform, police blocked his account. A local government official in Liaoning Province was summoned by his superiors in March for attending an online service of a South Korean church. They forced him to uninstall the app that allowed him to join the service.

In June, AsiaNews.it reported that although the government had begun allowing churches to reopen, the bureaucratic process and conditions for reopening made doing so difficult. A priest in central China said these conditions included getting permission to reopen from the village, city, and provincial governments and meeting strict sanitation requirements. The priest said, “Religion does not seem to belong to us; it belongs to the [Chinese Communist] Party.” The Catholic News Service reported authorities in Zhejiang Province issued a notice on May 29 stating that priests were required to “preach on patriotism” as a condition for resuming in-person services. Bitter Winter reported in June that authorities in Zhejiang Province required churches to praise the government’s efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and to pray for “national economic and social development,” “attainment of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” and “promotion and realization of human destiny community,” all of which were President Xi Jinping’s political slogans.

According to Bitter Winter, in July, before the government had begun to lift lockdown restrictions and reopen religious venues in Nanyang City, Henan Province, the city’s religious affairs bureau ordered several folk religion temples to remove religious books and incense burners. Government authorities inspected the Taoist Jade Emperor Temple three times in August. As a condition for reopening the venue, officials ordered the temple to burn scriptures and expel a nun who lived on the premises. The temple remained closed, however, even after meeting these conditions.

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although it allowed some musical, cultural, and political events to take place. On Christmas Day, riot police blocked the entrance to the Catholic Cathedral of the Savior in Beijing (also known as the Xishiku Church), saying religious gatherings were cancelled due to the pandemic. A large Christmas tree was used to block the entrance to St. Joseph’s Church in Beijing, and signs were also posted there saying gatherings were cancelled due to COVID-19.

According to Bitter Winter, officials placed arbitrary restrictions on Catholic churches affiliated with the CCPA, closed facilities, and merged others without the congregations’ consent. Government officials in Linyi used a point system to determine whether a congregation should be merged, considering such factors as whether the congregation had more than 10 members or the facility was equipped with a blackboard, audio system, desks, and chairs.

According to Bitter Winter, on January 10, the local religious affairs bureau and the security bureau ordered Father Liu Jiangdong, a Catholic priest from the Church of the Sacred Heart in Zhengshou City, Henan Province, to leave the Zhengshou Diocese, which was affiliated with the CCPA. A source told Bitter Winter that government authorities had previously accused Liu of financial improprieties, suspended his priesthood certificate, and imprisoned him from October 2018 to December 2019. The source said Liu had in fact been imprisoned because he opposed removal of the cross from atop his church, formed a Catholic youth group, and allowed minors to attend religious services. A member of his congregation said that since Liu’s release, authorities had surveilled him, monitored his telephone calls, and locked him out of his residence. A churchgoer said authorities threatened to fine members of Liu’s former congregation up to RMB 200,000 ($30,600) if they sheltered him or invited him to hold Mass in their homes.

Media and human rights organizations reported that SARA issued a new requirement in October that only the IAC was permitted to organize Muslims’ pilgrimage trips. The new regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health. They also had to be able to completely pay the costs associated with going on the Hajj and must oppose religious extremism. The new administrative measure was reportedly intended to “preserve religious freedom and the continued Sinicization of religion in the PRC.”

According to Bitter Winter, the municipal government of a city in Zhejiang Province issued a document in April that required authorities to increase “counterterrorism and stability maintenance measures” during Ramadan. The document instructed police to intensify surveillance of local Hui and other Muslims, especially during Friday prayers, the daily breaking of the fast, and other important Ramadan activities. It also instructed police to surveil ethnic minority visitors from Xinjiang by checking their documents and luggage, determining their whereabouts while in the city, and acquiring other information.

NPR reported in November that in the spring, police detained 14 men in Yiwu City, Central Zhejiang Province, because they had purchased Islamic books. They were subjected to weeks of questioning about their political views and online correspondence with Muslim intellectuals and Chinese Muslims overseas. According to a friend of one of the men detained, “The police had printed out the text records everyone had on WeChat with writers and publishers…Now the police say every time they travel, they have to report to [the police] beforehand when they are leaving and where they are going.”

Sources reported churches attended by foreigners continued to receive heavy scrutiny, as authorities forced them to require passport checks and registration for members to prevent Chinese citizens from attending “foreigner” services.

Bitter Winter reported that in April, authorities placed surveillance equipment, including facial recognition cameras, in at least 40 religious venues in Zhongwei City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Authorities also installed surveillance cameras in all Protestant and Catholic churches in Jinxiang County, Jinin City, Shandong Province. A deacon at one TSPM Church in Henan Province, where authorities had installed a surveillance camera in December 2019, said, “[Government officials] always know how many congregation members are in the church and what is said during sermons. We have to speak with caution at any time. If we disobey the government, our church will be shut down.” In March and April, authorities in a city in Zhejiang Province placed surveillance cameras outside the entrances of homes of seven members of the CAG. One church member reported she was told this was done for “theft prevention.”

In October, Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Jiangxi Province’s Poyang County, which has a large population of Christians, issued orders to install RMB one million ($153,000) in facial recognition cameras in all state-approved places of worship. According to the report, authorities installed approximately 200 cameras in more than 50 TSPM churches from July to September, and nearly 50 in 16 Buddhist and Taoist temples. A police officer stated the cameras were installed to monitor church members and sermons.

A Catholic source in the northeast part of the country told AsiaNews.it in July that government staff attended Sunday services to monitor activities and ensure children who were 18 or younger did not attend. The Grand Mosque in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, displayed signs prohibiting children who were 18 and younger from participating in religious activity. According to one worshipper at the mosque, authorities said this was to allow young people to focus on their secular education.

Minghui reported that police in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province, intensely surveilled Falun Gong practitioner Ma Zhenyu, who had been released from Suzhou Prison on September 19 after completing his three-year sentence. While monitoring Ma, authorities intimidated his mother and other practitioners.

The Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported in September that authorities in Sanya City, in the island province of Hainan, took measures against the predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, which comprised approximately 10,000 members. They banned girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school. An Utsul community worker said the ban prompted fierce protests by students and their families and that it was temporarily lifted after hundreds of students wore hijabs in public and boycotted classes. Photographs and videos circulated on social media showed girls wearing hijabs and reading from textbooks outside their primary school while surrounded by police officers. According to the SCMP, Utsuls working in government or CCP bodies were told the hijab was “disorderly.” The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued document, Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui Neighborhoods, which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods on the island. The document called for the demolition of mosques displaying “Arabic” features, the removal of shop signs saying in Chinese characters the words “Islamic” or “Halal,” and increased surveillance over the Utsul population.

According to Bitter Winter, from March to May, Islamic symbols and writings in Arabic were painted over or covered on signboards of 70 Hui-run businesses in Chuxiong, the capital of the Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province. According to some shop owners, officials from various state institutions, among them the public security bureau, urban management, and religious affairs bureaus, ordered them to remove the symbols from their signboards or replace them entirely. Otherwise, their business licenses would be revoked. A baker from the prefecture’s Lufeng County said that from December to May, Islamic symbols were removed from the signboards of 62 halal shops in the county. “The state is out of control, like during the Cultural Revolution…Hui men are not allowed to wear white caps and women, headscarves. Hui Muslims will disappear in two or three generations.” Local officials told shop owners that the order came from the central government and that the signboard-removal campaign was nationwide. According to one local resident in Songming County, Kunming Province, signboards on 176 Hui businesses were “Sinicized” between December 2019 and May. A restaurant owner said, “If we Hui people tried to argue with officials, they would call us rioters and arrest us on any trumped-up charge.”

The SCMP reported in September that new foreign teachers coming to the country had to attend a mandatory 20-hour training course of what the news source characterized as “political indoctrination covering China’s development, laws, professional ethics, and education policies.” According to the newspaper, the Hainan provincial public security bureau offered rewards up to RMB 100,000 ($15,300) for tips on foreigners who “engaged in religious activities without permission,” including teaching religion and evangelizing. One teacher said authorities installed a surveillance camera in his classroom to monitor his lessons.

The SCMP reported in September that many foreign missionaries were not allowed to return to the country after it partially lifted COVID-19 travel restrictions for foreign national residents. According to the Voice of America (VOA), in November, the Ministry of Justice published draft regulations requiring foreign worshippers wanting to host religious activities to apply for a permit and to demonstrate their groups were “friendly to China” in their country of origin. The regulations would ban Chinese citizens from attending any services organized by foreigners and would require those organizing religious activities to provide the names, nationalities, and visa status of those who would attend as well as a detailed program of the service, including which texts would be read, before authorities would grant permission. According to VOA, authorities said the new regulations were intended to stop foreigners from spreading “religious extremism” or using religion “to undermine China’s national and ethnic unity.” The draft regulation specified it would also apply to individuals from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, Quran, and other religious literature. The government continued to allow some foreign educational institutions to provide religious materials in Chinese, which were used by both registered and unregistered religious groups. During the year, however, many provinces conducted campaigns cracking down on “illegal religious publications” from unofficial distribution channels. The government-affiliated news outlet Meipian.com reported that in January, law enforcement officers inspected publication wholesale and retail locations, farmer’s markets, and “urban-rural junctions within their jurisdictions” looking for “illegal religious publications and illegal training courses of a religious nature.” The ICC reported that on March 24, the Zhongshan No. 1 District People’s Procuratorate in Guangdong Province charged Christians Liang Rurui and Zhu Guoqing with conducting illegal business operations that “seriously disrupted market order.” According to the ICC, authorities in Zhongshan City, Guangdong Province, had arrested them in November and December 2019, respectively, for printing 7,000 children’s Bibles. According to the human rights blog Weiquanwang (Rights Protection Network), on July 2, authorities arrested four Christians from the Life Tree Culture Communications Co., Ltd. – Fu Xuanjuan, Deng Tianyong, Han Li, and Feng Qunhao – on charges of “illegal business operations” for selling electronic audio Bible players, small handheld devices that allow the user to listen to (as opposed to read) Biblical text. According to Weiquanwang, the company had been legally established in 2011 in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on September 14, the education and environmental protection bureaus in Luoyang City, Henan Province, inspected a local printing house to determine whether it was publishing banned religious materials. The printing house manager said, “They checked my storehouse, scrutinized all records, and even looked at paper sheets on the floor, to see if they have prohibited content. If any such content is found, I’ll be fined, or worse, my business will be closed.” According to Bitter Winter, similar bans applied to photocopying businesses. One photocopy employee said, “I was told to report anyone who comes to copy religious materials.” Another said, “If we are not sure if a text is religious, we must keep its copy and report it to authorities.”

The ICC reported in September that the People’s Court of Linhai City in Zhejiang Province sentenced online Christian bookseller Chen Yu to seven years in prison and fined him for “illegal business operations,” allegedly for selling unapproved religious publications. Authorities first detained him in September 2019.

In July, Bitter Winter reported government restrictions on printing, copying, and mailing nonapproved Buddhist literature increased throughout the country. A source in Chifeng City, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, said authorities confiscated thousands of Buddhist books and compact discs from at least 20 stores in the region. One store owner said authorities confiscated more than 2,000 Buddhist books and materials from the store. Another shop owner said, “In the past, people would send me books and materials they printed themselves to distribute them for free, but nobody dares to do this now.” In March, police in Zhejiang Province forbade printing houses from fulfilling orders from venues not approved by the government. In June, authorities in Hulunbuir City, Inner Mongolia, banned copy centers from printing Buddhist and Christian materials. One copy shop owner said, “Government officials come every day to inspect computers and copy machines. If they discover that religious materials have been copied, I could be held legally accountable.”

Bitter Winter reported that in early September, police arrested a person in Jinan City, Shandong Province, who attempted to mail compact discs of sermons by Shenpo Sodargye, a Tibetan Buddhist master, to the more than 100 individuals in Weihai City, Shangdong Province, who had ordered them online. The names of the buyers were forwarded to local Weihai police, who summoned them for questioning.

According to Bitter Winter, during a meeting on Buddhism organized on July 31 by the Fuzhou City Religious Affairs Bureau in Jiangxi Province, authorities banned all temples in the city from keeping religious books from Hong Kong and Taiwan in the name of “preventing foreign infiltration.” The director of a Buddhist temple said, “The government controls all books on Buddhism; nothing that does not comply with the CCP ideology is allowed and is considered illegal. Only religious materials promoting the Party are permitted to be circulated.”

According to Bitter Winter, local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Chinese New Year. Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them. One merchant in Luhe County, Guangdong Province, said, “We don’t carry religious couplets. Even if we had them, we wouldn’t dare sell them.” On January 19, three officials from Poyang County, Jiangxi Province, entered a TSPM church, took photos, and registered the personal information of those in the church. The officials distributed couplets praising the CCP and demanded they be posted. A government employee in Xinmi City, Henan Province, told Bitter Winter that in early March, municipal authorities ordered all town and township governments to conduct door-to-door inspections of households and shops looking for religious couplets. Inspectors were instructed to remove the couplets and cooperate with the public security bureau to ascertain where they had been produced. One shopkeeper said authorities threatened to close his business if he posted Christian couplets again.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials. According to VOA, in October, ChinaAid stated that online censors removed the words “Christ” (jidu), “Jesus” (Yesu), and “Bible” (shengjing) from social media posts and replaced them with the initials “JD,” “YS,” and “SJ.” The word Christianity was replaced with “JD religion.” According to some scholars, Christians were replacing the words in texts themselves to avoid online censors who might block the posts.

In May, Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to dismantle Islamic architectural features and remove Islamic symbols from mosques throughout the country, and it published photographs from multiple locations showing construction workers taking down domes and minarets as well as before-and-after pictures. In Weizhou City, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, many of the more than 4,000 mosques in the city were remodeled or destroyed between 2018 and February 2020 as part of the government’s “de-Arabization and de-Saudization” campaign. Before-and-after photographs of the Weizhou Grand Mosque and other mosques showed that Chinese-style pagodas had replaced minarets and crescent moon symbols had been removed.

In late March, authorities removed the domes and star-and-crescent symbols from 17 mosques in Pingliang City, Gansu Province. A local imam said that before the removals, authorities forced imams to study “de-Arabization and de-Saudization policies as well as the promotion of religion ‘Sinicization.’” The imam said authorities threatened to revoke the credentials of imams who did not cooperate with removal of the symbols. Many mosques visible from major highways in Qinghai Province in September had replaced traditional Islamic minarets with more Chinese-looking structures or appeared to be in the process of doing so. Mosques with more traditional Han Chinese architecture, such as the Grand Mosque in Xining, Qinghai Province, remained unchanged and were highlighted in public tours by imams and other mosque representatives.

According to Bitter Winter, in January, authorities removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from at least 10 mosques in Pingdingshan City, Henan Province. On March 18, amid the coronavirus lockdown, government-hired workers remodeled the roof of the Gongmazhuang Mosque in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, to make it look “more Chinese.” Authorities had removed domes and star-and-crescent symbols from the mosque in November 2019. In late March, the government ordered the removal of domes and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Xiaoma Village, Henan Province. In mid-November, authorities removed the dome and star-and-crescent symbols from a mosque in Qinghua Town, Henan Province, and hung banners reading, “Resolutely resist religious infiltration and combat religious extremism” at the mosque’s entrance. In Maying Village, Henan Province, after the government ordered the removal of symbols from the local mosque, one resident said, “We have to listen to what Xi Jinping says and what state policies indicate. No one dares to challenge the state.”

In December, Bitter Winter published before-and-after photographs of numerous churches in multiple provinces, including churches affiliated with the TSPM, that showed that exterior crosses had been removed and facades altered to eliminate Western-style features that identified them as Christian worship venues. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM churches in Anhui Province between January and July. In April, UCA News reported the removal of crosses from several Catholic churches, including from Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Anhui Diocese on April 18. A priest said dioceses normally cooperated with authorities on the removal of crosses in the hopes that they would not demolish the entire building. On June 6, all crosses, other religious symbols, and pews were removed from the Wangdangjia village church in Linyi County. The “Catholic Church” signboard above its entrance was covered with wooden boards.

According to Bitter Winter, between March 2019 and January 2020, authorities removed crosses from approximately 70 Christian churches, including TSPM churches, in Linyi City, Shandong Province. Authorities said the crosses were “too close to the national highway,” “too tall,” or might seem “unpleasant” to visiting provincial government superiors. They threatened to demolish the buildings if the crosses remained. On January 8, the provincial government ordered a TSPM Church near the high-speed rail line in Lanshan District, Shandong Province, to remove its exterior cross because it was “too eye-catching.” The Chinese characters for “love” and “Christian Church” were also removed. Authorities removed crosses from at least 900 TSPM Churches in Anhui Province between January and July.

According to Bitter Winter, officials in Fuzhou City, Fujian Province, pressured the abbot of the Buddhist Yuantong Temple to remove an 11-meter (36-foot)-high statue of Guanyin for being “too tall.” According to sources, authorities threatened to close the temple if the abbot did not comply. On March 9, workers dismantled the statue, and photographs accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed it lying in pieces on the ground.

Media reported authorities continued to destroy religious sites, including those affiliated with the TSPM and CCPA. Throughout the year, Bitter Winter published numerous before-and-after photographs showing churches, temples, and other religious structures that had been reduced in whole or in part to rubble. Bitter Winter reported that on March 10, authorities demolished a TSPM Church in Shangqiu, Henan Province. A source told Bitter Winter that on March 10 at 4:00 a.m., more than 200 government personnel and police came to demolish a TSPM Church in Xiazhuang Village, Shangqiu City, Henan Province. According to the source, police kicked in the door and forcibly removed a member of the congregation who was guarding the church, fracturing two of his ribs. The contents of the church were buried under the rubble.

On April 20, the government of Shangrao County in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Prefecture, demolished a TSPM Church, saying the structure was “unlicensed and dilapidated.” Sources said local officials told the congregation higher-level officials had ordered the demolition because “the government doesn’t allow belief in Jesus.” A church member told Bitter Winter the structure was in fact sound and was also registered with the local religious affairs bureau. The church member said that, contrary to law, authorities did not compensate the congregation for destroying the building. Accompanying the article were photographs showing the church before demolition and a pile of rubble following the demolition. According to another church member, following the demolition, congregants began practicing separately at home but had to be cautious. “The government arrests anyone in unauthorized religious gatherings. When they find two or three of us meeting, they can charge us with any crime at will, saying we are against the CCP.”

The ICC reported that on September 12, authorities in the town of Xiezhou in Yanhu District, Yucheng City, Shangxi Province, demolished the tombstones of more than 20 Swedish missionaries who had performed missionary work in the country in the early 1900s. They threatened to arrest anyone who photographed or videotaped the incident. Authorities planted vegetation over the gravesites.

Local sources reported authorities continued to close Christian venues or repurpose them into secular spaces. According to Bitter Winter, in April, the government of Qingshui Township in Shangrao City, Jiangxi Province, closed a TSPM Church for being “unlicensed and too eye-catching.” Officials destroyed religious symbols inside the church and posted a closure notice at the entrance. In May, officials converted the church into an activity center for the elderly, placing a ping-pong table, Chinese chess boards, and secular books inside.

Bitter Winter reported that on January 1, six local government officials and police officers raided a Catholic nursing home in Fuzhou City, Jiangxi Province. They confiscated 30 religious publications, a cross, and other religious symbols, sculptures, and paintings. A photograph accompanying the article showed that a mural of Jesus that had been displayed behind the alter was replaced with a landscape painting and an outdoor sculpture of Jesus was covered with a shed. Authorities pressured the church’s priest to sign an application to join the CCPA, but he refused. According to Bitter Winter, authorities also targeted the Benevolence Home, a nursing home operated by nuns in Saiqi Village, Fujian Province. On January 12, nearly 50 local government officials and police officers raided the nursing home where more than 30 persons lived, some of whom were from impoverished households or disabled. Authorities forced the elderly residents out and cut off the building’s electricity and water supply.

In July, a Catholic source in southeast China told AsiaNews.it that the local government denied permits to construct new Catholic churches and halted construction that was already underway. In January, AsiaNews.it reported that in at least five parishes in Mindong Diocese, Fujian Province, including Fuan, Saiqi, and Suanfeng, authorities cut off power and water to prevent churches from being used, citing “fire safety” measures.

Bitter Winter reported that government and law enforcement personnel destroyed the Great Hall of Strength, a Buddhist temple in Handan City, Hubei Province, on March 6. A local Buddhist said authorities demolished it because it “lacked a religious-activity venue-registration certificate.” The temple director said he was never approached about obtaining such a certificate. The local Buddhist said, “The government just wanted to demolish the temple…People cannot argue with authorities; they will accuse us of breaking the law as they please.”

According to Bitter Winter, authorities demolished the Buddhist Phoenix Temple in Qitang Town, Chongqing Municipality, on January 3. In March, authorities ordered eight Buddhist temples in Yongchuan District, Chongqing Municipality, to close and brick up their entrances, rendering the buildings unusable. Authorities demolished the Longhua Temple in Ma’anshan City, Anhui Province, on April 1.

Sources told Bitter Winter that on May 18, more than 20 officials and police in Shucheng County, Anhui Province, destroyed a Buddhist temple that authorities had declared “a dilapidated building.” When a protester attempted to film the scene, police officers pressed her to the ground and hit her in the collarbone until she lost consciousness. Police then destroyed her mobile phone.

Bitter Winter reported several cases of authorities destroying folk religion sites throughout the country. From April 14 to 19, authorities demolished three buildings in the Yangfu Temple in Taizhou, Zhejiang Province. On April 22, authorities demolished 18 statues in two folk religion temples in Linzhou, Henan Province. From April to June, authorities demolished 85 small folk religion temples in Handan, Hebei Province. On May 1, authorities demolished an ancestral hall in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 2 in Dangtu County, Ma’anshan City, Anhui Prefecture, more than 100 police officers destroyed a village folk temple. One villager said police first cordoned off the area to prevent anyone from approaching. The witness said, “They then smashed the lock to get inside and demolished the temple after dragging out the eight elderly believers protecting it.” The online magazine posted a video on social media that showed a large number of police standing guard while a bulldozer knocked down the structure.

Bitter Winter reported in July that authorities had not yet reopened the Cao’an Manichean temple in Quanzhou, Fujian Province, which had been closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Police were seen periodically patrolling the temple. Before its closure, authorities ordered the construction of a flagpole for the national flag and placed government propaganda slogans inside the temple.

Religious education for minors remained banned, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.

AsiaNews.it reported authorities sent a directive to Xilinhaote Middle School Number 6 in Xilinhaote, Inner Mongolia dated March 25 forbidding students from taking part in religious activities in or outside of school. The directive reportedly prohibited parents from teaching their children about religion and religious organizations from operating in schools. Students and teachers found disobeying the restrictions faced expulsion and dismissal.

In November, Bitter Winter reported that a fifth-grade teacher in a Liaoning Province primary school told the online magazine any mention of religious holidays had been purged from English-language textbooks. The teacher said a text originally entitled “Easter Party” had been replaced with “English Party” and descriptive passages such as “You will meet the Easter Bunny” with “You will meet Robin the Robot.”

In January, AsiaNews.it, reported the government had closed down several Tibetan Buddhist centers in Sichuan Province because, authorities said, “Illegal activities” were carried out in the centers. The NGO International Campaign for Tibet said the government’s actual purpose was to limit the influence of Khenpo Sodargye, a Buddhist monk who founded these centers. The centers were associated with the Larung Gar Tibetan Buddhist Institute, from which authorities had expelled more than 15,000 Buddhist monks and nuns since 2016 and destroyed significant portions of the property.

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

Religious groups reported state-sanctioned religious associations continued to be subject to CCP interference in matters of doctrine, theology, and religious practice. The associations also closely monitored and sometimes blocked the ability of religious leaders to meet freely with foreigners.

National regulations required Muslim clerics to meet the following requirements: “Uphold the leadership of the CCP; love Islam and serve Muslims; possess a degree in or receive formal training in Islamic scriptural education; have graduated from junior high school or above, in addition to attaining competency in Arabic; and be at least 22-years-old.” According to sources, imams had to pass an exam testing their ideological knowledge to renew their license each year.

The government and the Holy See remained without formal diplomatic relations and the Holy See had no official representative to the country. On October 22, the Holy See and the PRC announced they had agreed to extend a provisional agreement on the appointment of bishops for another two years. The two parties signed the original agreement in 2018. The precise terms of the agreement were not made public, but according to Catholic News Agency (CNA) and Vatican News, it was a “pastoral” effort to help unify members of the underground Catholic Church in China – which had remained in communion with the Holy See – with Catholics belonging to the CCPA. Vatican News stated the agreement “does not directly concern diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, nor the legal status of the Chinese Catholic Church or relations between the clergy and the authorities of the country. The Provisional Agreement concerns exclusively the process of nomination of bishops…” Following the signing of the agreement, seven CCPA-affiliated bishops appointed without papal mandate were brought into full communion with the Holy See; an eighth bishop was posthumously recognized. AsiaNews.it reported that on November 23, Reverend Thomas Chen Tianhao became the third new bishop without a prior affiliation with the CCPA to be ordained under the agreement, assuming the position of Bishop of Qingdao in Qingdao City, Shandong Province. UCA News reported that on December 22, a fourth bishop, Peter Liu Genzhu, was ordained bishop of Hongdong in Linfen City, Shanxi Province.

Commentators, human rights groups, and some Catholic leaders criticized the agreement as doing little to protect freedom of religion or belief for Catholics in China. On November 17, the America Jesuit Review published an article discussing 30 bishops who belonged to the underground Catholic Church and refused to join the CCPA. “The situation of these bishops has become more difficult since the agreement as, contrary to what Rome expected, Chinese authorities have used it to pressure underground bishops and priests to submit to the state’s religious policies.” Retired Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong in his online blog of October 7 said the agreement was lopsided, with the CCP nominating bishops for the Pope to approve, and that persecution of the underground Catholic Church had increased since 2018.

Catholic clergy and laypersons told media the situation of both registered and unregistered Catholic communities worsened during the year. A number of Catholic churches and bishops appointed by the Pope remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA. According to Bitter Winter, the Catholic Diocese of Mindong in Fujian Province suffered severe persecution from the CCP after most of its priests refused to join the CCPA. Authorities closed five parishes in January. Bitter Winter reported multiple instances of authorities pressuring Catholic leaders to join the CCPA and, in some cases, arresting and physically abusing Catholic leaders who refused. According to Bitter Winter, during the first half of the year, the CCPA attempted to force 57 unregistered Catholic priests from the Mindong Diocese to join the organization. As of June, 25 had complied, three had resigned in protest, and one was driven out of the diocese. Local authorities continued to pressure the remaining 28 priests to join.

According to Bitter Winter, on April 2, officials detained Father Huang Jintong, a priest from the Mindong Diocese’s parish in Saiqi Village in Fuan City, Fujian Province. Police deprived the priest of sleep for four days before he signed a document saying he would join the CCPA. According to AsiaNews.it, on September 1, the local religious affairs bureau detained another priest of the Mindong Diocese, Father Liu Maochun, for at least 17 days for refusing to join the CCPA.

Sources told Reuters News Agency that in May, two Catholic nuns serving at the Holy See’s Study Mission to China in Kowloon (Hong Kong) were arrested by mainland authorities when they traveled to Hebei Province to visit their families. The nuns were detained in Hebei for three weeks before being released into house arrest without being charged. They remained under house arrest as of year’s end, and their families’ homes were under surveillance. The nuns were reportedly allowed to attend Mass but were not permitted to leave mainland China.

In July, AsiaNews.it reported that a priest said authorities often gathered priests in order to “brainwash” them, congregation members were no longer able to host Mass in their homes, and bishops of underground dioceses were increasingly arrested since the 2018 signing of the provisional agreement between the Holy See and China. One lay member said there were more restrictions on the number of individuals allowed to attend religious gatherings, children younger than 18 were forbidden from entering the church, and government authorities often sat in on church meetings to surveil the church.

CNA reported that on October 4, Vincenzo Guo Xijin, the auxiliary bishop of the Mindong Diocese in Fujian Province, announced he would no longer preside over public masses or receive any tithes and said that all administrative matters associated with the diocese should be referred to Bishop Vincent Zhan Silu. In 2006, the Holy See excommunicated Zhan, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, but in December 2018 allowed him to replace Guo as bishop of the Mindong Diocese while Guo stepped into the subordinate position. Zhan was one of seven individuals appointed without papal mandate whom the Holy See recognized as bishops under the 2018 provisional agreement. The government did not recognize Guo, who was not a member of the CCPA, in his role as auxiliary bishop. In an open letter announcing his withdrawal from public religious duties, Guo stated, “The sacraments celebrated by those who sign [a document joining the CCPA] and those who do not sign are legitimate.”

In June, CNA reported that authorities detained underground Catholic bishop Cui Tai in Zhangjiakou Municipality, Hebei Province. According to AsiaNews.it, authorities in the past had repeatedly placed Cui under house arrest or sent him to forced-labor camps for engaging in evangelization activities without official government permission and for criticizing the CCPA. As of year’s end, it was unclear whether he had been released from detention.

Sources told Bitter Winter the government threatened to retaliate against family members if clergy in the Mindong Diocese did not join the CCPA. Authorities forced Father Feng from Xiyin Village, Fuan City, to sign an application to join the CCPA by threatening to dismiss his younger brother and sister-in-law from public employment. After another priest refused to join, authorities confiscated the vehicle his brother used for business and shut down his nephew’s travel agency.

The ICC reported in July that a member of the ERCC said authorities threatened to send the children of church members to “reeducation camps” and take adopted children away from their parents. The source said authorities had already taken four adopted children from one church family and returned them to their biological parents or found them other homes.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Because the government and individuals closely link religion, culture, and ethnicity, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of societal discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite labor law provisions against discrimination in hiring based on religious belief, some employers continued to discriminate against religious believers. Religious minorities continued to report employers terminated their employment due to their current or prior religious activities. Minghui reported cases of Falun Gong practitioners losing their jobs due to their beliefs.

Bitter Winter reported that in June, a sanitation worker in Henan Province was fired for reading the Bible while on a work break. The director of the Environmental Sanitation Bureau fired her after publicly criticizing her earlier in the day. Thereafter, the Environmental Sanitation Bureau required that new workers show a “certificate of no faith” issued by police in the area of their permanent residence registration and stated that “one who believes in the Lord is not allowed.” A man in Shaanxi Province told Bitter Winter that he was required to provide a “certificate of no faith” to each of the multiple hotels he had worked at over the course of his career. A man working in the public security sector in Shandong Province said he lost his job because his father was a member of the CAG.

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs continued. Since 2017 and 2018 when articles in the 2005 Public Security Administration Punishment Law related to “suspicious activity” began to be enforced in earnest, Falun Gong practitioners reported ongoing difficulty finding landlords who would rent them apartments. Sources stated the enforcement of this law continued to move the PRC further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

Sources told Bitter Winter that government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility towards that group. Anti-Muslim speech in social media remained widespread. Bitter Winter reported that in March, police in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, sent notices to many rental and real estate agencies forbidding them to rent apartments or shop spaces to Uyghurs. One property owner said police fined him RMB 500 ($76) for renting to Uyghurs and demanded he send police identification information and photographs of all Uyghur tenants. One Uyghur man said his family had, after some difficulty, found an apartment to rent, but on the condition that the family report to a local police station three times a week. The man said, “Three days after we signed the rental contract, police officers installed a surveillance camera at our building entrance.” One man in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, said owners preferred to keep their properties empty rather than to rent to Uyghurs. A Uyghur man said he had to use his friend’s bank card because local banks refused to issue him one. Uyghur grocery store and restaurant owners said constant police visits had a severe negative impact on their businesses. A Han businessman told Bitter Winter, “The government tries every means possible to deprive Uyghurs of their rights, prohibiting them from renting, doing business, and staying in hotels. The goal is to drive them away and cut off all their sources of survival, forcing them back to Xinjiang to be locked in ‘transformation-through-education’ camps.”

According to Bitter Winter, several college students stated college administrators encouraged students to report on fellow students who appeared to engage in religious activities. One Christian student in Inner Mongolia said she had been reported and that school administrators investigated her, frequently summoned her, and forced her to write self-criticism statements. A university professor who was a member of the TSPM Church was demoted from her teaching position after mentioning the Bible in class and was subsequently investigated by the State Security Bureau.

There were reports that Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and other religious minorities continued to face difficulties in finding accommodation when they traveled.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Secretary of State, Ambassador, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom. On September 30, at the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See’s Symposium on Advancing and Defending Religious Freedom Through Diplomacy in Rome, Italy, the Secretary gave a speech on the restrictions of religious freedom in China. The Secretary said the CCP “has battered every religious community in China: Protestant house churches, Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong devotees, and more. Nor, of course, have Catholics been spared this wave of repression.” In an October speech on tolerance while visiting Indonesia, the Secretary said, “The gravest threat to the future of religious freedom is the Chinese Communist Party’s war against people of all faiths: Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners alike.”

Embassy and consulate officials regularly sought meetings with a range of government officials managing religious affairs to obtain more information on government policies and to advocate for greater religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy and consulate officials, including the Ambassador and Consuls General, urged government officials at the central, provincial, and local levels, including those at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other ministries, to implement stronger protections for religious freedom and to release prisoners of conscience. The Ambassador highlighted religious freedom in meetings with senior officials. The Department of State, embassy, and consulates general regularly called upon the government to release prisoners of conscience and advocated on behalf of individual cases of persons imprisoned for religious reasons.

The Ambassador, Consuls General in Chengdu (prior to its closure by the Chinese government in retaliation for the closure of PRC Consulate Houston), Guangzhou, Shanghai, Shenyang, and Wuhan, and other embassy and consulate general officials met with religious groups as well as academics, NGOs, members of registered and unregistered religious groups, and family members of religious prisoners to reinforce U.S. support for religious freedom. The Consul General in Chengdu (prior to its closure) met with Tibetan and Muslim leaders in Sichuan Province to emphasize support for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities. Embassy officials met with visiting members of U.S. religious groups to discuss how these groups were engaging with local communities.

The embassy continued to amplify Department of State religious freedom initiatives directly to local audiences through postings to the embassy website and to its Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter accounts. Over the course of the year, the embassy published more than 120 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics. More than 250,000 social media users engaged with these social media posts, participating in online discussions with embassy staff and with each other. The embassy also highlighted the Secretary’s visit to the Vatican to emphasize U.S. support on religious freedom.

The embassy also shared religious holiday greetings from the President, Secretary of State, and Ambassador. These included well wishes on the occasion of special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists. Millions of social media users viewed these messages, often sparking further comments, such as “Countries that respect religious freedom will be respected,” “Freedom of religion is a prerequisite for building a civil society,” and “The essence of religion is to lead people to the good. As a democratic power, the United States has guaranteed religious freedom.” For International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy published the Secretary’s message supporting respect for religious freedom as well as information describing the Chinese government’s continuing control over religion and restrictions on the activities of religious adherents. These posts on Weibo, WeChat, and Twitter social media platforms garnered more than 750,000 views and approximately 10,000 engagements.

In January, the Consulate General in Guangzhou submitted comments to the Guangdong People’s Congress and Guangdong Ethnic and Religious Affairs Commission regarding the new draft of Guangdong Religious Affairs Regulations. The government stated the new regulations would “protect citizens’ freedom of religious belief, maintain religious harmony and social harmony, standardize the management of religious affairs, and improve the level of legalization of religious work.” In December, the embassy submitted comments and recommendations on the central government’s draft Rules for the Implementation of the Provisions on the Administration of Foreign Religious Activities, which proposed burdensome preapproval procedures for almost all religious activities. The draft rules also limited activities of unregistered religious groups and conflated peaceful religious practice with “terrorism.”

On May 22, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add China’s Ministry of Public Security Institute of Forensic Science and eight commercial entities to the list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”) for being complicit in human rights violations and abuses committed in China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, forced labor, and high-technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in the XUAR. On July 20, the Bureau of Industry and Security announced it would add an additional 11 commercial entities to the list for the same reasons, bring the total number of entities added to the Entity List during the year to 20. These actions constrict the export of items subject to the Export Administration Regulations to entities that have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the country’s campaign targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 1, the Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, and Homeland Security issued a business advisory to caution businesses about the economic, legal, and reputational risks of supply chain links to entities that engage in human rights abuses, including forced labor, in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

On July 7, the Secretary of State announced the United States was imposing visa restrictions on PRC government and CCP officials determined to be “substantially involved in the formulation or execution of policies related to access for foreigners to Tibetan areas,” pursuant to the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018.

On July 9, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on three senior CCP officials for their involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xinjiang: Chen Quanguo, the party secretary of the XUAR; Zhu Hailun, party secretary of the Xinjiang Political and Legal Committee; and Wang Mingshan, the party secretary of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB). They and their immediate family members became ineligible for entry into the United States. In making the announcement, the Secretary said the United States “will not stand idly by as the CCP carries out human rights abuses targeting Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang, to include forced labor, arbitrary mass detention, and forced population control, and attempts to erase their culture and Muslim faith.” Also on July 9, the Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Chen, Zhu, Wang, and Huo Liujun, former party secretary of the XPSB, as well as the XPSB organization, pursuant to Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. In response, the Chinese government on July 13 imposed sanctions on the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, three members of Congress, and the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

On June 17, the President signed into law the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, authorizing the imposition of U.S. sanctions, including asset blocking and denial of visas, against Chinese officials responsible for the detention and persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

On July 31, the Department of the Treasury imposed a second round of sanctions pursuant to the Executive Order on one government entity and two current or former government officials, in connection with serious rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang: the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), Sun Jinlong, a former political commissar of the XPCC, and Peng Jiarui, the deputy party secretary and commander of the XPCC.

On December 10, the Secretary of State imposed visa restrictions on Huang Yuanxiong, chief of the Xiamen Public Security Bureau Wucun police station “for his involvement in gross violations of human rights in Xiamen, China.” In his statement, the Secretary said, “Huang is associated with particularly severe violations of religious freedom of Falun Gong practitioners, namely his involvement in the detention and interrogation of Falun Gong practitioners for practicing their beliefs.” The action also applied to Mr. Huang’s spouse.

On May 1, June 17, September 14, and December 2, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency prohibited imports of specified merchandise, including hair products, apparel, cotton, and computer parts, produced by eight companies that operated in Xinjiang, based on information that reasonably indicated the use of prison labor and forced labor of Uyghurs and other minority groups in Xinjiang being held in internment camps.

On December 27, the President signed into law the Tibetan Policy and Support Act of 2020. The law states in part that decisions regarding the selection, education, and veneration of Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders are exclusively spiritual matters that should be made by the appropriate religious authorities.

PRC authorities consistently harassed and intimidated religious leaders to dissuade them from speaking with U.S. officials. Authorities regularly prevented members of religious communities from attending events at the embassy and consulates general, and security services questioned individuals who did attend. Authorities routinely declined to approve or postponed U.S. officials’ requests to visit religious sites and meet with religious leaders.

At the direction of the Secretary of State, U.S. government officials explored whether the PRC’s actions in Xinjiang constituted atrocities, namely crimes against humanity and genocide. The process was ongoing at year’s end.*

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020 the Secretary of State redesignated China as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restriction on exports to China of crime control and detection instruments and equipment, under the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of 1990 and 1991 (Public Law 101-246), pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Eritrea

Executive Summary

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religiously motivated discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief, as well as the freedom to practice any religion. The government recognizes four officially registered religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups, and their members can be subjected to arrest and mistreatment and released on the condition that they formally renounce their faith, although some unregistered groups are allowed to operate, and the government tolerates their worship activities. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and international media continued to report that members of all religious groups were, to varying degrees, subjected to government abuses and restrictions. Members of unrecognized religious groups reported instances of imprisonment and detention without explanation of individuals observing the unrecognized faiths. In December, the government released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served prison sentences of between five and 26 years, in some cases for refusing compulsory military service. The government did not comment publicly or privately on the releases. In April, the government reportedly arrested 15 Christians engaged in a worship service at a private home, and in June, another 30 persons were arrested at a Christian wedding. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention. Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006. International NGOs reported the government continued to detain 345 church leaders and officials without charge or trial, while estimates of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses for conscientious objection and for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith. An unknown number of Muslim protesters remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October, 2017 and March, 2018, although at least 101 of these reportedly were released in August. During the year, the government also reportedly released 115 Christian detainees. The government continued to deny citizenship to Jehovah’s Witnesses after stripping them of citizenship in 1994 for refusing to participate in the referendum that created the independent state of Eritrea.

The government’s lack of transparency and intimidation of civil society and religious communities created difficulties for individuals who wanted to obtain information on the status of societal respect for religious freedom. Religious leaders of all denominations and the faithful regularly attended worship services and religious celebrations. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals organized by both recognized and unrecognized religious groups were widely attended, including by senior government officials.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington regularly raised religious freedom concerns with government officials throughout the year, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors to mandatory national service that includes military training, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios. A return visit by a U.S. delegation that visited Asmara in 2019 to continue dialogue on these issues was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. embassy officials met with clergy and other members of religious groups, both registered and unregistered. Embassy officials further discussed religious freedom on a regular basis with a wide range of individuals, including members of the diplomatic corps based in Asmara, in other countries in the region, and UN officials. Embassy officials used social media and outreach programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The UN estimates a population of approximately 3.5 million. Reliable population data in the country is difficult to gather, however. There are no reliable figures on religious affiliation. The Pew Foundation in 2016 estimated the population to be 63 percent Christian and 37 percent Muslim. Some government, religious, and international sources estimate the population to be 49 percent Christian and 49 percent Sunni Muslim. The Christian population is predominantly Eritrean Orthodox. Catholics, Protestants, and other Christian denominations, including Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Pentecostals, constitute less than 5 percent of the Christian population. Some estimates suggest 2 percent of the population is traditionally animist. The Baha’i community reports approximately 500 members, half of whom reside in the capital, Asmara. Only one Jew is known to remain in the country and on a part-time basis.

A majority of the population in the southern and central regions is Christian. A majority of the Tigrinya, the largest ethnic group, is Christian. The Tigre and the Rashaida, the largest minority ethnic groups, are predominantly Muslim and reside mainly in the northern regions of the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The law and unimplemented constitution prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of thought, conscience, and belief and the freedom to practice any religion.

Proclamation 73/1995, which serves as the guiding law on religious issues, calls for separation of religion and state; outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, including concerning foreign relations and social activities; establishes an Office of Religious Affairs; and requires religious groups to register with the government or cease activities. Some members of religious groups that are unregistered or otherwise not in compliance with the law reportedly continue to be subject to the former provisional penal code, which sets penalties for failure to register and noncompliance. A new penal code was promulgated in 2015 that does not directly address penalties for religious groups that fail to register or otherwise comply with the law, but includes a punishment for “unlawful assembly” of between one and six months’ imprisonment and a fine of 5,001 to 20,000 nakfa ($330-$1,300); however, the new code has not yet been implemented.

The Office of Religious Affairs has authority to regulate religious activities and institutions, including approval of the applications of religious groups seeking official registration. Each application must include a description of the group’s history in the country; an explanation of the uniqueness or benefit the group offers compared with other registered religious groups; names and personal information of the group’s leaders; detailed information on assets; a description of the group’s conformity to local culture; and a declaration of all foreign sources of funding.

The Office of Religious Affairs has registered four religious groups: the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation). While the Baha’i are not one of the four officially recognized religions, they have registered every year since 1959, the year the chapter was established, and have “de facto” recognition from the government. A 2002 decree requires all other religious groups to submit registration applications and to cease religious activities and services prior to approval.

Religious groups must obtain government approval to build facilities for worship.

While the law does not specifically address religious education in public schools, Proclamation 73/1995 outlines the parameters to which religious organizations must adhere, and education is not included as an approved activity. In practice, religious instruction is commonplace within worship communities.

By law, all citizens between ages 18 and 50 must perform 18 months of national service, with limited exceptions, including for health reasons such as physical disability or pregnancy. In times of emergency, the length of national service may be extended indefinitely, and the country officially has been in a state of emergency since the beginning of the 1998 war with Ethiopia. A compulsory citizen militia requires some persons not in the military, including many who had been demobilized from National Service, are elderly, or are otherwise exempted from military service in the past, to carry firearms and attend ad hoc militia training. Failure to participate in the militia or national service may result in detention. Militia duties mostly involve security-related activities, such as airport or neighborhood patrolling. Militia training primarily involves occasional marches and listening to patriotic lectures. The law does not provide for conscientious objector status for religious reasons, nor are there alternative activities for persons willing to perform national service but unwilling to engage in military or militia activities.

The law prohibits any involvement in politics by religious groups.

The government requires all citizens to obtain an exit visa prior to departing the country. The application requests the applicant’s religious affiliation, but the law does not require that information.

The law limits foreign financing for religious groups, including registered groups. The only contributions legally allowed are from local followers, the government, or government-approved foreign sources.

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

Government Practices

In December, the government released 28 members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had served prison sentences of between five and 26 years, in some cases for refusing compulsory military service. The government did not comment publicly or privately on the releases.

In April, the government reportedly arrested 15 Christians engaged in a worship service at an individual’s home, and in June, another 30 persons were arrested at a Christian wedding. Local contacts reported some, but not all, were released within a few weeks of arrest. There was no information on the whereabouts of the detainees, the conditions under which they were being held, the charges against them, if any, or if they remained in detention at year’s end.

The International NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported that authorities continued to imprison without charge or trial 345 church leaders, including some who had been imprisoned without charge for 23 years, while estimates of the number of detained laity ranged from 800 to more than 1,000. Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than half of whom had been in prison for more than 20 years, for refusing to participate in military service and renounce their faith. There were unconfirmed reports that at least 101 of Muslim detainees arrested following protests in Asmara in 2017 and 2018 were released.

International media reported that authorities released from prison 22 Christians in July and at least 69 Christians in September. The released prisoners were not allowed to leave the country. According to CSW, those released in September had been in prison between two and 16 years without charge or trial prior to their release.

Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios, who last appeared in public in July, 2017, has remained under house detention since 2006 for protesting government interference in church affairs.

Determining the number of persons imprisoned for their religious beliefs was difficult due to lack of government transparency and the reported intimidation of those who might come forward with such information.

The government continued to single out Jehovah’s Witnesses for particularly harsh treatment because of their blanket refusal to vote in the 1993 referendum on the country’s independence and subsequent refusal to participate in mandatory national service. The government continued to detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons. Authorities’ treatment of religious prisoners appeared to have been inconsistent. In some prisons, religious prisoners reportedly were not allowed to have visitors, but in others, visitors were allowed. Former prisoners held for their religious beliefs continued to report harsh detention conditions, including solitary confinement, physical abuse, and inadequate food, water, and shelter. Other former religious prisoners reported acceptable conditions, adequate food, and no physical abuse.

Religious groups were able to print and distribute documents only with the authorization of the Office of Religious Affairs, which continued to approve requests only from the four officially registered religious groups.

The government continued to impose restrictions on proselytizing, accepting external funding from international NGOs and international organizations, and groups selecting their own religious leaders. Unregistered religious groups also faced restrictions in gathering for worship, constructing places of worship, and teaching their religious beliefs to others, although they reported that in many cases the government unofficially allowed them to worship in private homes as long as it was done discreetly.

The government, which has not approved the registration of additional religious groups since 2002, stated that it is willing to register new religious groups. A representative of the Office of Religious Affairs said that the office had received applications since 2002 but that all had been “defective.” Unrecognized religious groups expressed fear that applying would open them to further repression.

Jehovah’s Witnesses were largely unable to obtain official identification documents, which left many of them unable to study in government institutions and barred them from most forms of employment, government benefits, and travel.

Arrests and releases often went unreported. Information from outside the capital was extremely limited. Independent observers stated many persons remained imprisoned without charge.

The government continued to detain without due process persons associated with unregistered religious groups, occasionally for long periods, and sometimes on the grounds of threatening national security, according to minority religious group members and international NGOs.

Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences. According to a report by the European Asylum Support Office, the issuance of exit visas was inconsistent and did not adhere to any consistent policy; members of unrecognized religious communities could be denied exit visas solely on the basis of their religious affiliation. Commercial air service was suspended from March through year’s end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it impossible for most citizens to acquire exit visas.

The government continued to ban all other practices of Islam other than Sunni Islam.

Official attitudes differed toward members of unregistered religious groups worshipping in homes or rented facilities. Some local authorities reportedly tolerated the presence and activities of unregistered groups, while others attempted to prevent them from meeting. Local authorities sometimes denied government ration coupons to Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of Pentecostal groups. Some religious prisoners reported they were allowed to worship together in prison as long as they did so quietly.

Diaspora groups reported authorities controlled directly or indirectly virtually all activities of the four formally recognized groups. The leaders of the four groups continued to say that their officially registered members did not face impediments to religious practice. Individuals also reported restrictions on clergy meeting with foreign diplomats.

Most places of worship unaffiliated with the four officially registered religious groups remained closed to worship, but many of those buildings remained physically intact and undamaged. Religious structures formerly used by the Jewish and Greek Orthodox communities in Asmara have been preserved. The government protected the historic synagogue, which was maintained by the last Jew known to be remaining in the country. The Greek Orthodox Church remained open as a cultural building, and as there is no longer a Greek Orthodox community, members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church sometimes held religious services on the site. Other structures belonging to unregistered groups, such as the Church of Christ, remained shuttered. The government allowed the Baha’i center in Asmara to remain open, and the members of the center had unrestricted access to the building. A Baha’i temple outside of Asmara was allowed to operate. Other unregistered groups, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Faith Mission Church, operated to some degree and contributed to the government’s COVID-19 fund. The Anglican Church building held services, but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state the government’s restriction on foreign financing reduced church income and religious participation by preventing churches from training clergy or building or maintaining facilities.

Government control of all mass media, as well as a fear of imprisonment or other government actions, continued to restrict the ability of unregistered religious group members to bring attention to government actions against them, according to observers. Restrictions on public assembly and freedom of speech severely limited the ability of unregistered religious groups to assemble and conduct worship in a designated place of worship, according to group members.

Observers noted that the government exerted significant direct and indirect influence over the appointment of heads of recognized religious communities, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the Sunni Islamic community, and some international NGOs said that authorities directly controlled the appointments. The government denied this, stating these decisions were made entirely by religious communities. The sole political party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the acting head of the Sunni Islamic community and the acting head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower level officials for both communities. Observers said that since the 2017 death of the former mufti, Sheik Alamin Osman Alamin, the executive director of the mufti office, Sheik Salim Ibrahim al-Muktar, who was seen by observers as friendly to the government, in effect was acting as head of the Islamic community.

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church remained without a patriarch since the 2015 death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros. Lay administrators appointed by the PFDJ managed some church operations, including disposition of donations and seminarian participation in national service.

COVID-19-related travel restrictions, including the closure of the airport in March, prevented Eritreans from taking part in travel abroad for religious reasons and hosting clerics from abroad. The government generally did not permit Muslim groups to receive funding from countries where Islam was the dominant religion on grounds that such funding threatened the importation of foreign “fundamentalist” or “extremist” tendencies.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government continued to grant some visas permitting Catholic dioceses to host visiting clergy from the Vatican or other foreign locations. However, the Catholic Church reported that in February, officials barred Ethiopian Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel and his delegation from entering the country after they arrived in Asmara at the invitation of Archbishop Menghesteab Tesfamariam. According to the BBC, the officials stated they were following orders from those “higher up” not to permit the delegation to enter the country. The delegation was forced to spend the night at the airport and return to Ethiopia the next day. Delegation members said they had one-month visas and did not know the reason authorities turned them away.

The government permitted Catholic clergy to travel abroad for religious purposes and training, although not in numbers church officials considered adequate; they were discouraged from attending certain religious events while overseas. Students attending Roman Catholic seminaries, as well as Catholic nuns, did not perform national service and did not suffer repercussions from the government, according to Church officials. Some Catholic leaders stated, however, that national service requirements prevented adequate numbers of seminarians from completing theological training abroad, because those who had not completed national service were not able to obtain passports or exit visas.

While the overwhelming majority of high level officials, both military and civilian, were Christian, four ministers in the 17-member cabinet, the Asmara mayor, and at least one senior military leader were Muslims.

The government, through National Service, the Warsay Yikealo Secondary School at Sawa that all 12th graders attended, and official party doctrine promoted a sense of national citizenship above religious sectarianism and stated that it does not officially prefer any religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

While government control of all media and public discourse limited information available concerning societal actions affecting religious freedom, religious tolerance appeared to international observers to be widespread within society. Churches and mosques are located in close proximity to each other, and most citizens congratulated members of other religious groups on the occasion of religious holidays and other events. There were no reports of sectarian violence, and most towns and ethnic groups included members from all of the major religious groups.

Some Christian leaders continued to report Muslim leaders and communities were willing to collaborate on community projects. Ecumenical and interreligious committees did not exist, although local leaders met informally, and religious holidays featured public displays of interfaith cooperation. Representatives of each of the official religions attended state dinners for several visiting foreign officials. Some shrines were venerated by both Orthodox and Muslim believers. Some Muslims expressed privately their feelings of stress and scrutiny in professional and educational settings because of their religion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives met regularly with government officials to raise religious freedom concerns, including seeking ways to accommodate unregistered groups. They also advocated for the release of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including the remaining 24 still in prison, and for an alternative service option for conscientious objectors refusing to bear arms for religious reasons, and they expressed concern over the continued detention of Patriarch Abune Antonios. Officials in Washington shared similar concerns with officials at the Eritrean embassy. A return visit by a U.S. delegation to continue dialogue on these issues, following its 2019 visit, was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom with a wide range of partners, including visiting international delegations, Asmara-based and regionally-based diplomats accredited to the government, UN officials, and other international organization representatives. They used social media to highlight the importance of religious tolerance and employed public diplomacy programs to engage the public and highlight the commitment of the United States to religious freedom.

Embassy officers met with clergy, leaders, and other members of some religious groups, including unregistered groups. During the year, however, some embassy official requests conveyed through the government to meet with religious leaders went unanswered.

Since 2004, Eritrea has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, section 402(b), for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea 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. Restrictions on U.S. assistance resulting from the CPC designation remained in place.

Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) as well as other laws and policies state that residents have freedom of conscience, freedom of religious belief, and freedom to preach, conduct, and participate in religious activities in public. The Bill of Rights Ordinance incorporates the religious freedom protections of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). On June 30, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) imposed a broad National Security Law (NSL) for the SAR with the stated aim of combating secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when the PRC appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office chief, Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL, with some viewing it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, and others viewing it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their institutions preferred to stay neutral. Cardinal John Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, who described the NSL as “understandable,” said the NSL would not curtail religious freedom; other religious leaders made similar comments. Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, and some other Christian leaders said they were concerned the law would enable the government to curtail religious liberty and freedom of expression in the name of combating subversion. One Protestant leader said the law’s ambiguous wording meant churches raising funds from overseas were open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers and money laundering. Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, the government granted churches permission to resume in-person or hybrid (in-person/online) services when health restrictions were lifted. Authorities did not curtail activities of Falun Gong practitioners during the year, but the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said it was concerned practitioners could be accused of “subversion of state power” under the NSL and sentenced to prison for activities that were currently permitted, including criticizing the PRC’s persecution of practitioners in mainland China. In May, a phishing campaign targeted Hong Kong Catholic Diocese leadership using a method “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” In an August letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education, Peter Lau, urged them to guard against campus politicization and to “foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” In December, police froze the bank accounts, raided two buildings, and arrested two members of the Good Neighbor North District Church, saying the church was under investigation for money laundering and fraud related to a crowd-funding campaign. Police said they froze the church’s assets because the church had underreported donations. The church pastor said the raid and asset freezes were in retaliation for church members’ support for prodemocracy protestors in 2019.

Falun Gong practitioners reported some incidents of harassment and vandalism at public information booths. Religious observers and practitioners stated groups were able to worship in line with their religious norms and without incident. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observations while strictly following health precautions. Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some churches reported they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

The U.S. consulate general affirmed U.S. government support for protecting freedom of religion and belief in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, and community representatives. In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL could be used to repress religious believers.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to SAR government statistics, there are more than one million followers of Taoism and approximately one million followers of Buddhism; 500,000 Protestants; 403,000 Catholics; 300,000 Muslims; 100,000 Hindus; and 12,000 Sikhs. The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, which recognizes the Pope and maintains links to the Vatican, reported approximately 620,000 followers (403,000 local residents and 217,000 residents with other nationalities). The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reported it has approximately 25,100 members. According to the World Jewish Congress, there are approximately 2,500 Jews, primarily expatriates. Small communities of Baha’is and Zoroastrians also reside in the SAR. Confucianism is widespread, and in some cases, elements of Confucianism are practiced in conjunction with other belief systems. The Falun Dafa Association estimates there are approximately 500 Falun Gong practitioners.

There are numerous Protestant denominations, including Baptist, Christian and Missionary Alliance, Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, the Church of Christ in China, Seventh-day Adventist, and Pentecostal.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

On June 30, with the support of Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the PRC National People’s Congress (NPC) announced the imposition of an NSL for Hong Kong. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.” The law states that it shall override local Hong Kong laws if there are inconsistencies. The NSL states power to interpret the law lies with the NPC Standing Committee, not local Hong Kong courts.

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

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

The NSL includes articles on public education, stipulating that the SAR “shall take necessary measures to strengthen public communication, guidance, supervision and regulation over matters concerning national security, including those relating to schools, universities, social organizations, the media, and the internet.” The NSL states the SAR “shall promote national security education in schools and universities[.]” The SAR and Education Bureau advised that subsidized schools, which include most religious schools, must comply with the NSL.

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

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

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

Government Practices

Religious leaders and advocates stated that religious freedom remained unchanged during the year, although they expressed concerns about possible future encroachment by PRC authorities. Religious leaders expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Xia Baolong, who in 2014 led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

The Catholic News Agency reported that in April, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Hong Kong called for the Chinese government to respond to prodemocracy demonstrators’ demands, including an independent inquiry into police tactics.

Sources said most Christian denominations were internally divided on the NSL – some viewed it as a necessary measure for stability that did not encroach upon religious freedom, but others viewed it as a threat to civil liberties and religious freedom. Other religious leaders said they and their religious institutions preferred to stay neutral on the politically polarizing law.

Several Christian groups and religious leaders issued statements and open letters to the government regarding the NSL. After the May announcement that the NPC would pass the NSL, Cardinal Tong, leader of the Catholic Church of Hong Kong, described the NSL as “understandable” and said it would not curtail religious freedom. He stated the Church’s relationship with the Vatican should not be seen as collusion with foreign forces. Anglican Archbishop Paul Kwong said he supported the NSL, stating, “I cherish our Hong Kong freedoms – in particular the freedom of religion and way of life – as much as anyone, and I don’t think this law will change any of that….What I hope the new law will do is diminish the agitation against the government that last year brought things to a standstill, and to restore law and order.”

In June, the Hong Kong Christian Council released a public statement acknowledging the Hong Kong government’s inability to pass its own NSL legislation but calling for the NPC to abide by the principles of the Basic Law and to “fully guarantee human rights and all types of freedoms (including freedom of expression, publication, information, assembly, religion, association, etc.) that have been enjoyed under the one country, two systems principle.” In May, Cardinal Joseph Zen, Cardinal Tong’s predecessor, told the Catholic News Agency that he worried the NSL would be used to subvert freedom of religion in the SAR. According to the NGO International Christian Concern, Chairman of the Hong Kong Baptist Convention Reverend Hing Choi Lo said in a statement to all member churches in May, When the Church thinks it is ‘acting justly and [with] loving mercy,’ but the authorities consider the Church to be overthrowing [the regime], what choices do we have? Do we dance with the authorities’ baton?”

Although in-person services were not permitted for much of the year due to COVID-19 restrictions, churches petitioned directly to the government to resume in-person or hybrid services and did not report any difficulty in getting approval once health restrictions eased.

During the year, Falun Gong practitioners reported they generally were able to operate openly and engage in behavior that remained prohibited in mainland China, including distributing literature, conducting public exhibitions, sharing information about the group on social media, and accessing and downloading online materials. In June, a practitioner in the Hong Kong Falun Dafa Association said the community was fearful. “Falun Gong practitioners take part in activities exposing the CCP’s crimes and encourage Chinese people to renounce the CCP and its affiliated organizations….These activities can all be considered ‘subversion of state power’ under the so-called National Security Law. Falun Gong practitioners could be sentenced to prison for activities that they are now able to freely partake in on a daily basis.” Falun Gong practitioners continued to state they suspected that the CCP funded private groups that harassed them at informational displays. No Falun Gong rallies were permitted during the year due to COVID-19 health restrictions.

In July, the NGO International Christian Concern stated that in May, a phishing campaign targeted leaders of the Catholic Church. According to a malware analyst, the campaign involved a type of malware “typically associated with Chinese state groups.” The malware files made use of “lure documents” associated with the Catholic Church, including communications from Vatican officials and news articles from the Union of Catholic Asian News. The NGO said that as the legitimate documents loaded, malware was installed, allowing the hacker remote access and full control of the victim’s computer.

Media reported in August that in a letter to principals and supervisors of Catholic primary and secondary schools, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong episcopal delegate for education Peter Lau told them to guard against campus politicization. The letter stated in part that school authorities should “enhance students’ awareness to national security and [the importance of] abidance to the law, have them learn and respect the national flag, the national emblem and the national anthem and foster the correct values on their national identity, consistent with the Catholic teaching.” Critics on social media accused the Catholic Diocese of pandering to the PRC. Some members of the Catholic Church leadership said adhering to the law did not invalidate the Church’s vision or mission.

In August, the Justice and Peace Commission, comprised of 18 elected bishops, began to solicit donations to place advertisements in media that included a prayer to preserve democracy in Hong Kong. The Catholic Diocese suspended the donation campaign and pulled the advertisements, stating it did not approve of the method of fundraising or the content of the advertisements.

Media reported that on December 8, police froze the bank accounts of the Good Neighbor North District Church, raided two of its buildings and three homeless shelters it ran, arrested two church members, and ordered the arrests of church pastor Roy Chan and his wife, who were abroad. The police said this was done because the church had raised 27 million Hong Kong dollars ($3.5 million) through crowd funding campaigns from June 2019 through September 2020 but had publicly declared raising only one-third of that amount. The church stated the investigation was an “act of political retaliation” because some of its members had formed a group called “Safeguard Our Generation” in 2019 in an attempt to deescalate violent clashes between police and prodemocracy protesters.

In December, Radio Free Asia reported that Reverend Chi Wai Wu, general secretary of the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, said, “The wording of the national security law is ambiguous, which means that churches, whether Catholic or Protestant, are now open to accusations of colluding with foreign powers.” He said police were using the law’s vague definition of “money laundering” to target religious groups that garnered overseas donations or host conferences with overseas church groups. Wu said the targeting of the Good Neighbor North District Church sent “shock waves” through religious communities in Hong Kong and that it was likely intended as a warning to them.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Falun Gong-affiliated publication Epoch Times reported that in August, a man reportedly defaced a Falun Gong display several times in one week and said to a Falun Gong practitioner, “The national security law is enacted, yet you dare to show these [Falun Gong materials]?” When the practitioners said he would call the police, the man responded, “Okay, I also want the police to come….See who the police will arrest, you or me?” Epoch Times reported that more than a dozen people gathered at the display the following day and cursed at Falun Gong practitioners. According to Epoch Times, in December, Falun Gong practitioners reported experiencing harassment at informational booths, as well as multiple instances of vandalism.

Religious observers and practitioners stated they were able to worship consistent with their religious norms and without incident. With COVID-19 measures requiring more restrictions, many religious groups moved observances online or made provisions within their physical organizations to allow in-person observation while strictly following health precautions.

Observers reported Christian churches in Hong Kong provided underground churches in mainland China with spiritual and monetary support – including Bibles and Christian literature and visits from church members – until their shared border closed due to COVID-19 health restrictions. Some Hong Kong churches reported that they were able to conduct cross-border online services, while others, including the Catholic Church, reported PRC authorities prohibited attending their online services.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Consulate general officials, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue in meetings with public officials, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives. In June, the Consul General met with the Hong Kong Christian Council to discuss the effects of political divisions on congregations within the Hong Kong Christian community. The Consul General and other consulate officials met with Buddhist, Catholic, Taoist, Jewish, Muslim, and Protestant religious leaders and adherents to emphasize the importance of religious freedom and tolerance and to receive reports about the status of religious freedom both in Hong Kong and in the mainland.

In September, the Secretary of State said imposition of the NSL “raises the specter that the Party will use the same tactics of intimidation and the full apparatus of state repression against religious believers.”

Throughout the year, consulate general officials promoted respect for religious traditions by marking traditional religious holidays and visiting local Taoist, Confucian, and Buddhist temples. In May, the Consul General met the Chief Imam and toured the Blue Mosque, the largest mosque in Hong Kong. At all these events, consulate general officials stressed in public and private remarks the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and diversity.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Macau

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.” The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet or Islam”). 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 form religious societies “within the limits of the law.” According to the online news service Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court, for the third time, upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni Muslim prisoners who were charged with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.” On October 4, according to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish nongovernment organization (NGO), security forces arrested a prominent Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in his home in the city of Piranshahr. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown. The Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran (ABC), a U.S.-based human rights NGO, said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. On October 8, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, stating, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities in the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’is across the country in “simultaneous operations.” On May 28, Radio Farda reported that police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri (an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals) and separatist groups.” The opposition website Iran Focus stated human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several religious Sunni teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan (which began in late April). NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them were placed there during the year. In July, a court sentenced seven of eight Christian converts who were arrested in Bushehr in 2019 for spreading “propaganda against the regime.” After sentencing a married couple among the group, the court ruled that, as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their adopted daughter, who has heart and other health conditions, whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In May, the parliament passed amendments to the Islamic Penal Code, including language that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. On November 9, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her prison sentence for protesting the compulsory hijab. On November 1, Iran International and the international human rights news agency HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. In January, NGOs and press reported that the application form for the state-issued national identity card, required for almost all government and other transactions, would only allow citizens to register as one of the country’s recognized religions – Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism; previously application forms for the identity card had an option for “other religions.” According to a December 4 report by the news website IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to provincial judiciary heads establishing a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, including women lawyers not wearing the mandatory hijab at work or on social media or doubts about a lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader.

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, while employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private-sector jobs. Baha’is reported there was continued destruction and vandalism of their cemeteries. According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University in Qom had infected the country with the COVID-19 virus. According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. In June, the Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran, a Netherlands-based NGO focusing on research on Iran, conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that found dramatic changes in Iranian society’s religiosity, especially an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim.

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran. 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. On September 24, the United States sanctioned several officials and entities for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking only to practice their religion, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad prisons. The statement read, in part, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.”

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 December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC. The following sanction accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on in section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA) for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 85.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to Iranian government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population, of whom 90-95 percent are Shia, and 5-10 percent are Sunni, mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds, living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest provinces, 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, Yarsanis, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, and Zoroastrians. The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to Human Rights Watch data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

The government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians in the country. Some estimates, however, suggest there may be many more than actually reported. According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians. Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates there could be between 300,000 and one million.

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 disagree on the size of the Protestant community, with some estimates citing figures lower than 10,000, and others, such as Open Doors USA, citing numbers greater than 800,000. Many Protestants and converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but HRANA and the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) estimate there are up to two million. Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to recent estimates from Armenian Christians who maintain contact with the Iranian Christian community in the country, their current numbers are approximately 40,000 to 50,000, significantly lower than the peak of 300,000 estimated prior to 1979. The number of Roman Catholics in the country is estimated to be 21,000.

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 representatives from the Jewish community in the country estimated their number at 15,000 during a 2018 PBS News Hour interview.

The population, according to government media, includes 14,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

According to the 2011 census, the number of individuals who are nonreligious rose by 20 percent between 2006 and 2011, which supports observations by academics and others that the number of atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers, and religiously unaffiliated living in the country is growing. Often these groups, however, do not publicly identify, as documented by Amnesty International’s report on the country, because those who profess atheism are at risk of arbitrary detention, torture, and the death penalty for “apostasy.”

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion. The constitution stipulates all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia. The constitution states citizens shall enjoy all human, political, economic, social, and cultural rights “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.” The law prohibits Muslims from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs. The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam. Conversion from Islam may be considered apostasy under sharia, 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. The law considers these activities 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. The government makes some exceptions for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (“enmity against God,” which according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam, means in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions caused by unbelievers or unjust people that threaten social and political wellbeing”), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet” or “insulting the sanctities [Islam]”). 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 schools (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi school 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. The government considers any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups or who cannot prove his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, to be 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, because 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 they state 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 Ahl-e-Haq or Kakai). Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia 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 authorities. Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes. Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers do not register or unregistered individuals attend services. The law does not recognize individuals who convert to Christianity as Christian. They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The Supreme Leader (the Velayat-e Faqih, the Guardian of the Islamic Jurist), the country’s head of state, oversees extrajudicial special clerical courts, which are not provided for by the constitution. The courts, each 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 constitution provides that the judiciary be “an independent power” that is “free from every kind of unhealthy relation and connection.” The government appoints judges “in accordance with religious criteria.”

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity. The Islamic 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 determines the religious curricula of public schools. All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course 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. To pass the university entrance examination, applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

Recognized minority religious groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools. The Ministry of Education supervises the private schools operated by 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 for official review. 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 official interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding or operating their own educational institutions. A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education, or to expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known. Government regulations state 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 the Baha’i Faith (e.g., Islam, Christianity, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism).

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. 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. Individuals who are not Shia Muslims are barred from serving as Supreme Leader or President, as well as from being a member in the Assembly of Experts, Guardian Council, or Expediency Council (the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between the parliament and the Guardian Council over legislation).

The constitution bans 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 that 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 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 Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities who are victims of murder, bodily harm, or property damage. Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive “blood money.” This law also reduces the “blood money” for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man. Women are entitled to equal “blood money” as men, but only for insurance claims where loss of life occurred in automobile accidents and not for other categories of death, such as murder. In cases of bodily harm, according to the law, certain male organs (for example, the testicles) are worth more than the entire body of a woman.

The criminal code provides for hadud punishments (those mandated by sharia) for theft, including amputation of the fingers of the right hand, amputation of the left foot, life imprisonment, and death, as well as flogging of up to 99 lashes or stoning for other crimes.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (which are separate from the 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 review requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirements. 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. The attestation serves as a marriage certificate and allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.

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 they 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, it entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

According to numerous international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of “enmity against God” and anti-Islamic propaganda. According to Amnesty International and Voice of America (VOA), on June 10, an official told the family of Hedayat Abdollahpour, a Sunni Kurdish activist, they executed him on or about May 21 in the town of Oshnavieh. Authorities subsequently gave the family a death certificate stating he died on May 11 as a result of “being hit by hard or sharp objects,” a phrase Amnesty International had previously documented was used on certificates of deaths from gunshot wounds. Authorities had arrested Abdollahpour in 2016 in connection with an armed fight between the Kurdish Democratic Party of Iran and the IRGC. The government charged him with “taking up arms [against the government]” and “supporting a dissident group,” charges he denied. The NGO Justice4Iran reported that authorities did not notify Abdollahpour’s family members at the time of his execution, and for many months before his death, his whereabouts were unknown, which led international observers to press authorities for information on his case. At year’s end, the government still refused to disclose what it did with Abdollahpour’s remains. According to Kurdistan Human Rights-Geneva, out of the nine political prisoners executed in 2020 in addition to Abdollahpour, there were three other Sunni Kurd political prisoners charged with “enmity against God” and other vague national security charges – Mustafa Salimi, Saber Shehkh Abdullah, and Diako Rasulzadeh – and two Sunni Baluchis – Abdulbaset Dehani and Abdulhameed Baluchzahi.

According to Radio Farda and IranWire, on July 9, authorities executed in Central Mashad Prison a man social media users helped identify as Morteza Jamali, who was arrested and charged with “consumption of alcohol.” IranWire reported that Jamali’s lawyer said that he was arrested in 2017 or 2018 and had been charged with consuming alcohol on several occasions. Under the country’s Islamic penal code, consuming alcohol is a “crime against God” and the initial punishment is usually flogging. Article 179 of the code states, however, that the accused may face the death penalty after being arrested three times.

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace and multiple media reports, on February 22, a Revolutionary Court sentenced to death three young men who had participated in November 2019 antigovernment protests, which began in reaction to a government increase in fuel prices. The government charged the men with “participating in vandalism and arson with the intent to confront and engage in war with the Islamic Republic of Iran” and “enmity against God.” The reports identified the three men as Amir Hossein Moradi, Saeed Tamjidi, and Mohammad Rajabi. Amnesty International said their trial was unfair and that security forces “tortured [them] with beatings, electric shocks, and being hung upside down.” Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, a spokesman for the country’s judiciary, confirmed the three protesters’ death sentences on July 14 and accused them of “having links with certain groups abroad.” Citizens posted items on social media using the hashtag “DoNotExecute.” On July 19, the country’s judiciary said it would suspend the executions.

CHRI reported that the government announced the execution of two Sunni Baluch prisoners, Behnam Rigi and Shoaib Rigi, in the central prison in Zahedan, in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, on December 19. On December 20, the government executed a third Baluch prisoner, Abdolbaset Khesht, who was arrested in 2012, in the central prison of Dozap, in the same province. Authorities accused the men of membership in militant Sunni Muslim groups. NGOs and press reported that three other Sunni prisoners held in Zahedan were in imminent danger of execution.

According to Iran Focus, on September 10, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence against seven Sunni prisoners for the third time. Authorities imprisoned the inmates, Farhad Salimi, Qassem Absteh, Davood Abdollahi, Ayub Karimi, Anwar Khezri, Khosrow Besharat, and Kamran Sheikha, in the Urmia, Evin, and Rajai Shahr prisons for 11 years after arresting them in 2009. The government charged the men with “acting against national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “moharebeh.”

According to the Kurdistan Press Agency and a Kurdish NGO, security forces arrested a Kurdish Sunni imam, Mamousta Rasoul Hamzehpour, in the city of Piranshahr on October 4. Authorities arrested Hamzehpour in his home, which they searched. The news report’s source stated that the government arrested Hamzehpur, whom the source said was regarded as one of the prominent clerics in the province, several times in the past. As of year’s end, his whereabouts and the status of his case remained unknown.

The ABC said that from January 2000 to November 2020, the government sentenced at least 237 persons to amputation and carried out the sentence in at least 129 cases. Commenting on the report, Amnesty International stated, “The real number of victims is likely to be higher as many cases are believed to go unreported.” During this period, the ABC said the government flogged at least 2,134 individuals, including at least 17 children. According to the ABC, these numbers meant that, on average, for the past 20 years authorities have amputated the fingers of at least one person every two months and flogged at least two persons every week.

According to Amnesty International, members of the intelligence unit of the IRGC arrested Yarsani Kurdish activist and documentary filmmaker Mozhgan Kavousi at her home in Noshahr, Mazandran Province, primarily in connection to her writings on social media about the November 2019 protests. IGRC intelligence officers held Kavousi in a Mazandran detention center, where she was kept in prolonged solitary confinement. Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Noshahr convicted her of “spreading propaganda against the system” and “inciting people to disrupt the country’s order and security” in connection with two posts on her Instagram account about the protests and sentenced her to five years and nine months in prison. Starting in May, she was serving her sentence in Evin Prison along with 35 other women prisoners of conscience as of year’s end.

According to Amnesty International, in March and April, thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons across the country, many in provinces containing Sunni Ahwazi Arab, Kurdish, and Azerbaijani Turkish ethnic minorities, staged protests over fears of contracting the COVID-19 virus. Prison authorities and security forces reportedly responded by using live ammunition and tear gas to suppress the protests, killing approximately 35 inmates in two prisons and injuring hundreds of others. According to reports from families of prisoners, journalists, and Ahwazi Arab human rights activists and organizations, on March 30 and 31, security forces used excessive force to quell protests, causing up to 15 deaths in Sepidar Prison and 20 in Sheiban Prison, both located in the city of Ahvaz in Khuzestan Province. Amnesty International reported that numerous videos taken from outside both prisons and shared on social media sites showed smoke rising from the buildings, while gunfire can be heard. Authorities transferred Arab minority rights activist Mohammad Ali Amourinejad and several other inmates, including prisoners of conscience serving life sentences for “enmity against God” due to having promoted educational and cultural rights for Ahwazi Arabs, out of Sheiban Prison following the unrest. At year’s end, the government continued to hold these prisoners incommunicado in an unknown location.

On October 8, ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) released a report on the country’s use of capital punishment, saying it was “an indelible stain on the country’s human rights record.” According to the report’s language, “The death penalty…has often been used against members of Iran’s ethnic communities and religious minorities, especially in political cases based on moharebeh, ‘spreading corruption on Earth,’ insurrection, and other vaguely worded crimes.” According to the FIDH report, “These ethnic and religious groups have been subjected to extensive and protracted discrimination with regard to their political, civil, economic, social, and cultural rights, which has led to resentment towards the central government. Various groups have engaged in opposition activities and occasionally taken up arms in ethnic-populated regions in the past four decades. Rather than addressing their grievances, the Iranian authorities have responded with heavy-handed measures, including the implementation of the death penalty on a large scale.…Members of religious minorities [who have been targeted by executions] include some groups of Sunni Muslims in West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and Sistan and Baluchistan Provinces; followers of the Shia Ahl-e-Haq sect [Yarsan] in West Azerbaijan Province; and Baha’is.”

Residents of provinces containing 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. They also reported discrimination (including suppression of religious rights), denial of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects. Iran Human Rights and other human rights activists continued to report a disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni prisoners, particularly Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.

On May 6, IranWire and the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) reported security forces shot and killed two Sunni Baluchi brothers, 18-year-old Mohammad and 20-year-old Mehdi Pourian, in their home in Iranshahr, the capital city of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. Security forces also reportedly killed a 17-year-old, Daniel Brahovi, in the incident. The Iranshahr prosecutor told local media that the three were “famous and well-known miscreants” and that “weapons and ammunition were seized from them.” The families of the three deceased filed charges against the security forces involved but did not receive a response. According to one report, the local police and prosecutor threatened to kill the Pourian family if they continued to press the case.

According to the ABC, on October 14, authorities of the Office of the Borazjan City Prosecutor flogged a Christian convert, Mohammad Reza (Yohan) Omidi, 80 times for drinking communion wine. Authorities released Omidi from Evin Prison in August after he served two years on charges of “establishing home churches” and “promoting Zionist Christianity.” In September, he moved to Borazjan in Bushehr Province to serve a two-year term of internal exile. The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Omidi and fellow members of the Church of Iran denomination Yussef Nadarkhani, Zaman (Saheb) Fadai, and Mohammad Ali (Yasser) Mosayebzadeh to 10 years in prison each in 2017. At a retrial in June, a court reduced Nadarkhani and Fadai’s sentences to six years each and Omidi’s sentence to two years. On November 15, according to UK-based Article 18, an NGO focused on religious freedom in Iran, authorities summoned Fadai to the Shahid Moghadas Revolutionary Court, where he received 80 lashes for drinking communion wine.

Human rights NGOs, including CHRI, HRANA, and the official website of Gonabadi Sufi dervishes, Majzooban Noor, reported throughout the year on extremely poor conditions inside Qarchak Prison for Women, including reports of Shia guards requiring all inmates, regardless of their faith, to use a chador as their head-to-toe covering.

According to human rights activists, the government continued to target Christians who converted from Islam, using arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and other forms of harsh treatment. Article 18 reported that on January 12, authorities arrested Christian convert Fatemeh (Mary) Mohammadi during protests in central Tehran and took her to Vozara detention center, where male and female prison guards beat her so badly that she carried visible bruises for three weeks. Detention center staff forced her to sit outside in extremely cold temperatures, withheld food until 24 hours after her arrest, and strip-searched her. They transferred Mohammadi to Qarchak Prison, where her bail was set at approximately 95 million rials ($2,300), equivalent to more than the annual salary of the average Iranian. Mohammadi had already served six months in prison for her Christian activities on charges of “action against national security” and “propaganda against the system.” According to VOA, on April 21, Mohammadi told her Instagram followers that she spent 46 days in “terrible conditions” during her detention. She said authorities sentenced her to three months in prison and 10 lashes for participating in the January protests but suspended punishment for one year, allowing her to remain free.

In a July report, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Javaid Rehman, expressed concern at the reported high number of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience from the Azerbaijani-Turk, Kurdish, and Ahwazi Arab communities, many of whom were from religious minorities.

On May 6, Amnesty International reported that Hossein Sepanta, a prisoner in Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz, was critically ill because authorities denied him proper treatment for a spinal-cord disorder. CHRI had reported in 2019 that in response to his hunger strike, prison authorities had transferred Sepanta, a convert from Islam to Zoroastrianism, to the “punishment unit” of Adel Abad Prison. According to a source inside the prison, an interrogator severely beat Sepanta, after which he had problems keeping his balance when walking. Sepanta began serving a 14-year sentence in 2013 on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security.”

According to human rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination both as Sunni religious practitioners and as an ethnic minority group. Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists. They reported authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and Amnesty International called on authorities to suspend the execution of a Baluchi man, Javid Dehghan, who had been forced to confess under torture that he was a member of a Salafi terrorist group called Jaish ul-Adl and fatally shot two IRGC agents in an ambush in 2015. According to OHCHR, there was a series of “at least 28” executions in December in the country. An OHCHR spokesperson said, “This has included a series of executions of members of ethnic and religious minority groups – in particular, Kurdish, Ahwazi Arabi, and Baluchi communities.”

According to IranWire, on December 15, Ayatollah Mahmoud Amjad, who criticized the government many times in the past, released a video protesting the government’s execution of a dissident journalist and blaming Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei for the bloodshed in the country since 2009. He also called on fellow clerics and religious scholars not to remain silent about the violence.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion. The Iran Prison Atlas, a database compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 60 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being “religious minority practitioners.” Of the prisoners in the Atlas database, the government sentenced at least 25 to long-term imprisonment or executed them on charges of “enmity against God” or a charge referring to groups taking arms against the government (baghi), which officials sometimes used in recent years instead of “enmity against God.” Authorities sentenced at least 43 persons to prison for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” and at least 13 for “insulting the Prophet or Islam.”

On May 28, Radio Farda reported police in Khuzestan Province said they arrested “14 agents of takfiri and separatist groups.” The report said that authorities used takfiri as an umbrella term to refer to Sunni dissident groups and Sunni individuals. Police accused those arrested of shooting at government buildings and raising the flag of dissident groups around the city.

On November 22, NGOs and several media outlets reported that authorities raided the homes of dozens of Baha’i’s across the country in “simultaneous operations.” Security agents possessing vaguely worded search warrants confiscated personal effects, mobile telephones, computers, laptops, and religious books and pictures. In some cases, agents also reportedly confiscated cash and national identity cards. Some of the Baha’is whose homes were searched had previously served prison sentences, including Afif Naeimi, a member of the former leadership body of the country’s Baha’i community, who was freed in 2018 after serving a 10-year sentence, and Riaz Sobhani and Shahrokh Taef, who each had served four-year sentences in Rajaei Shahr Prison.

Human rights NGOs reported poor prison conditions and mistreatment of religious minorities held in government prisons. On September 26, VOA reported that since August, authorities denied a Gonabadi Sufi dervish, Benham Mahjoubi, medical treatment, including medication provided by his family, for a panic disorder, and forcibly transferred him from Evin Prison to the Razi Aminabad psychiatric hospital in Tehran. Amnesty International stated that authorities subjected Mahjoubi to torture and gave him injections of an unknown substance on multiple occasions against his will. Mahjoubi’s wife posted on social media that authorities transferred him to the facility after he was paralyzed in a fall. According to VOA, the government had arrested Mahjoubi for taking part in street protests in Tehran in 2018, along with 300 other Gonabadi Sufi dervishes who had been demanding the release from house arrest of their leader, Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh (who subsequently died on December 24, 2019).

In May, Gonabadi dervish Reza Yavari told VOA that authorities forced him to relocate to the northeastern town of Taybad, in Razavi Khorasan Province, to start a two-year sentence of internal exile following his April 1 pardon and release from a prison in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, capital of Khuzestan Province. Yavari, a native of Khuzestan who was studying at a Tehran university prior to his 2018 detention, accused authorities of acting illegally by forcing him into internal exile after granting him a pardon. Yavari told VOA that 38 other dervishes had also been forced into internal exile and expressed concern about the government’s ongoing imprisonment of eight other dervish activists who were among more than 300 dervish community members arrested for involvement in antigovernment protests in Tehran in 2018. In August, four dervishes whom the government sentenced to internal exile told VOA that they rejected the claim made by a government representative in a press briefing that the government did not maintain a predetermined list of destinations for internal banishment. The four men said that the government sends released prisoners to live in poor towns, with harsh climates, far from the country’s population centers and their homes.

According to the human rights NGO Hengaw, in late September, government security services arrested three Kurdish religious activists, Syawash (Forat), Behzad Talayi, and Farshad Fatahi in Urmia, West Azerbaijan Province. The government transferred the men to Urmia Central Prison on October 14. According to the NGO, the government arrested the three individuals because of religious activities and “propaganda” on behalf of “Islamic extremist groups.”

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants. According to a June report by the online news source Balochwarna News, Sunni cleric Molavi Fazl al-Rahman Kouhi remained in prison in the northeastern city of Mashhad on the orders of a special clerical court that summoned and jailed him in November 2019 following nationwide antigovernment protests after a sharp increase in gasoline prices. Kouhi served as the Friday prayer leader for the town of Pashamagh, inhabited mostly by Baluchi Sunnis. The court summoned and jailed him days after he gave a sermon criticizing the country’s Shia-dominated government for violently suppressing the protests. According to the report, Kouhi’s sermon described the crackdown as un-Iranian, un-Islamic, and inhumane. Abdol Sattar Doshoki, an exiled Sunni rights activist, said that the government’s apparent arbitrary detention of an outspoken Sunni cleric was the latest sign of a bleak future for the country’s Sunni Muslim minority.

Balochwarna News reported that security forces arrested Molawi Mohammad Qalandarzai, a Sunni imam, on February 27 at his home in Zahedan.

Iran Focus stated that during the year, the government increased its persecution of Sunnis in the parts of the country that have large Sunni populations. The website stated that human rights groups reported that authorities summoned, interrogated, and arrested several Sunni religious teachers, students, and civil activists during the month of Ramadan, which began in late April. Authorities detained at least 10 Sunnis in Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province. According to other reports, the Sanandaj Intelligence Agency summoned Ali Moradi, a Sunni cleric, and his son Mohammad at the beginning of Ramadan. On April 22, the IRGC summoned and interrogated Maktoom Askani, a Sunni activist in Zahedan in Sistan and Baluchistan Province. The Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and arrested Abdul Rauf Dashti, another Sunni activist. In late April, the Human Rights News Agency reported that MOIS summoned and interrogated Shahdad Zehi, a Sunni cleric in Sarbaz in Sistan and Baluchestan Province. On May 21, the Baluch Activists Campaign said that the Zahedan Revolutionary Guards Corps summoned and interrogated Akram Kuhi, the temporary head of Friday prayers in Peshamag village. The reports said that after the IRGC officials asked Kuhi about the employees, teachers, and students at a local religious school, they summoned and interrogated four other Sunnis from the school in September.

NGOs reported that as of October 27, there were 38 Baha’is – 16 men and 22 women – in prison. Twenty-six of them – 19 women and seven men – were placed there in 2020. NGOs reported that it was not clear whether holding twice as many women as men was accidental or whether it marked the beginning of a trend designed to apply additional pressure on the Baha’i community. In Shiraz, authorities summoned 26 Baha’is for a criminal hearing on October 5.

According to Iran Press Watch (IPW), on December 24, Branch 2 of the Bandar Abbas Revolutionary Court sentenced eight Baha’is for “gathering and colluding with the intent to disrupt the security of the country.” Six Baha’is received two-year prison sentences and two received one-year prison sentences. The court banned them from membership in political and social parties and groups, including Baha’i banquets and gatherings, for a period of two years and sentenced them to five sessions of “counseling on sectarian issues.”

According to press reporting, on September 7, a court in southern Khorasan Province sentenced eight Baha’is – six women and two men – to prison for “membership in the illegal Baha’i organization, which is a threat to national security.” Authorities arrested the eight during a celebration of a Baha’i holiday. The court gave the defendants – Ataollah Melaki, Attiyeh Salehi, Saeed Melaki, Roya Melaki, Nasrin Ghadiri, Arezou Mohammadi, Farzaneh Dimi, and Banafshe Mokhatari – sentences ranging from 15 months to two years’ imprisonment. Some of these individuals wrote letters to Birjand judicial authorities requesting a delay in starting their sentences due to the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons. Authorities denied their requests, however, and the group began serving their sentences on October 20.

On June 8, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported that in the weeks leading up to that date, authorities summoned 55 Baha’is to court in Shiraz, Birjand, Karaj, and Kermanshah, trying and sentencing 26 of them; summoned 11 Baha’is to prison in Shiraz, Ghaemshahr, and Birjand; arrested three Baha’is in Yazd; and arrested two Baha’is in Isfahan, releasing them shortly thereafter. In a court hearing in Shiraz, a court official threatened to “uproot” the Baha’is in the city.

The Kurdistan Human Rights Network reported that on September 17, security forces arrested brothers Salar Ghazali and Saman Ghazali, holding them in a MOIS detention center for 75 days before transferring them to Mahabad Prison. In mid-December, Branch 1 of the Mahabad Revolutionary Court tried them for “acting against national security through membership in a Kurdish opposition party” and “propaganda against the state.”

Activists and NGOs reported that Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subjected to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness-raising regarding government practices or discrimination against the Yarsani community.

IPW and IranWire reported that on May 2, IRGC agents raided the Isfahan homes of three Baha’is, Shahzad Hosseini, his son Shayan Hosseini, and Shahzad’s mother. Security personnel then arrested Shayan Hosseini and transferred him to an unknown location. According to a close relative of Shayan, during the raids, agents searched for small wooden boxes that the families used to store prayer books.

Non-Armenian Christians, particularly evangelicals and other converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detentions and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGOs. Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians, including members of unrecognized churches, for their religious affiliation or activities, and charged them with “operating” illegally in private homes or supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries. Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscation of religious property. News reports stated authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement. According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition against proselytizing.

On May 28, authorities summoned Hossein Kadivar, Khalil Dehghanpour, Kamal Naamanian, and Mohammed Vafadar to begin serving five-year prison sentences. The government arrested the men in early 2019 before releasing them on bail. The four men were among nine Christian converts belonging to the Church of Iran denomination arrested over a four-week period, accused of endangering state security and promoting Zionism. The government transferred the other five converts, who were unable to afford bail, to Evin Prison shortly after their 2019 arrests. In late 2019, a court convicted all nine of “acting against national security” and sentenced them to five years’ imprisonment. A court upheld the sentences on appeal in February.

In July, a court convicted seven of eight Christian converts arrested in Bushehr in 2019 of “propaganda against the regime.” One of the Christians, Sam Khosravi, received a one-year prison term followed by two years of internal exile. The court fined Maryam Falahi, his wife, who worked as a nurse, 80 million rials ($1,900) and banned her from working in a public institution. After their sentencing, a court ruled that as Christians, the couple were not fit to raise their daughter, whom they adopted as an infant in early 2019 and whom the court viewed as a Muslim. In September, an appeals court upheld that decision, despite the daughter’s physical disabilities, which, according to the judge, made her chances at another family adopting her “zero.”

On January 11, a court sentenced Anglican convert Ismaeli Maghrebinejad to three years’ imprisonment for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs” after he responded with a smiley emoji to a joke seen as critical of ruling clerics that had been texted to him on his cell phone. On February 27, a court sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment on a separate charge of “membership in a group hostile to the regime” (“evangelical Zionism,” according to court documents) for receiving a Bible verse sent over a cell phone app. In May, a court upheld the February verdict and added a one-year prison sentence for “propaganda against the regime.” In July, a court overturned on appeal his three-year sentence for “insulting sacred Islamic beliefs,” but upheld the other two sentences. Authorities arrested Maghrebinejad in early 2019 in Shiraz. In late 2019, authorities dropped a charge of apostasy that they brought against Maghrebinejad at the time of his arrest.

In February, authorities in Rasht arrested four Christian converts, Ramin Hassanpour, his wife Saeede (Kathrin) Sajadpour, Hadi (Moslem) Rahimi, and Sakine (Mehri) Behjati, for being members of a house church belonging to the Church of Iran. On May 14, the Revolutionary Court in Rasht initially set bail at five billion rials each ($119,000). The government transferred the four to Lakan Prison, near Rasht, when they were unable to post bail. A week later, the court reduced the bail to two billion rials each ($47,600) and released Sajadpour, Rahimi, and Behjati on May 20 and Hassanpour on May 21. On August 1, a court handed down prison sentences to the four for “acting against national security” by belonging to a house church and “spreading Zionist Christianity.” Hassanpour received a five-year sentence, Rahimi four years, and Behjati and Sajadpour two years each.

After the cancellation of several court sessions connected with appeals of their 2017 and 2018 convictions and respective 10- and five-year sentences relating to “illegal church activity,” Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, and his wife, Shamiram Isavi, learned in early August that their appeals had been denied and that authorities would schedule no further hearings. On August 11, Isavi received a summons to report to Evin Prison to begin her prison sentence. On August 15, the couple fled the country. In September, Article 18 reported that Christian converts Kavian Fallah-Mohammadi, Hadi Asgari, and Amin Afshar-Naderi, who had received prison sentences in 2017 alongside Bet Tamraz, also fled the country after their appeals were rejected. In January, authorities summoned Ramiel Bet Tamraz, the son of Victor Bet Tamraz and Shamiram Isavi, to Evin Prison to serve his four-month sentence from 2018 for “propaganda against the system” through membership in a house church. Authorities released him from prison on February 26.

According to Article 18, authorities extended the two-year internal exile of Ebrahim Firouzi by 11 months. The government released Firouzi, a Christian convert, from Rajai Shahr Prison in 2019 after he served six years in prison for “collusion against national security” for converting to and practicing Christianity and related missionary activities. After he reported to the city of Sarbaz for the two years of internal exile included in his sentence, authorities extended his exile, saying that Firouzi did not have proper permission for a brief trip home to attend to some family business involving the death of his mother. After Firouzi’s exile was extended, a local prosecutor summoned him on new charges of “insulting the sacred,” which carries a maximum five-year sentence, and “propaganda against the state through promoting the Christian faith,” which may be punished with up to a year in prison. After meeting Firouzi, the prosecutor dismissed the case.

On November 18, at a virtual conference hosted by the International Organization to Preserve Human Rights regarding the “attitude of the Islamic Republic of Iran towards the different religious groups,” an Article 18 representative said that 17 Christian prisoners of conscience, all converts, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

In April, authorities arrested Masoud Heydari and Hamid Haghjoo, the managing director and the Telegram channel administrator at the semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency (ILNA), following the posting of a cartoon mocking COVID-19 remedies prescribed by religious leaders. ILNA officials denied publishing the cartoon and said they were falsely accused. Police released Heydari on bail while detaining Haghjoo pending an investigation into the case. There were no updates as of year’s end.

The government continued to permit Armenian Christians to have what sources stated were perhaps the greatest leeway among religious minorities in the country. It extended preservation efforts to Armenian holy sites and allowed nationals of Armenian descent and Armenian visitors to observe religious and cultural traditions within their churches and dedicated clubs.

According to the BBC Persian service, on October 29, the Qom Seminary Teachers Association labeled Grand Ayatollah Kamal Heidari a “liar,” “sinner,” and “foreign agent,” and decreed that any dealings with him would be considered a “sin.” The association excommunicated Heidari and labeled him a “seditionist” for his modernist and rationalist views.

In a January 28 report to the UN Human Rights Council, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran said he was “deeply concerned” about a bill adopted by the Committee for Judicial and Legal Affairs of parliament in 2019 on “misguided sects” that would criminalize membership in religious groups that the government considered to be “misguided.” The special rapporteur stated, “According to a member of the Committee, the bill was proposed because of concerns about sects that have no jurisprudential or religious status but attribute their belief to Islam and about the cults that have emerged recently. Members of nonrecognized religious minorities have expressed concern that passage of the bill would make it a criminal offence to follow certain religions and could be used to increase discrimination against them.”

In May, parliament passed the legislation on “misguided sects” in the form of amendments to articles 499 and 500 of the Islamic Penal Code. The legislation stated that those found guilty of “deviant psychological manipulation” or “propaganda contrary to Islam” could be labeled as members of a “sect” and punished with imprisonment, flogging, fines, or the death penalty. A human rights lawyer living in Europe stated, “The law should protect citizens, including Christian converts and Baha’is, against the government, but in Iran the law has become a tool to justify the government’s violent treatment of converts and other unrecognized minorities.” The NGO Article 18 reported that the Guardian Council, which must approve all parliamentary bills, returned the bill to parliament in July, seeking eight clarifications, the majority of which related to “ambiguous” language. An Article 18 official cautioned that the legislation would still likely to return in a “different, perhaps more minimal, form.” ARTICLE 19, another human rights NGO based in the UK, reported that in November, it was believed that parliament addressed issues raised by the Guardian Council, but the specific changes were not publicly released. The NGO said the proposed amendments, regardless of any changes, would “further erode the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief.”

According to the U.S. Institute of Peace, the government continued to monitor statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views. According to international media, authorities continued to target Shia clerics with arrest, detention, funding cuts, loss of clerical credentials, and confiscation of property. On September 5, IranWire reported that in late 2019, authorities arrested Einollah Rezazadeh Juibari, a Shia cleric, at his home as preparations began for the 40th day commemorations of the deaths of protestors killed by government forces in the November 2019 protests. Authorities first detained Juibari, a critic of the government who was repeatedly arrested in the past, at a detention center in Urmia before taking him to a prison in Miandoab, where he undertook a 13-day hunger strike before being released. IranWire reported that Juibari, whose case remained open at year’s end, had written a letter stating that he would remove his clerical garments and clerical turban for good, because such clerical attire needed to be “excised from politics.” His letter also said that the government had “used Islamic jurisprudence as a pretext for a power grab” and that it had “sacrificed the truth and authority of the Shia faith with [its] greed.”

Critics stated the government continued to use 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 BBC Persian service and the Times of Israel reported authorities confirmed to local media that a California-based Zoroastrian priest, Arash Kasravi, was killed on July 25 while attending his father’s funeral in Kerman. BBC Persian reported on August 2 that the Kerman Province prosecutor told local media that the killer’s body was one of two others found with Kasravi and that he had committed suicide after the killings. The prosecutor said the judiciary believed the killings were financially motivated, since $10,000 was found in one of the victims’ vehicles. A social media post said that, following the 1979 revolution, many Zoroastrians have been targeted in these types of “mysterious homicides.”

Sources said that even when arrested, perpetrators of crimes against Baha’is faced reduced punishment if they stated that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays, or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though by law, businesses may close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year. NGOs also reported 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 had seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers. It also continued to prevent Baha’is from performing burials in accordance with their religious tradition. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), authorities routinely prevented the burial of deceased Baha’is from Tabriz at the local Vadi-i-Rahmat Cemetery. Instead, they often sent the remains for burial in Miandoab, 100 miles away, where authorities did not permit the families to wash the bodies and perform Baha’i burial rites. The IHRDC noted that Baha’i religious practice requires the deceased be buried at a location within an hour’s travel time from the place of death; however, the travel time between Tabriz and Miandoab is approximately 2.5 hours. According to the report, authorities at the cemetery, the Tabriz City Council, and the Eastern Azerbaijan provincial government said they were executing orders prohibiting the burial of Baha’is in Tabriz, but none of those offices claimed responsibility for issuing the order.

BIC reported that it learned in July that the Baha’i cemetery in Taft, Yazd Province, which the government had confiscated shortly after the 1979 revolution, was being divided and sold. According to BIC, the judiciary endorsed the confiscation of all property owned by Baha’i residents in the village of Ivel, Mazandaran Province, on the grounds that Baha’is have “a perverse ideology” and therefore have no “legitimacy in their ownership” of any property.

According to BIC, the government’s anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices. Official reports and media continued to characterize Christian private churches in homes as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.” Christian community leaders stated that when authorities learned Assyrian church leaders were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches. NGOs report that virtually all Farsi-language churches in Iran were closed between 2009 and 2012. In 2019, Radio Farda reported, “Christians from Iran’s historic Assyrian and Armenian communities are a recognized minority who are usually able to freely practice their faith, providing they don’t open their doors to Muslim-born Iranians by holding services in Persian.” Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed the latter to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, 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 unrecognized religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Yarsanis, were also forced to assemble in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to require all women to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – an overcoat and a hijab 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 public protests against the compulsory hijab and Islamic dress requirements for women.

On November 9, Branch 28 of the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by women’s right activist Saba Kord-Afshari of her 24-year prison sentence, which she received in August 2019, on a set of charges relating to her protesting the compulsory hijab. As a result, she faced a minimum of 15 years in prison, the sentence associated with the most serious charge against her, “spreading corruption.” In July, Amnesty International said authorities forced Kord-Afshari to wait a year following her 2019 arrest before allowing her to make her first hospital visit on June 29 for pre-existing gastrointestinal problems that were exacerbated in prison. Amnesty International also said the doctor failed to conduct a comprehensive examination of Kord-Afshari and referred her for future colonoscopy, endoscopy, and ultrasound procedures. VOA reported that Kord-Afshari was told that she could not have the procedures because of her late hospital arrival and her lack of funds for payment. As a result, Kord-Afshari’s health problems worsened since the government transferred her to Evin Prison in August 2019, the source added.

In December, authorities summoned Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent female human rights lawyer and 2012 winner of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize, back to prison one month after her release due to health complications she manifested in prison. The government arrested Sotoudeh multiple times since 2009 because of her work as a rights defender. Most recently, authorities arrested her in 2018 as a result of what Amnesty International described as her “peaceful human rights works, including her defense of women protesting against Iran’s forced-hijab laws.” A court sentenced her to 33 years in prison and 148 lashes in 2019. At year’s end, she remained confined to Qarchak Prison.

The government continued to suppress public behavior it deemed counter to Islamic law, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Baha’i, Sabean-Mandaean, and Yarsani religious communities, as well as other unrecognized religious minorities, access to education and government employment unless they declared themselves as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions 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. On November 1, Iran International and HRANA reported that authorities barred from higher education at least 17 Baha’is who participated in the year’s nationwide university entrance examinations, despite their being academically qualified. As in previous years, the government organization responsible for holding university entrance exams and for placing students, the Sazeman-e Sanjesh, used pretexts such as “incomplete information” and “further investigation required” to reject Baha’i applicants. A November 2 Radio Farda report stated, “The real number of Baha’i students unable to access… degrees is likely much higher,” noting that officials rejected 70 Baha’i students in 2017. IranWire said that the banning of Baha’is from entering higher education began in 1980 and that this was the 40th consecutive year the government denied its own citizens access to higher education because of their religious beliefs.

In January, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran reported to the UN Human Rights Council that he remained “highly concerned about the denials of the right to education for religious minorities, with continuing reports of Baha’i students being rejected from entering university despite passing the required examinations.”

On September 11, Radio Farda reported that new Minister of Education Mohsen Haji Mirzaei, apparently in response to an account published two days earlier by a human rights organization, said, “It is forbidden for them [Baha’is] to study in schools.” Mirzaei was referring to the organization’s claim that authorities had ordered Saadet High School in the city of Semnan to refuse enrollment to student Borna Pirasteh in the third year of high school because of her Baha’i faith.

A Sabean-Mandaean resident of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Khuzestan Province told IranWire in October that law enforcement personnel regularly harassed his community. The man said that authorities regularly demanded bribes from Sabean-Mandaean goldsmiths. Another Sabean-Mandaean goldsmith stated that police worked with known thieves to victimize Sabean-Mandaean-owned jewelry shops.

In January, NGOs and press reported that the state-issued national identity card required for almost all government and other transactions would henceforward only allow citizens to register as belonging to one of the country’s recognized religions. According to CHRI, “anyone applying for the card who is not of the official Muslim faith or one of three religious minorities recognized in the…constitution (Christianity, Judaism or Zoroastrianism) will have to either lie and check the required box on the application for one of those religions, or not receive the card.” Previously, application forms for the ID card had an option for “other religions.” The card is used for all government services, banking activities, and the vast majority of other transactions. CHRI stated the policy “will blatantly discriminate against Baha’is as well as members of the Mandaean, Yarsani, and other unrecognized minority faiths in the country.” A report by Deutsche Welle stated that since Baha’is were forbidden by their faith to lie about their religion, they were unable to apply for new identity cards and obtain official identification.

In a July 21 report to the UN General Assembly, the special rapporteur stated that he “remains deeply concerned at the continued discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities. Changes to the national identity card application process reportedly hinder minority religious groups from gaining access to several essential services. The application form had previously listed ‘other’ as a religious option. In January, the National Organization for Civil Registration reported that this option had been removed, meaning individuals could only choose from the four officially recognized religions. The removal of ‘other’ raised fears that nonrecognized religious groups, such as Baha’is, Christian converts, Yarsanis, Sabean-Mandaeans and nonbelievers, would be unable to obtain a national identity card, which is necessary to gain access to government and banking services.”

According to a December 4 report by IranWire, the government issued a memorandum to the country’s provincial judiciary heads regarding the supervision of lawyers. Describing the expansion of a “security umbrella” over practicing attorneys, the government letter said it had established a new General Office for the Supervision of Lawyers to receive any reports of transgressions by members of the legal profession, in addition to the work already carried out by the Bar Association. Possible issues cited in the memorandum included non-observation of the mandatory hijab by female lawyers at work or on social media, or doubts about a given lawyer’s commitment to Islam, the Islamic Republic, or the principle of Supreme Leader. According to IranWire, this new office “will intimidate, silence, and push some lawyers out of the profession, while forcing others to align with the state’s principles, leading to an atrophy of justice.”

According to BIC, the government continued to ban Baha’is from participating in more than 25 types of work, many related to food industries, because the government deemed Baha’is “unclean.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority that stated 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 the building of any new Sunni mosques in Tehran. Sunnis said there were not enough mosques in the country to meet the needs of the population. Three news sources opposed to the government stated that Sunnis were not allowed to have a mosque in Tehran.

On May 25, the Deutsche Welle Persian service reported that Mohammad Baqer Tabatabai, an advisor to the Razavi Khorasan Guidance Office, referred to the Maki Mosque in Zahedan, the country’s largest and most culturally significant Sunni mosque, as a “house of corruption” on his Twitter account and called for its destruction. He deleted his tweet after public protest. Maki Mosque was built in 1353 in Zahedan, the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan Province. It is religiously and culturally significant to the Sunni Baluch minority, which reportedly contributed to the upkeep of the building independently from the central government.

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, the same term used by Christian converts for informal chapels or prayers rooms in underground churches, to practice their religion. Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.

MOIS and law enforcement officials 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 propaganda aimed at deterring the practice of or conversion to Christianity. According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the 2017 book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity.

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. A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz, whom IranWire identified as “Selim,” said, “The Mandaeans of Ahvaz are not allowed to be buried in the public cemetery.” On December 31, Radio Farda reported, “destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha’is and Yarsanis, [has] formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.” According to the report, security forces warned Baha’is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in many cities, including Gilavand, Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and in school systems. They also continued to report the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names. According to a February article in U.S. Institute of Peace’s Iran Primer, “The regime has discriminated against the group by cracking down on Yarsani places of worship, religious monuments, religious speech, publications, education and communication in Kurdish. Yarsanis have also had difficulty finding employment and faced arrest and interrogation by Iranian intelligence.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two preschools 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.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of previously available books about Christianity, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly remained available. 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 Yarsani 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. Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools, but only after the government authorized their content. Armenian Christians were also permitted to teach their practices to Armenian students as an elective at select schools. Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions. 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.

Baluch sources reported that throughout the year, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

According to media reports from 2018, the most recent reporting available, there were 13 synagogues in Tehran and approximately 35 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 to sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books. According to the Anti-Defamation League, following a March speech by the Supreme Leader on the COVID-19 pandemic, his office’s website posted remarks by a cleric who said “there is no doubt that the Jews and especially the Zionists previously have a long history of supernatural affairs and matters such as a relationship with the devil and genies.” The Anti-Defamation League report stated that most of the COVID-19 conspiracy theories spread by the government imagined the United States as leading “a biological attack, either with the help of Jewish capitalists or Israel, or to benefit Israel or at the behest of Jewish puppet masters.” According to the Anti-Defamation League, another central theme of the government’s propaganda regarding the global health crisis was the conspiracy theory that Jews are all-powerful or seek world domination.

In September, Masud Shojaei-Tabatabai, the head of a government arts agency, announced a plan to organize another exhibition of Holocaust-denial cartoons, which the government also held in 2006 and 2016. Following the beheading in France of a teacher who had shown students the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, Shojaei-Tabatabai told the Tehran Times, that “our [exhibition] program [will] publish serious artworks challenging the Holocaust; for one insulting cartoon, we will publish 10 cartoons in social media and other virtual spaces.” After French President Macron defended the slain teacher’s presentation of secularism and individual freedom, the Supreme Leader asked on Twitter, “Why is it a crime to raise doubts about the Holocaust? Why should anyone who writes about such doubts be imprisoned while insulting the Prophet (pbuh [Peace be upon him]) is allowed?”

The government continued to allow recognized minority religious groups to establish community centers and some self-financed cultural, social, athletic, and charitable associations.

On December 16, the UN General Assembly approved a resolution on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The General Assembly passed the measure by a vote of 82 states in favor, 30 against, and 64 abstentions. The resolution, which was cosponsored by 45 member states, expressed concern about “ongoing severe limitations and increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, restrictions on the establishment of places of worship, undue restrictions on burials carried out in accordance with religious tenets, attacks against places of worship and burial, and other human rights violations….” These violations included “harassment, intimidation, persecution, arbitrary arrests and detention, and incitement to hatred that leads to violence against persons belonging to recognized and unrecognized religious minorities, including Christians, Gonabadi dervishes, Jews, Sufi Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Yarsanis, Zoroastrians and members of the Baha’i faith, who have faced increasing restrictions from the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran on account of their faith and have been reportedly subjected to mass arrests and lengthy prison sentences.” The resolution called upon the government “to cease monitoring individuals on account of their religious identity, to release all religious practitioners imprisoned for their membership in or activities on behalf of a recognized or unrecognized minority religious group, and to ensure that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of their choice, in accordance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights ….”

Endowed religious charitable foundations, or bonyads, accounted for one-quarter to one-third of the country’s economy, according to some experts. According to NGOs, government insiders, including members of the military and clergy, ran these tax-exempt organizations, which the law defines as charities. Members of the political opposition and international corruption watchdog organizations frequently accused bonyads of corruption. Bonyads received benefits from the government, but there was no requirement for a government agency to approve their budgets publicly.

According to Radio Farda, religious leaders in Qom warned shops not to sell gifts associated with Valentine’s Day because of its roots in Christian tradition. Radio Farda stated that the country’s law enforcement agencies issue warnings to stores every year against selling such items, threatening to close the businesses from one to six months for noncompliance. The report also stated that some secular citizens have tried to promote the February 19 celebration of the day of Sepandarmaz, the goddess of fertility from the country’s pre-Islamic past. The country’s religious leaders opposed Sepandarmaz because of its roots in Zoroastrianism, which was replaced by Islam as the country’s predominant religion.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to IranWire, during Friday prayers in early November in Kermanshah, Sunni cleric Mullahamid Faraji called Yarsanis infidels, Satanists, and enemies of Muslims. “Yarsanis are not our brothers,” he told the congregation, adding, “Brotherhood is only possible in Islam.” According to IranWire, protests by members of the Yarsan community followed, gaining momentum over the days that followed, prompting Faraji to issue a retraction on social media in which he said enemies of the Islamic Republic had distorted and misrepresented his statements in an attempt to sow division between Muslims and Yarsanis in the area. He defined these “enemies” as Jews, Christians, and Zionists.

According to Radio Farda, Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the most senior Sunni cleric in the country, circulated a video on social media charging that Chinese Shia students studying at al-Mustafa International University had infected Iran with the novel coronavirus. The university said in a statement that the Sunni leader had no evidence to back up his accusation and that top religious clerics should be more cautious in public remarks. According to Iran News, the university also “deplored Abdolhamid for accusing al-Mustafa International University of brainwashing its non-Iranian students.”

A member of the Sabean-Mandaean community in Ahvaz said that he had witnessed the destruction of a temple and 12 other buildings belonging to the community in recent years. Another Sabean-Mandaean said, “Since 2015, the destruction of the Mandaean tombs has occurred many times in different parts of the country. But have our protests ever been heeded?”

According to a Radio Farda report, Yarsani graves were neither safe from attacks nor from disrespect, and Yarsani cemeteries and mausoleums were repeatedly damaged and destroyed in the city of Kermanshah and elsewhere in the country.

According to press and NGO reports, on May 14, following threats on Twitter, a man broke into the shrine of Esther and Mordechai, a Jewish holy site in Hamadan, in an attempt to set fire to the tomb. IRNA, the country’s official press agency, which first confirmed the attack but later removed the report from its website, said there was no major damage to the shrine. The attack followed reports in February that the government was considering razing the shrine as an act of revenge aimed at the United States and Israel. Hamedan’s prosecutor, Hassan Khanjani, told the semiofficial ISNA news agency that police had not reached a conclusion on the cause of the fire and that no arrests had been made.

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 reportedly continued to act with impunity.

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. BIC continued to report instances of physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith. Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

Yarsanis outside the country reported that widespread discrimination against Yarsanis continued. They stated Yarsani children were socially ostracized in school and in shared community facilities. Yarsani men, recognizable by their particular mustaches, continued to face employment discrimination. According to reports, Shia preachers continued to encourage social discrimination against Yarsanis.

According to human rights NGOs, including 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 continued to routinely insult Sunni religious figures in class.

In June, the Netherlands-based NGO Group for Analyzing and Measuring Attitudes in Iran conducted an online survey with the collaboration of the ABC that showed Iranian society’s unprecedented secularization. According to its authors, the result of the poll of 40,000 individuals revealed dramatic changes in the country’s religiosity, with an increase in secularization and a diversity of faiths and beliefs. The survey found that only 40 percent of respondents identified as Muslim, contrasting with government data that states 99.5 percent of the country is Muslim. The survey found 32 percent of respondents explicitly identified as Shia, while 5 percent said they were Sunni Muslim and 3 percent Sufi Muslim. Another 9 percent said they were atheists, along with 7 percent who preferred the label of “spirituality” as describing their religion. Among the other selected religions, 8 percent said they were Zoroastrians, which the pollsters interpreted as a reflection of Persian nationalism and a desire for an alternative to Islam, rather than strict adherence to the Zoroastrian faith, while 1.5 percent said they were Christian (which Christian groups state translates into between 750,000 and one million Christians in the country). Of those polled, 78 percent said they believed in God, while only 37 percent believed in life after death and only 30 percent believed in heaven and hell. Approximately 25 percent said they believed in jinns (demons).

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and therefore did not have opportunities to raise concerns in a bilateral setting with the government about its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

In a speech to the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6, the President expressed concern about the arrest of Mary Mohammadi, a Christian convert, at an antigovernment protest in January, which the President said was due to her conversion to Christianity. The Secretary of State later told an interviewer that he was deeply disturbed by the arrest.

The U.S. government continued to call publicly and in multilateral forums 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. These included public statements by senior U.S. government officials, use of social media, 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.

On January 15, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom tweeted, “Following the tragic death of Dr. Noor Ali Tabandeh [on December 24, 2019], we are closely watching how the Iranian government treats Gonabadi Sufis. Authorities should release those unjustly detained and allow the community to select their religious leaders without government interference.”

On October 16, the Department of State spokesperson tweeted, “Deeply disturbed by reports Iran lashed Mohammad Reza Omidi 80 times for drinking communion wine. He already served two years in prison for belonging to a house church. We condemn these unjust punishments and urge Iran to allow all Iranians the freedom to practice their beliefs.”

On September 24, the United States sanctioned several Iranian officials and entities, including Judge Seyyed Mahmoud Sadati, Judge Mohammad Soltani, Branch 1 of the Revolutionary Court of Shiraz, and the Adel Abad, Orumiyeh, and Vakilabad Prisons, for gross violations of human rights and denials to the right of liberty of those seeking to practice their religion. The statement read, “Judge Soltani is responsible for sentencing Baha’is in Iran on dubious charges related to their exercise of freedom of expression or belief” and “Orumiyeh Prison has subjected members of ethnic and religious minority groups and political prisoners to abuse, including beatings and floggings.” The statement added, “The actions taken today by the United States expose Iran’s revolutionary courts and their judges for what they really are: tools designed to enforce the Iranian regime’s brutal ideology and suppress dissent. They do not fairly administer justice, but rather seek to deprive the Iranian people of due process as well as their human rights and fundamental freedoms. The United States will continue to stand with the Iranian people and demand the regime treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve.”

Following the attempted arson in May at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism called on the government in a tweet “to stop incitement and protect its Jewish and other minorities.” He said that the United States strongly condemned the attack and that the Iranian government is “the world’s chief state sponsor of anti-Semitism.”

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 December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(c) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 (TRA), for individuals identified under Section 221(a)(1)(C) of the TRA in connection with the commission of serious human rights abuses, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Liberia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others. It also provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits religious tests for office and the establishment of a state religion. Religious leaders urged the government to engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social issues, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators as a last resort after problems develop. Religious leaders continued to express willingness to mediate in conflict situations as an extension of their proactive dialogue on social issues. In March, following consultation with the Liberian Council of Churches (LCC), the Minister of Health closed churches and mosques along with schools and businesses in two counties under a national health emergency as part of the country’s COVID-19 response. In April, the President expanded the closures nationwide after declaring a three-week renewable national state of emergency. Some Christian religious groups initially resisted the closure. Police were called in to enforce the order to close houses of worship and arrested some Christian worshippers before the closure measures were later eased in May. Muslim groups continued to call on the legislature to pass a law recognizing Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays.

In February, police in Kakata, Margibi County, arrested and charged a Christian “prayer woman,” Yamah Yango, with manslaughter for allegedly beating to death her eight-year-old nephew, Tom Yango, following his refusal to continue with three days of fasting and prayer “to cleanse him of evil spirits.” At the request of local residents, in August, in Picnicess District of Grand Kru County, County Superintendent Doris N. Ylatun invited traditional herbalist Tamba Bundoo to “cleanse” Chenakaleh of witchcraft believed to have caused the death or disappearance of approximately 50 individuals over two years. His activities were halted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs in early September following complaints. More than a hundred local citizens then staged a peaceful demonstration on September 3 seeking the resumption of Bundoo’s activities by marching to the administration building in Barclayville to present their petition to the local authority of Grand Kru County.

U.S. embassy officials engaged with government officials, including the President’s religious advisors and members of the legislature, to promote interfaith dialogue and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with issues relating to historical accountability, land disputes, and ethnic tensions. Embassy officials additionally promoted religious freedom and tolerance across society through outreach to religious leaders and communities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2008 National Population and Housing Census, which remains the most recent available, the population is 85.6 percent Christian, 12.2 percent Muslim, 1.5 percent persons who claim no religion, 0.6 percent adherents of indigenous religious beliefs, and less than 1 percent members of other religious groups, including Baha’is, Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists. Muslim organizations continued to dispute these official statistics, stating that Muslims constitute up to 20 percent of the population and calling for the government to conduct a new census, which is expected to take place in 2021.

Christian churches include the African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion, Baptist, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Episcopal, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, United Methodist, and a variety of Pentecostal churches. Many members of religious groups also incorporate elements of indigenous beliefs and customs into their religious practices.

Christians reside throughout the country. Muslims belonging to the Mandingo and Fula ethnic groups reside throughout the country, while Muslims of the Vai ethnic group live predominantly in the west. The Poro (for males) and Sande (for females) societies – often referred to as secret societies – combine traditional religious and cultural practices and are present in the northern, western, and central regions of the country. Other traditional cultural and religious societies, including the Kui Society and the Bodio, or priests of the Gleebo people, exist in the southeast.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the separation of religion and state and stipulates all persons are entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. It states no one shall be hindered in the exercise of these rights except as required by law to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the rights of others. It provides for equal protection under the law and prohibits political parties that exclude citizens from membership based on religious affiliation. It also states no religious group should have exclusive privileges or preferences and that the country should establish no state religion.

The government requires all religious groups, except for indigenous ones that generally operate under customary law, to register their articles of incorporation and their organizations’ statements of purpose.

Local religious organizations register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and pay a one-time fee of 10,500 Liberian dollars ($64) to file their articles of incorporation and an annual fee of 3,500 Liberian dollars ($21) for registration. Foreign religious organizations pay 84,000 Liberian dollars ($520) for registration annually and a one-time fee of 105,000 Liberian dollars ($640) to file their articles of incorporation. Religious organizations also pay 1,800 to 2,700 Liberian dollars ($11-$17) to notarize articles of incorporation to be filed with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and an additional 1,000 Liberian dollars ($6) to receive a registered copy of the articles. The Ministry of Finance and Development Planning issues proof of accreditation for the articles of incorporation. There is also an option of completing the same process at the Liberia Business Registry. Some religious organizations report being charged registration fees for each of their individual locations throughout the country, as per a government regulation issued two years ago.

Registered religious organizations, including missionary programs, religious charities, and religious groups, receive income tax exemptions and duty-free privileges on goods brought into the country, privileges not afforded to unregistered groups. Registered groups may be sued as a single entity separately from any lawsuits brought against individual owners.

The law requires high-level government officials to take an oath ending with the phrase, “So help me, God,” when assuming office. It is customary for Christians to kiss the Bible, and Muslims the Quran on those occasions.

Public schools offer nonsectarian religious and moral education as part of the standard curriculum, which includes an overview and history of various religious traditions and an emphasis on moral values.

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

Government Practices

In March, Minister of Health Wilhelmina S. Jallah declared a national health emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic and designated as infected areas two of the country’s 15 counties, Montserrado (where the capital Monrovia is located) and Margibi. She then imposed a lockdown that closed places of worship as well as schools and businesses. The government allowed places of worship to reopen on May 15. The Muslim and the small Baha’i communities generally adhered to the government’s closure of places of worship, but according to the head of the LLC, some Christian religious groups resisted the measure. The Bahaʼi Spiritual Assembly, in keeping with the ban, suspended its New Year’s celebration, which was scheduled for March 19 and 20, and the National Muslim Council suspended all religious activities at mosques. The LCC, however, noted that during negotiations with the government before the lockdown, there was agreement that churches or other places of worship would not have to close but would only reduce overcrowding and observe other rules related to social distancing. Places of worship were ultimately required to close, but sources stated that the determination initially came as a surprise to the LCC, as negotiations before the closure were mainly about overcrowding.

On March 22, according to media reports, police inspector general Colonel Patrick Toe Sudue and several police officers raided the church of Senator Prince Yormie Johnson, pastor of the Chapel of Faith Ministries and an accused war criminal. They entered during a service and attempted to enforce the government’s COVID-19 restrictions and convince worshippers to leave. Johnson refused to halt the service, stating that the legislature remained open while houses of worship were being forced to close. Police threatened to arrest him if he held services the following week. The senator ended his March 22 church service early and did not hold a service the next week.

On March 26, a large group of worshippers of the Saint Assembly Church in the Old Road community in Monrovia gathered on a field and clustered together to worship and “pray for the nation.” According to media reports, members of the group refused to obey police, who used loudspeakers to tell the group to disperse. The police arrested some members but did not succeed in dispersing those assembled. It was reported that Saint Assembly worshipers also ignored a team from the LCC dispatched to the field to assist police with dispersing them. The worshippers eventually left, and the next morning, police took control of the field in which the church members had gathered.

In March 2019, President George Weah appointed Usmane T. Jalloh as the country’s first official Muslim religious advisor, to serve alongside two Christian advisors and to advise the President on issues relating to the Muslim community. On October 28, Jalloh stated that his office had worked out all the necessary modalities with the President’s office for the two religions to live together in harmony. For example, he pointed out that the government had agreed that for official programs, if the opening prayer is delivered by Christian, then a Muslim will perform the closing prayer. In June 2019, the government, for the first time, granted leave to Muslim civil servants to observe Eid al-Fitr.

Muslim organizations said they welcomed the President’s appointment of a Muslim religious advisor and the granting of paid leave. The organizations, however, continued to call for official recognition or observance of major Islamic religious holidays and cited Christmas and Fast and Prayer Day, which falls near Good Friday, as examples of officially recognized Christian holidays. Muslim organizations have advocated for recognition of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays since 1995. On May 24, at the end of Eid al-Fitr, Sheik Ali Krayee, Chief Imam of the Republic of Liberia and the head of the National Imam Council of Liberia (NICOL), called for legislation making Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha public holidays for Muslims a “social right.” The Chief Imam said Muslims should not support political candidates who did not support the legislation and promised that the Muslim community in the country would mount pressure for an Islamic holiday after the upcoming special senatorial election.

In response to Muslim demands for the legislature to enact into law the two holidays, the Bishop of the Lutheran Church in Liberia, Jensen Seyenkulo, quoted in the Liberian Observer newspaper on May 27, stated that Christmas and Easter are celebrated worldwide and are not legislated in the country. He said that Fast and Prayer Day cut across every religion in the country and was not restricted to one religion and therefore was not a Christian holiday.

On August 4, dozens of Muslims, under the banner “Movement for Islamic Holidays in Liberia,” also petitioned the legislature to recognize Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha as national holidays. According to spokesperson Ayoubah Dauda Swaray, the group was composed of 20 Islamic organizations, mostly youth driven, with members mainly from Montserrado and Margibi Counties. Swaray noted that the group had the endorsement of the National Muslim Council of Liberia and the National Imam Council of Liberia. According to Swaray, the petition stated that several Christian holidays are celebrated as national holidays, but there are no recognized Muslim holidays. According to Swaray, this lack of recognition marginalized the Muslim community. In receiving the petition, the chairman of the House Committee on Claims and Petition, Representative Rustonlyn Suacoco Dennis, thanked the group for its peaceful assembly and assured them of legislators’ commitment to look through the matter and promised to present their request to the plenary for possible action. She also stated that, because the country is a secular state and there have been no religious holidays passed into law, the legislature would have to consider the request diligently before making any decision.

Members of the Muslim and Bahaʼí communities working in government or public positions said government agencies continued to be reluctant to grant time off to observe other religions’ holidays.

Religious leaders recommended the government engage religious communities in proactive dialogue on social and other issues, such as COVID-19 awareness, political violence and disputes, and economic development, rather than calling upon religious organizations as mediators only after problems develop. On several occasions, as in the previous year, the Interreligious Council of Liberia (IRCL) called for and facilitated dialogue between the government and some opposition figures.

On July 30, when opposition Collaborating Political Parties (CPP) leader Alexander Cummings and Representative Yekeh Kolubah were attacked by an angry mob in Grand Gedeh County for their criticisms of the Weah presidency, LCC Secretary General Christopher Toe said the LCC wanted to be a part of the mediating team but was hampered by financial and logistical considerations. As a result, the LCC called for financial support from the government and partners.

The LCC held discussions with authorities of the University of Liberia and representatives of student groups from the university and from the African Methodist Episcopal University, who staged a protest on August 17 against a mandatory eLearning platform for instruction launched by the universities due to the COVD-19 outbreak. The students wanted the platform to be made optional. They threatened mass protests and demanded the reopening of the university campuses in order to return to a more traditional style of learning. On September 15, the University of Liberia dean of student affairs announced that the state-run university would resume normal learning activities once the necessary health protocols prescribed by the Commission on Higher Education were met at the university. Following the LCC intervention, the students accepted this outcome.

On May 14, the LCC, together with National Muslim Council of Liberia and the Traditional Council of Liberia, mediated a conflict between the Council of Patriots, a prodemocracy movement, and the Liberia Business Registry. The dispute centered on the refusal of the latter to grant the Council of Patriots’ legal registration status due to what many members of the public saw as pressure from the government.

According to Muslim religious leaders, the government continued to employ a disproportionate number of Christian chaplains relative to Muslim chaplains in government institutions when compared with the religious demographics of the country. The government reportedly employed only two Muslim chaplains, one in the armed forces and one in the Supreme Court. In contrast, each of the 19 ministries reportedly had a Christian chaplain, while the Senate had five and the House of Representatives had two. Christian chaplains frequently read Christian prayers before starting official business.

The government continued to subsidize private schools, most of which were affiliated with Christian and Muslim organizations. The government provided subsidies to schools based on need through an application process, although Muslim leaders continued to say the subsidies disproportionately favored Christian schools

Human rights organizations continued to call upon the government to intervene in and investigate cases of persons who were injured or killed due to accusations of witchcraft, exorcisms, and trials by ordeal.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights organizations noted an increase over the course of several years in harmful traditional practices, including accusations of witchcraft, ritualistic killings, and other violent practices, including female genital mutilation, within traditional secret societies such as the Sande Society for girls.

In February, police in Kakata, Margibi County, arrested and charged a Christian “prayer woman,” identified as Yamah Yango, with manslaughter for allegedly beating to death her eight-year-old nephew, Tom Yango. The incident occurred in the Madena community after the child reportedly refused to continue a three-day period of fasting and prayer imposed by his aunt as part of a ritual to “cleanse him of evil spirits.” Yango was being held at the Kakata Central Prison while awaiting trial at the judiciary circuit court in Margibi County.

In July, according to local media, residents of Chenakaleh in the Picnicess District of Grand Kru County asked local officials to employ a traditional herbalist to “cleanse” the area of witchcraft. The residents reportedly said that at least 50 individuals who had disappeared over approximately two years had been abducted for “ritualist purposes,” including a Catholic brother from the Picnicess District, Joseph Nyenplue, who disappeared in June on a fishing trip. In August, Grand Kru County superintendent Doris N. Ylatun invited traditional herbalist Tamba Bundoo to “cleanse” Chenakaleh of “witchcraft and wizardry activities,” but the Ministry of Internal Affairs halted Bundoo’s activities in early September due to complaints of “primitive justice” being administered. On September 3, hundreds of citizens demonstrated to urge the resumption of Bundoo’s activities.

A wide variety of Christian, Muslim, and interfaith organizations worked throughout the year to promote tolerance, dialogue, and conflict resolution through training sessions, workshops, and community meetings. The LCC and the National Muslim Council met and participated in the IRCL, the country’s foremost interfaith organization. In addition, the LCC held several workshops and outreach events on social issues with government agencies and international partners. For example, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, in July, the LCC held a meeting with the head of the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program to review the performance of food distribution. In October, the LCC organized a consultative meeting with political parties, the National Elections Commission, and other stakeholders to address what the LCC described as strengthening peace, security, and democracy in Liberia.

In July, the LCC hosted a consultation with the leadership of the COVID-19 Household Food Support Program (COHFSP), led by the Minister of Commerce and the World Food Program, to review the performance of the government-initiated food distribution program. Following the consultation, the subcommittee on food distribution of COHFSP held a working meeting with the LCC and proposed steps to ensure the peaceful distribution of emergency food relief assistance to vulnerable citizens and residents combating the pandemic.

In October, the LCC held consultations with the leadership of the country’s largest opposition political bloc, the CPP, on a planned nationwide protest action for electoral reform involving cleaning up voter rolls prior to the December 8 senatorial elections. The CPP suspended the planned protest while the LCC continued to work with stakeholders to address some of the concerns raised.

On June 18, with the support of UNICEF and in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the National Public Health Institute, the IRCL began an interfaith effort to train 510 field workers from Christian and Muslim communities to implement its “faith-based action plan” to help curb the spread of COVID-19 in several counties, including Bomi, Bong, Grand Bassa, Grand Gedeh, Grand Kru, Nimba, Margibi, and Montserrado.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with government officials, including the President’s religious advisors and members of the legislature, to promote interfaith dialogue and to stress U.S. government support of religious freedom and tolerance in connection with issues relating to historical accountability, land disputes, and ethnic tensions.

Embassy officers regularly met with a variety of civil society and religious figures, including representatives of Christian, Muslim, Baha’i, and traditional religious groups, to discuss tolerance and the importance of religious leaders and adherents working to bring communities together.

The embassy worked with influential religious leaders to emphasize peaceful reconciliation practices as the country continued to cope with the long-lasting effects of its civil wars.

Libya

Executive Summary

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution and states that Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation. The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing the country’s “social structure,” which were used to ban circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.” The criminal code effectively prohibits conversion from Islam, according to scholars and human rights advocates. According to one press report, the Rada Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), a militia nominally aligned with the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected. Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east, where non-GNA entities competed for control over territory and governance by setting up parallel government institutions. Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. Some of these detainees reported they were tortured and otherwise abused.

Some areas of the country, including the eastern part, operated under the influence of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and LNA-affiliated armed groups. Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in parts of Tripoli and in Benghazi, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards. According to media reports, elements of the Madkhali Salafist movement affiliated with the LNA continued to crack down on activities not sanctioned by their strict interpretation of Islam including the sale of books deemed un-Islamic and events where men and women mixed. According to the Christian rights advocacy group Middle East Concern (MEC), Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings. Salafist and Islamist groups, some nominally aligned with the GNA, assumed law enforcement functions. One press report stated that in the western part of the country, these elements replaced imams, preachers, and the heads of Awqaf offices with individuals with a more Salafist orientation. U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and ISIS continued to operate within the country.

According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith and return to Islam. Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and hostility from their families and communities because of their beliefs.

The U.S. Embassy to Libya operated from Tunis, Tunisia; its officials made periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. In September, the Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and establish a unified, stable, democratic, and tolerant Libyan state, and continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with authorities, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academics, and other human rights advocates.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.9 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population are migrants. Sunni Muslims represent between 90 and 95 percent of the population, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent, and the remainder includes small communities of Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists. Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims. Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.

Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary. According to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List Country Profile, there are 34,500 Christians. In 2015, Open Doors USA estimated 150 to 180 of these were Libyan nationals who converted from Islam.

Foreign Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African migrants and Filipino foreign workers, with smaller numbers of Egyptian migrants and a small number of other foreign residents of European nationalities. According to Christian groups in Tripoli, most of the Egyptian Christians are Copts. Most Filipino and some sub-Saharan African migrants are Catholic; the Catholic diocese of Tripoli estimates its followers include 5,000 sub-Saharan and 1,500 Filipino individuals. Estimates on the numbers of other Christian groups vary. According to Open Doors USA, these include Anglicans, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and nondenominational Christians.

According to the World Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, no Jews reside permanently in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution. It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws. The Constitutional Declaration prohibits any form of discrimination based on religion. Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs. Sharia, however, applies in any case in which a Muslim is involved. The interim constitution also states, “There shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights. The penal code and other laws provide criminal penalties for conviction of defamation and insults to religion. Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law. The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict.

The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) administers mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.

Sharia courts govern family matters for Muslims, including inheritance, divorce, and the right to own property. Under the law, a Christian or Jewish woman who marries a Muslim man is not required to convert to Islam; however, a non-Muslim man must convert to Islam to marry a Muslim woman. Marriages between Muslim men and women of non-Abrahamic faiths are illegal, and such marriages are not recognized, even when contracted abroad. The MEIA administers non-Muslim family law issues, although there is no separate legal framework governing non-Muslim family law. The ministry draws upon neighboring countries’ family law precedents for non-Muslims.

Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools. Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students, with no opt-out provisions.

There is no law providing for individuals’ right to choose or change their religion or to study, discuss, or promulgate their religious beliefs. There is no civil law explicitly prohibiting conversion from Islam to another religion or prohibiting proselytization; however, the criminal code effectively prohibits missionary activities or conversion. It includes prohibitions against “instigating division” and insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad, charges that carry a maximum sentence of death. The criminal code prohibits the circulation of publications that aim to “change the fundamental principles of the constitution or the fundamental rules of the social structure,” which are used to criminalize the circulation of non-Islamic religious materials and speech considered “offensive to Muslims.”

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

Government Practices

Since religion, politics, and security are often closely linked in the country, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Multiple authorities and armed groups vied for influence and territorial control, with little effective exercise of government authority in practice, according to international observers, a situation which worsened during the LNA offensive to seize the capital from April 2019 to June 2020. The GNA did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the south and east. The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups within the parts of the country it controlled was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.

According to one press report, the SDF, a nominally GNA-aligned militia in Tripoli, engaged in Islamic religious policing in the capital. According to human rights activists, the SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law. Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians. Detainees of the SDF reported torture and other abuse while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.

Armed groups provided security and administered some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees. One Christian group operating in the country reported multiple accounts of a section within the SDF-run detention center at the Mitiga airbase where detainees who were Christian converts, “freethinkers”, or critics of Islam were concentrated. Some detainees in this section were reportedly subjected to torture.

Some detention facilities had no provision for non-Islamic burials.

The government permitted religious scholars to form organizations, issue fatwas, and provide advice to followers. The fatwas did not have legal weight but conveyed considerable social pressure, according to tribal and religious leaders. The GNA, however, did not exercise effective administrative control of mosques or supervision of clerics.

Sheikh Sadiq Al-Ghariani, who is regarded by the Muslim Brotherhood and others as the country’s Grand Mufti, said in a video broadcast on Al-Tanasuh TV, “If detonating oneself while carrying out a fedaai [self-sacrificial] operation rattles the enemy and brings upon it a crushing defeat, then it is allowed by sharia law. Many of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions threw themselves from walls. They sacrificed themselves and died in order to breach the enemy’s ranks.”

On June 17, in a program that aired on Al-Tanasuh TV, Al-Ghariani said that supporters of the LNA were in violation of sharia and were fighting as a proxy for a “Zionist project” meant to protect Israel and the enemies of God.

In Tripoli, according to civil society sources, women’s rights activists, and human rights NGO officials, some militias and armed groups, such as the SDF, imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed “un-Islamic.” There continued to be no laws, however, imposing restrictions on dress.

The Ministry of Education continued to work to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four through nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance. The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

According to human rights activists, civil society figures, and politicians, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religion and politics.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Arab Organization for Human Rights – Libya (AOHRL) continued to report a restrictive social environment for religious freedom throughout the country. This included intense social and economic pressure on former Muslims to return to Islam. NGOs stated Salafist interpretations of sharia continued to contribute to this restrictive environment. Religious minorities said converts to other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious persons, faced threats of violence or dismissal from employment and from their families and communities because of their beliefs or lack of belief.

International observers said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy and faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith. Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities as a result of security threats and social pressure from the local community, as well as because of legal prohibitions against conversion and missionary activity.

Christian communities continued to exist in Tripoli, where Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant churches operated for foreigners. Christian communities were also present in Misrata, Al-Baida, Benghazi, Tubruq, Sebha, Ghat, Ubari, and Murzuq, among other cities. In some cases, such as in Benghazi, Catholic communities continued to worship in places other than church buildings after ISIS destroyed church properties there in 2015. The Catholic cathedral in Benghazi remained damaged and inaccessible after fighting in 2013-15.

In a poll conducted by a Dubai-based public relations firm in the first three months of the year and involving a team of international experts, 30 percent of the country’s citizens aged 18-24 agreed that religion was “the most important” factor to their personal identity, compared to 41 percent overall of youth polled in the 17 Arab states included in the survey and to 61 percent of youth polled in all of North Africa.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Since the 2014 embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations there, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted. The U.S. government supported international efforts to end the conflict and to establish a unified, stable, democratic and tolerant Libyan state.

The Ambassador met virtually with members of the country’s Jewish diaspora on September 16. The embassy used its social media platforms to draw attention to this exchange and to call for inclusion of and respect for religious minority communities. Other embassy representatives discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders. Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including MEC, the AOHRL, Human Rights Watch, and independent activists and researchers to address religious freedom issues. The embassy also continued to partner with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine designed to promote inclusivity and tolerance.

Macau

Read A Section: Macau

China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Executive Summary

The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education. The law protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services. The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad. The SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law on October 7 allowing the Judiciary Police to create national security branches. Some members of the religious community said they were concerned Macau’s implementation of these new provisions could mirror the Hong Kong police force’s national security units and potentially affect civil liberties, although they were uncertain if the new provisions could eventually infringe upon religious freedom. Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province. At a Lunar New Year celebration, the Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office told religious community representatives the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support. Falun Gong practitioners held a rally on April 25 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in mainland China.

Falun Gong practitioners continued to be able to discuss their beliefs openly with Macau residents.

In meetings with civil society representatives, representatives from the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau stressed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance for all religious groups and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland and in Hong Kong.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 614,000 (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2015 estimate by the research group Association of Religion Data Archives, 48.1 percent of the population are folk religionists, 17.3 percent Buddhist, 11 percent Taoist, 4.5 percent Catholic, 2.5 percent other Christian, 1.2 percent other religious groups (including Hindus, Muslims, and Jews), and 15.4 percent nonreligious. The SAR Government Information Bureau 2020 yearbook states the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions. The yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists, but it states they are numerous and individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions. The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates 4.5 percent of the population are Roman Catholics, of whom almost half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and 2.5 percent of the population are Protestants. Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches. Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with officially recognized mainland churches, are also present. Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000. Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at more than 2,000, and Falun Gong practitioners, who estimate their numbers at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law states residents have freedom of religious belief and the freedom to publicly preach as well as conduct and participate in religious activities. These rights may be limited in extreme situations for national security reasons. The Basic Law further stipulates the government shall not interfere in the internal affairs of religious groups or in their relations with their counterparts outside Macau. It bars the government from restricting religious activities that do not contravene the laws of the SAR.

Under the Basic Law, the SAR government, rather than the central government of the PRC, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states there is no official religion in the SAR and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law. The law provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education. On October 7, the SAR enacted bylaws to the 2009 National Security Law allowing the Judiciary Police to create four new national security branches: the National Security Information Division; the National Security Crime Investigation Division; the National Security Action Support Division; and the National Security Affairs Integrated Service Division.

Religious groups are not required to register to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status. Benefits include exemption from taxation (such as property tax, stamp duty, complementary tax [profit tax], and industrial tax) and financial assistance from the government. Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter. Registered charities receive the same benefits as registered religious groups. Religious groups need to be registered as a charity under a similar or different name in order to provide charitable services.

The law states that religious organizations may run seminaries and schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions, and provide other social services.

There is no religious education in public schools. A small number of schools run by religious organizations receive no public funding, and these schools may require students to receive religious education.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.

Government Practices

The government’s stated aim in amending the 2009 National Security Law was to improve external communications about national security and promote law enforcement. Human rights advocates said they were concerned the SAR’s new divisions mirrored the divisions that were created under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which came into effect on June 30 and were being used to threaten civil liberties. Religious leaders said they were uncertain if the new provisions might eventually infringe upon religious freedom.

Religious figures expressed no public reaction in February when China appointed as the new Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Chief Xia Baolong, who previously led a suppression campaign against local churches in mainland China’s Zhejiang Province.

According to the Central Government Liaison Office in Macau, in January, Zhang Rongshun, Deputy Director of the Central Government Liaison Office, held a Lunar New Year celebration with more than 30 representatives from the Catholic, Buddhist, Christian, Taoist, and Baha’i communities. Zhang said successful implementation of the PRC’s “one country, two systems” policy relied on support from Macau’s religious groups and thanked them for that support.

On April 25, Falun Gong practitioners held a rally in front of St. Dominic’s Church to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the mass arrest of Falun Gong members in mainland China and protest the CCP’s treatment of Falun Gong practitioners on the mainland. According to the Falun Gong website Minghui.org, practitioners set up message boards with information about the history of the group, carried banners, and distributed informational pamphlets.

Some religious groups continued to report they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.

The government continued to provide financial support, regardless of religious affiliation, to religious groups to establish schools, child-care centers, clinics, homes for the elderly, rehabilitation centers, and vocational training centers. The government also continued to refer victims of human trafficking to religious organizations for the provision of support services.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, continued to recognize the Pope as its head. The Vatican appointed the bishop for the diocese. Sources stated the PRC central government and religious leaders from mainland-authorized churches invited Macau diocese representatives to public events.

The Catholic Diocese of Macau continued to run many educational institutions.

According to Minghui.org, with fewer foreigners visiting the SAR due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Falun Gong practitioners interacted more with local residents, handing out information on the streets, including publications called CCP Virus Special Editions and MinghuiWeekly. According to the website, “Local residents have always treated Falun Dafa practitioners with kindness.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. Consulate General representatives in Hong Kong, including the Consul General, stressed the importance of religious diversity and discussed religious communities’ relations with their coreligionists on the mainland. They raised these points in meetings with civil society representatives, religious leaders, and nongovernmental organizations.

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China | Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong

Malaysia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the “religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony.” Federal and state governments have the power to mandate doctrine for Muslims and promote Sunni Islam above all other religious groups. Other forms of Islam are illegal. Sedition laws criminalize speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.” The government maintains a parallel legal system, with certain civil matters for Muslims covered by sharia. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains unresolved in the legal system. Individuals diverging from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. Sources stated that there was some selective persecution of non-Muslim faiths through legal and extralegal means. In February, the human rights commission (SUHAKAM) initiated a public inquiry into the 2016 disappearance of a Christian pastor and his wife. A government-appointed panel formed in 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s findings on the enforced disappearances of another Christian pastor and a social activist accused of spreading Shia teachings in 2016 made little progress. In February, the wife of the second Christian pastor initiated legal action against the federal government and senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s disappearance. In July, the High Court convicted a man for training members of a WhatsApp group to commit terrorist acts, including attacks on a Hindu temple and other houses of worship. The Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against a member of parliament who stated that sharia courts discriminated against women. The government continued to selectively prosecute speech that allegedly denigrated Islam, while it largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. Non-Muslims faced legal difficulties when they sought to use the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words. Non-Sunni religious groups continued to report challenges in registering as nonprofit charitable organizations or building houses of worship. Some political parties said only Malay-Muslim parties should be allowed to lead the country. In July, a court sentenced a man to 26 months’ imprisonment for insulting Islam and a Muslim politician. The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs and limited Malaysians ability to travel to Israel.

Local human rights organizations and religious leaders again expressed concern that society was becoming less tolerant of religious diversity. A joint council of minority religious communities released a statement expressing its “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.”

U.S. embassy officials regularly discussed with government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, among others, issues including constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, an increase in religious intolerance, respecting religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children by one parent without the permission of the other, and the disappearances of the three Christians and a Muslim activist in 2016. Embassy representatives met with members of religious groups, including minority groups and those whose activities were limited by the government, to discuss the restrictions they faced and strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom. The embassy enabled the participation of religious leaders and scholars in virtual conferences and webinars that promoted religious freedom and tolerance. The embassy funded a civic education curriculum and training program that will teach students in federal religious schools about freedom of expression and association, including freedom of religion.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32.7 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the most recent census in 2010, 61.3 percent of the population practices Islam; 19.8 percent, Buddhism; 9.2 percent, Christianity; 6.3 percent, Hinduism; 1.3 percent, Confucianism, Taoism, or other traditional Chinese philosophies and religions; and less than 1 percent each of other religious groups that include animists, Sikhs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), and Baha’is. Almost all Muslims practice Sunni Islam of the Shafi’i school. Ethnic Malays, defined in the federal constitution as Muslims from birth, account for approximately 55 percent of the population. Rural areas – especially in the peninsular east coast of the country – are predominantly Muslim, while the states of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo have relatively higher numbers of non-Muslims. Two-thirds of the country’s Christian population inhabits the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The federal constitution states, “every person has the right to profess and practice his religion,” but gives federal and state governments the power to control or restrict proselytization to Muslims. The constitution names Islam as the “religion of the Federation,” and gives parliament powers to make provisions regulating Islamic religious affairs. Federal law allows citizens and organizations to sue the government for constitutional violations of religious freedom. Federal and state governments have the power to “control or restrict the propagation of any religious doctrine or belief among persons professing the religion of Islam.” The constitution identifies the traditional rulers, also known as sultans, as “Heads of Islam,” are the highest Islamic authorities within their respective states. Sultans are present in nine of the country’s 13 states; in the remaining four states and the Federal Territories, the highest Islamic authority is the King, selected to a five-year term from among the nine sultans in an established rotation order. Islamic law is administered by each state. The office of mufti exists in every state to advise the sultan in all matters of Islamic law. Sultans oversee sharia courts and appoint judges based on the recommendation of the respective state Islamic religious departments and councils who manage the operations of the courts. In states with no sultan and in the Federal Territories, the King assumes responsibility for this process.

Federal law has constitutional precedence over state law except in matters concerning Islamic law. A constitutional amendment provides that civil courts have no jurisdiction with respect to any matter within the jurisdiction of the sharia courts. However, since 2018, the Federal Court, the country’s highest, has held it has jurisdiction over the procedures of the sharia administrative authority in cases involving conversion of minors and that such jurisdiction may not be abrogated by a constitutional amendment.

The Sharia Judiciary Department (JKSM) is the federal agency charged with coordinating the sharia courts. The federal Department of Development of Islam (JAKIM) is the permanent secretariat of the federal Fatwa Committee, which consists of 14 muftis, one from each state and one representing the Federal Territories. The Sharia and Civil Technical Committee within the Attorney General’s Chambers oversee the process of sharia lawmaking at the federal level. A 1996 fatwa, supported by state laws, requires the country to follow only Sunni teachings of the Shafi’i school and prohibits Muslims from possessing, publishing, or distributing material contrary to those teachings.

Muslims who seek to convert to another religion must first obtain approval from a sharia court to declare themselves “apostates.” Sharia courts seldom grant such requests, especially for those born Muslim and ethnic Malays, and are reluctant to allow conversion for those who had previously converted to Islam. Penalties for apostasy vary by state. In the states of Perak, Melaka, Sabah, and Pahang, apostasy is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or jail term. In Pahang, up to six strokes of the cane may also be imposed. The maximum penalty for apostasy in the states of Kelantan and Terengganu is death, but this penalty has never been imposed, and its legal status remains untested. According to former Islamic Affairs Minister Jamil Khir, from 2000 to 2010, the sharia court approved 135 of 686 applications to no longer identify as a Muslim. NGOs report that most converts from Islam prefer to do so privately, without legal approval. Nationally, civil courts generally cede authority to sharia courts in cases concerning conversion from Islam. In some states, sharia courts allow one parent to convert children to Islam without the consent of the second parent. The law does not restrict the rights of non-Muslims to change their religious beliefs and affiliation. A non-Muslim wishing to marry a Muslim must convert to Islam for the sharia court to officially recognize the marriage.

A minor (under the age of 18, according to federal law) generally may not convert to another faith without explicit parental permission; however, some states’ laws allow conversion to Islam without permission after age 15. A 2018 decision of the Federal Court ruled against the unilateral conversion of children by a sharia court without the consent of both parents. The judgment said civil courts had jurisdiction to exercise supervisory powers over administrative decisions of state Islamic authorities.

Sedition laws regulate and punish, among other acts, speech considered hostile to ethnic groups, which includes speech insulting Islam. Convictions may result in prison sentences of three to seven years or up to 20 years if there is physical harm or damage to property. The law also bars speech that “promotes ill will, hostility, or hatred on the grounds of religion.”

Under sharia, which differs by state, individuals convicted of “deviant” religious activity face up to three years in prison, caning, or a 5,000-ringgit ($1,200) fine for “insulting” Islam. According to some state laws, Muslims may be fined 1,000 ringgit ($250) if they do not attend “counseling” after being found guilty of wearing what authorities deem immodest clothing. According to sharia law in some states, any individuals who sell food to fasting Muslims or Muslims who do not fast are subject to a fine, a jail sentence, or both.

JAKIM and state Islamic authorities prepare all Friday sermons for congregations as well as oversee and approve the appointment of imams at mosques. JAKIM and state Islamic officials must formally approve all teachers of Islam before they may preach or lecture on Islam in public.

There is no legal requirement for non-Muslim religious groups to register, but to become approved nonprofit charitable organizations, all groups must register with the government’s Registrar of Societies (ROS) by submitting paperwork showing the organization’s leadership, purpose, and rules, and by paying a small fee. These organizations are legally required to submit annual reports to the ROS to remain registered. The ROS may inspect registered organizations and investigate those suspected of being used for purposes “prejudicial to public peace, welfare, good order, or morality.”

Tax laws allow a tax exemption for registered religious groups for donations received and a tax deduction for individual donors. Donors giving zakat (tithes) to Muslim religious organizations receive a tax rebate. Donors to government-approved charitable organizations (including some non-Muslim religious groups) may receive a tax deduction on the contribution rather than a tax rebate.

Under sharia, caning is permitted in every state. Offenses subject to caning, sometimes in conjunction with imprisonment, include consensual same-sex sexual relations and prostitution. Caning is also permitted for a wider variety of offenses under the penal code.

The law forbids proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims, with punishments varying from state to state, including imprisonment and caning. The law allows and supports Muslims proselytizing without restriction.

State governments have exclusive authority over allocation of land for, and the construction of, all places of worship as well as land allocation for all cemeteries.

All Islamic houses of worship – including mosques and prayer rooms – fall under the authority of JAKIM and corresponding state Islamic departments; officials at these departments must give permission for the construction of any mosque or prayer rooms.

Islamic religious instruction is compulsory for Muslim children in public schools; non-Muslim students are required to take nonreligious morals and ethics courses. Private schools may offer a non-Islamic religious curriculum as an option for non-Muslims.

Sharia courts have jurisdiction over Muslims in matters of family law and religious observances. Non-Muslims have no standing in sharia proceedings, leading to some cases where sharia court rulings have affected non-Muslims who have no ability to defend their position or appeal the court’s decision, most frequently in rulings affecting custody, divorce, inheritance, burial, and conversion in interfaith families. The relationship between sharia and civil law remains largely unresolved in the legal system. When civil and sharia jurisdictions intersect, civil courts continue largely to give deference to sharia courts, creating situations where sharia judgments affect non-Muslims.

Two states, Kelantan and Terengganu, have enacted hudood (the Islamic penal law) for Muslims, although the federal government has never allowed the implementation of that code. The states may not implement these laws without amendments to federal legislation and the agreement of the sultan.

The legal age of marriage is 16 for Muslim females and 18 for Muslim males, except in Selangor State, where Muslim and non-Muslim females must be 18. Sharia courts may make exceptions for marriage before those ages with the permission of parents. Non-Muslims must be 18 to marry, but may marry as young as 16 with the approval of their state’s chief minister.

National identity cards specify religious affiliation, and the government uses them to determine which citizens are subject to sharia. The cards identify Muslims in print on the face of the card; for members of other recognized religions, religious affiliation is encrypted in a smart chip within the identity card. Married Muslims must carry a special photo identification of themselves and their spouse as proof of marriage.

Foreign missionaries and international students for religious courses must apply for a professional visit pass with the Department of Immigration. This visa is given on a year-to-year basis and must be endorsed by a national body representing the respective faiths.

JAKIM coordinates the Hajj, endowment (waqf), tithes (zakat), and other Islamic activities.

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

Government Practices

Police made little progress in investigating the disappearance in 2016 of Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, Ruth Sitepu, reportedly due to a lack of information on the case. In February, SUHAKAM initiated a public inquiry into their disappearance. A witness testified that Hilmy had told him that “religious authorities were looking for him” due to his conversion from Islam to Christianity without following the required legal procedures. The witness said Hilmy told him he had not been threatened. Another witness testified in March that Hilmy had shown him an email from then Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin instructing Hilmy to “leave the country.” Jamaluddin denied the accusation in a statement, noting, “I never personally knew Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Hilmy, nor (the witness) Selvakumar Peace John Harris. I also deny having sent the alleged email, nor have I contacted them through any means of communication.” SUHAKAM’s inquiry was suspended in March after two of its commissioners tested positive for COVID-19, but it resumed in August and was ongoing at year’s end.

A government-appointed panel formed in June 2019 to investigate SUHAKAM’s determination that the Royal Malaysia Police intelligence unit, Special Branch, was responsible for the 2016 “enforced disappearance” of Shia Muslim social activist Amri Che Mat made little progress in its investigation, according to SUHAKAM. In August, the NGO Citizens against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) urged the government to release the findings of the panel and police to reveal actions taken in response to the SUHAKAM report. The government-appointed panel did not investigate the disappearance of Christian pastor Raymond Koh in 2016, however, as the government argued it was “out of scope” of the panel, purportedly because prosecutors had previously charged him with extorting Koh’s son for information in the case.

In February, Susanna Liew, the wife of Pastor Koh, initiated legal action against the federal government and several senior officials for failing to properly investigate her husband’s kidnapping, accusing them of negligence, misfeasance, and conspiracy to injure.

Despite calls from the High Court for police to locate Indira Gandhi’s former husband and their youngest child, whom he abducted in 2009, both remained missing as of September. Gandhi, a Hindu, had earlier sued successfully to deny her former husband’s unilateral conversion of their three minor children to Islam. In February, Gandhi initiated legal proceedings against the police and the police inspector-general (IGP) for failing to locate her daughter, Prasana. At year’s end, the IGP had not disclosed Prasana’s location nor announced any progress on her case.

In February, the Sharia High Court pursued contempt charges against Member of Parliament Maria Chin Abdullah for statements she made in 2019 asserting that the sharia court discriminated against women. The prosecution said Chin’s comments harmed the reputation of the court.

In July, an Indonesian man was sentenced to 22 years’ imprisonment and fined 5,000 ringgit ($1,200) for training members of a WhatsApp group, “sejati sejiwa” (one true soul), to commit terrorist acts and for possessing items linked to ISIS. Police said the man had been preparing to attack a Hindu temple in Selangor in 2019 to “avenge” the death of a Muslim firefighter who was killed when responding to a riot at a Hindu temple in Kuala Lumpur in 2018.

In May, the Federal Court allowed a man to challenge the constitutionality of a law in the sharia legal code against “unnatural sex.” The man’s lawyer argued that the Selangor State legislative body had no power to apply sharia because sharia pertained to criminal law, which falls under federal jurisdiction, and that there was already a federal law on “unnatural sex” in the penal code.

Abdul Hadi Awang, president of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), which is a member party of the ruling Perikatan National coalition, said that the NGO G25, described by academics and the media as a promoderation group of eminent Malay individuals and civil servants, posed an intellectual threat to Muslims and was more dangerous than a militant group. A G25 report on the administration of Islam in Malaysia stated that Muslims who chose to convert to another faith or practice no faith should not face criminal punishment.

Civil society activists said the government selectively prosecuted speech denigrating Islam and largely ignored criticisms of other faiths. In February, a sessions court fined Wai Foo Sing 15,000 ringgit ($3,700) under the Communications and Multimedia Act for posting what the court said was an obscene graphic of the Prophet Muhammad and his wife on Facebook. The court said, “It is undeniable that the accused’s inappropriate, offensive, and obscene posting based on religion has transgressed the parameters of free speech guaranteed under our constitution.” In March, a judge fined Ain Zafira Md Said, a student, 4,000 ringgit ($1,000) in lieu of three months in jail for insulting the Prophet Muhammad on social media in 2019. In April, authorities detained two individuals and initiated investigations under the Sedition Act and Communications and Multimedia Act relating to a social media video mocking Muslims praying. In July, a court sentenced Danny Antoni to 26 months in prison after finding him guilty on two counts of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, Islam, and the president of PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, in a Facebook post.

In September, police opened an investigation into Member of Parliament Nik Muhammad Zawawi Nik Salleh for his remarks in parliament stating that “the Bible was distorted or altered.” Zawawi said he had no reason to apologize, since his statement was “a fact,” and he said the Christian community had “no right to be offended.” The investigation against Zawawi remained open at year’s end.

Lawyers called for the Ministry of Education to issue a directive forbidding religious conversion of students in school. In January, a Christian family in Sarawak state sued authorities over the conversion of their son, a minor, to Islam by a ustaz (religious teacher) in his school without the parents’ knowledge or consent. “My client’s instruction is to challenge the validity of the conversion of their son. He is still a minor. The parents were unaware of the conversion. They were shattered when they found out,” said Priscilla Ruth Marcus, the family’s lawyer. According to Marcus, “This is not the first reported case.” NGOs reported that similar cases reinforced fears among parents of rural Christian communities in Sabah and Sarawak State about what might happen if they send their children to boarding schools.

In January, government and religious authorities in Sabah State initiated investigations into reports that the Malaysian Islamic Economic Development Foundation, a quasigovernmental charity trust fund, offered cash to individuals who agreed to convert to Islam. Then Assistant Education and Innovation Minister Jenifer Lasimbang told media, “It’s not a new thing. These things have been happening for a few years.” The foundation denied the allegations.

JAKIM continued to implement established federal guidelines on what constituted deviant Islamic behavior or belief. State religious authorities generally followed these guidelines. Those differing from the official interpretation of Islam continued to face adverse government action, including mandatory “rehabilitation” in centers that teach and enforce government-approved Islamic practices. The government forbade individuals to leave such centers until they completed the program, which varied in length but often lasted approximately six months. These counseling programs continued to be designed to ensure the detainee adopted the government’s official interpretation of Islam. In January, the NGO G25 denounced various state laws penalizing apostasy, whether by fines, caning, imprisonment, or extended “rehabilitation,” as inconsistent with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad al-Bakri made a statement in July that religious authorities would arrest transgender individuals and provide them religious education to “return to the correct path.” In August, JAKIM filed a police report against activist Nicole Fong, accusing her of defamation because of her tweets detailing JAKIM’s religious conversion program that targeted the LGBTQ community. In a statement, 15 NGOs said JAKIM intimidated human rights defenders with heavy-handed tactics that “send a message to Malaysians that we are not allowed to question governmental policies and programs.”

NGO sources reported it remained difficult for Muslims attempting to convert and for non-Muslims mistakenly registered as Muslims to change the religious designation on their identification cards. A woman in Sabah State, Nusiah Pulod, faced significant bureaucratic challenges in attempting to remove the “Islam” designation printed on her identification card even though she said she was born Christian and had never converted. As a result, Nusiah was unable to marry her non-Muslim fiance, since the registration office would not recognize what it considered to be a mixed-faith marriage involving a Muslim. Nusiah said many Christian families in her village faced similar problems.

The government continued to prohibit Israeli citizens from entering the country without approval from the Ministry of Home Affairs, and it limited Malaysians’ ability to travel to Israel. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in a June interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen TV that it is better for Muslims to attack Israelis directly rather than carry out terrorist attacks against European countries and the United States. “The enemy is Israel. [If] you want to do anything, do it to the Israelis, like some of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, who individually attack Israeli soldiers. That is the enemy.” He also said that Jews controlled the media in the United States. “It is a propaganda campaign on the part of the Jews. They own all the newspapers in America. They own the TV stations. So they have tremendous influence.”

All foreign missionaries – both Muslim and non-Muslim – coming to the country to conduct religious talks were subjected to mandatory background checks for what the government termed national security reasons to ensure missionary groups are free from “deviant” teachings.

State-level Islamic religious enforcement officers continued to have the authority to accompany police on raids of private premises and public establishments and to enforce sharia, including for violations such as indecent dress, distribution of banned publications, alcohol consumption, or khalwat (close proximity to a nonfamily member of the opposite sex). In January, the Islamic Affairs and Religious Department in Kelantan State detained seven Muslim couples on suspicion of committing khalwat during a seasonal “antivice” operation in conjunction with the Lunar New Year celebration. A government representative said the operation was intended to “track down those who took the opportunity of the long public holiday to commit immoral behavior.” Four Muslim women were also issued summonses for wearing “sexy and tight clothing in public.”

In July, the Terengganu State government implemented a gender segregation policy in cinemas in what it said was a measure to ensure adherence to sharia. According to a local cinema operator, married couples needed to provide legal proof of marriage and were subjected to random checks. Muslim moviegoers were also required to dress according to Islamic regulations, while non-Muslim moviegoers were required to dress modestly.

Authorities in Terengganu State said they would soon introduce additional gender-segregation guidelines for event organizers barring female entertainers, including non-Muslims, from performing before male audiences.

In August, the chairman of the Kelantan State Community Unity, Culture, Heritage, and Tourism Committee said the state would review for “corrections” a century-old indigenous dance form, Main Puteri, that it considered “un-Islamic” in order to meet sharia compliance before the dance could be reintroduced for public entertainment.

Officials at the federal and state levels oversaw Islamic religious activities, distributed all sermon texts for mosques to follow, used mosques to convey political messages, and limited public expression of religion deemed contrary to Sunni Islam. In February, a mosque in the state of Perak that organized a Chinese New Year celebration was censured by the Perak Islamic Religious Department for “disrespecting the sensitivity of the Muslim community.” In December, Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Ahmad Marzuk Shaary reported that the National Fatwa Council was investigating the teachings of Asmaul Husna Wan Maseri, founded by former PAS council member Professor Wan Maseri Wan Mohd in Kelantan, on allegations of deviation from Sunni Islam. The group had been declared as heretical in the states of Terengganu, Negeri Sembilan, and Pahang and the Federal Territories.

The government continued to maintain restrictions on religious assembly and provisions; these denied certain religious groups the ability to register as charitable organizations. Many churches and NGOs continued to find registration difficult, with the ROS denying or delaying many applications without explanation or for highly technical reasons. Representatives of religious groups continued to say the registrar had no consistent policy or transparent criteria for determining whether to register religious groups.

In cases in which the government refused to register a religious group, the group could pursue registration as a company. Religious groups reported registering as a company was generally relatively quick and provided a legal basis for conducting business, did not limit the group’s religious activities, and allowed the organization to conduct certain activities such as holding a bank account and owning property, but registering did not give the organization tax-exempt status or government funding. Examples of religious groups that continued to be registered as companies included Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Jesus Christ.

Federal and state governments continued to forbid religious assembly and worship for groups considered to be “deviant” Islamic groups, including Shia, Ahmadiyya, and al-Arqam. While Ahmadi Muslims in the country reported generally being able to maintain a worship center, government religious authorities did not allow them to hold Friday prayers, as these could only be performed in an officially registered mosque. In January, the Selangor State Islamic Religious Department (JAIS) said there were 15 Shia religious centers, which JAIS considered to be a significant increase. The chairperson of JAIS said the agency would intensify efforts to monitor Shia Muslims and raid Shia religious gatherings and would also provide information on the alleged dangers of Shia Islam to schools and mosques throughout the state. In response, the NGO Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF) said JAIS was promoting “an intolerant religion [Islam] in this modern age.”

In August, the Court of Appeal petitioned the High Court to determine whether 39 Ahmaddiya Muslims were to be considered Muslim following an appeal by JAIS against a 2018 High Court decision stating that the sharia court had no jurisdiction over the Ahmadi community, since JAIS had refused to recognize them as adherents of Islam. The petitioners challenged their 2014 sharia offenses charged by JAIS on the basis that Islamic authorities in Selangor State did not recognize Ahmadiyya as Muslims and that the petitioners were therefore outside JAIS jurisdiction. The High Court ruled in August, “The Ahmaddiya were, as with all other persons, entitled to freedom of religion, subject to the Federal Constitution.” The court also said the country’s dual legal system and the issuance of identity cards stating their holders’ religion as Islam compounded the ambiguity of their religious status as Muslims. The three-member bench chaired by Justice Badariah Sahamid further stated, “It is timely that all states, along with the federal government, work out a unified regime to determine the religious status of the Ahmadiyya so that they are not put at risk of sharia investigations and prosecution.”

The country’s movement control order (MCO), established to prevent the spread of COVID-19, banned gatherings of any kind from March 18 through June 4, including religious gatherings. During Ramadan, the MCO prohibited Muslims from worshiping in mosques, breaking their fast outside their homes, and visiting Ramadan bazaars, a popular tradition. The government assured Muslims that all religious obligations could be carried out at home and noted exceptions for front-line responders and those who were ill. State religious leaders, including conservative representatives from PAS, supported the federal government’s measures, noting “we must accept it and obey the rules of social distancing to protect our lives.” Non-Islamic leaders said that they were not consulted or warned by the government before restrictions were imposed.

In September, the Federal Court allowed the NGO Sisters in Islam (SIS) to proceed with a hearing to seek a court declaration to invalidate a Selangor State law that enabled sharia courts to review decisions made by state religious authorities. In 2019, the High Court dismissed the NGO’s application for a civil court to review a 2014 Selangor State fatwa that found the organization “deviant” infringed the group’s and its members’ constitutional rights. The 2014 fatwa said SIS deviated from the teachings of Islam because the group subscribed to the principles of liberalism and religious pluralism. The fatwa did not define “liberalism” or “pluralism.” The fatwa also ruled that the NGO’s books and materials could be seized. At year’s end, no action had been taken against the NGO, which continued to function nationally.

In September, JAIS arrested Abdul Kahar Ahmad and 16 followers for spreading the teachings of a “deviant sect” that had been banned in 1991. JAIS confiscated books, cell phones, laptops, and other materials. Following the arrest, the Minister of Religious Affairs said the government will consider distributing reading materials on “deviant” teachings to imams and religious teachers appointed by religious authorities in order to warn the public of the dangers of such teachings. Abdul Kahar and three of those arrested were released on bail, while the other 13 remained in custody. Abdul Kahar, who proclaimed himself a Rasul Melayu (Malay prophet), was previously arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, six strokes of caning, and a fine of 16,500 ringgit ($4,100).

There were restrictions on the use of the word “Allah” and as many as 31 other Islam-related words by non-Muslims. These restrictions included saying certain words, such as “Allah,” “al Quran,” or “fatwa” out loud, or using or producing Bibles or recorded religious materials that refer to God using the term “Allah.”

In October, the Court of Appeal dismissed a discovery application by Sidang Injil Borneo, an evangelical Christian church based in Sabah and Sarawak, for the documents the Home Affairs Ministry used to support its ban on the Church’s and its Malay-language speaking congregation’s right to use the word “Allah” in Bibles and other religious publications. The ministry argued that the documents sought by the Church fell under the Official Secrets Act 1972.

The government continued to ban books for promoting Shia beliefs, mysticism, and other beliefs the government determined “clearly deviated from the true teachings of Islam.” In February, the Court of Appeal overturned the government’s ban on three books written by IRF. The Ministry of Home Affairs originally banned the books in 2017 for content that did not comply with the government’s interpretation of Islam, a decision the High Court upheld in 2019. IRF representatives welcomed the court’s decision, stating it fulfilled its role as “the last bastion for the protection of freedom of expression.”

A 2019 investigation into the book Unveiling Choices by Maryam Lee remained open. The book was alleged by JAIS to “insult or bring into contempt the religion of Islam.” It narrates Lee’s personal reasons for removing her hijab as well as the sociopolitical relationship between Muslim women and the Malaysian state. Lee would be subject to a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit ($1,200), up to three years in prison, or both, if found guilty.

Non-Muslim groups continued to report regular difficulties in obtaining permission from local authorities to build new places of worship, leading many groups to use buildings zoned for residential or commercial use for their religious services. Observers said this practice remained largely tolerated but left the religious groups vulnerable. In March, authorities demolished the 100-year-old Sri Maha Mariamman Temple located within the Kamunting detention center in Taiping, Perak State. According to media reports, authorities did not inform the temple’s leaders of the impending demolition. Facebook later removed a post by Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy questioning whether the demolition was in part organized by a federal government dominated by ethnic Malay Muslims. “I think the title of the post, which asserted that the structure was probably the first Hindu temple demolished under the Perikatan National [ruling coalition] government, irked the powers that be,” Ramasamy commented to the media.

PAS party leader Hadi said during a September speech at the annual general meeting of party that only Malay-Muslim unity could lead and save the country. According to media reports, Hadi said, “The nation that is with Islam must rise so that it is not swept away by the influence of non-Muslims, who lose their identity.” In January, Hadi described choosing between Muslim and non-Muslim rule: “If we [Muslims] are patient with each other, and even if [the leadership] is cruel, we can at least be cow herders, but under other people’s rule, we will become pig herders.” Lim Kit Siang, the leader of the Democratic Action Party, which is part of the opposition coalition but has the most seats in the lower house of parliament, responded, “The advocates of this version of politics are gambling with the future of a multiracial, multilingual, multireligious, and multicultural nation.”

The Prime Minister’s office tasked government agencies, including the federal Department of National Unity and Integration, with encouraging religious harmony and protecting the rights of minority religious groups. Many faith-based organizations, however, continued to state they believed that no entity had the power and influence of those that regulated Islamic affairs, and they cited the large footprint and budget for JAKIM compared to the more limited funding for the Department of National Unity and Integration. That department’s annual budget was approximately 275 million ringgit ($68.41 million), while 1.4 billion ringgit ($348.3 million) was marked for the development of Islam under JAKIM alone.

In April, the government allocated 21 million ringgit ($5.22 million) to assist private Islamic schools whose operations were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said the assistance was part of 100 million ringgit ($24.88 million) allocated to JAKIM under the 2020 budget supplement intended to finance the maintenance and upgrading of Islamic schools. Non-Islamic schools did not receive this funding.

During the year, JAKIM continued to fund a wide variety of Islamic education- and mosque-related projects. There were no funds in the government budget specifically allocated to non-Muslim religious groups, although some religious groups reported continuing to receive sporadic funding for temple and church buildings and other activities.

At public primary and secondary schools, student assemblies frequently commenced with the recitation of an Islamic prayer by a teacher or school leader. Particularly in the country’s peninsula, community leaders and civil liberties groups said religion teachers in public schools pressured Muslim girls to wear the tudong (Islamic head covering) at school. Some private schools required Muslim girls to wear veils covering their faces except for their eyes. Homeschooling remained legal, but some families continued to report difficulty in obtaining approval from the Ministry of Education.

There were continued complaints concerning what critics said were religious overtones and symbols in public schools. In January, family members of children enrolled in government residential schools questioned what they said was an overemphasis on religious practices: schools frequently compelled students to attend group prayers and rituals, causing the studies of other subjects to be neglected. In response, the schools stated the rituals were intended to obtain “blessings” that would ensure that students excelled academically, and that would elevate the status of the school. “They are competing on which school is more Islamic instead of being better academically,” said one parent. Another parent told the online news portal Free Malaysia Today that her daughter was compelled to attend a “ruqyah” (exorcism) session to be cured from the possession of “bad spirits” after skipping Islamic instruction to attend biology classes.

An effort by the government to revive Jawi, an archaic Arabic script, in lessons on Bahasa Melayu in vernacular primary schools sparked tensions along ethnic and religious fault lines. Following an outcry from Chinese groups that the Jawi revival was an attempt at Islamization, the Ministry of Education pared down the pages to be taught on Jawi from six to three. Then Deputy Minister of Education Teo Nie Ching later clarified that Jawi lessons in vernacular schools could only be introduced with majority approval from parent-teacher associations.

In January, Mohd Khairul Azam Abdul Aziz, vice president of Parti Bumiputera Perkasa Malaysia, a Malay nationalist political party, wrote that a public school in Puchong, Selangor State, was propagating religion to its students through decorations for Lunar New Year. He stated, “The complaints we’ve received show unease at the excessive Chinese New Year 2020 decorations….This is distressing for Muslim students and is also against Article 3(1) of the Federal Constitution.” In a sign of support for the school, the then Deputy Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers visited it and helped put up Lunar New Year decorations.

In the same month, the Ministry of Education issued a circular stating that JAKIM advised that Ponggal, a Tamil harvest festival, is haram (forbidden) in Islam. Responding to a public outcry, then Minister of Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said that JAKIM had not prohibited schools from celebrating the festival, since, “It was permissible for Muslims to take part in the celebration as long as Islamic ethics were observed.” Mujahid called for stern action against the Ministry of Education official responsible for the circular in question.

The government continued not to recognize marriages between Muslims and non-Muslims and considered children born of such unions illegitimate. In a February ruling, the Federal Court determined that a Muslim child conceived or born out of what the state determined to be wedlock could not bear his or her father’s name, even if requested by the father. The court said the law “does not enable Muslim children to be named with the personal name of a person acknowledged to be the father” because ethnic Malays do not use surnames. The NGO SIS praised the court’s other ruling that children born out of wedlock do not have to automatically use the surname “bin Abdullah” or “binti Abdullah,” which carries a social stigma in the country where children with these surnames are often “ridiculed, attacked, bullied, or targeted.”

Then Minister for Islamic Affairs Mujahid Yusof Rawa said he would ask the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission to take action against Nur Sajat, a prominent transgender entrepreneur, after she posted pictures of herself wearing a prayer garment on pilgrimage in Mecca in February. Muhajid said Nur Sajat’s actions were an “offense” and could compromise the country’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. JAKIM circulated copies of Nur Sajat’s passport and other documents were circulated on social media, raising concerns among civil society groups about her privacy and safety. The NGO Justice for Sisters condemned the government’s action, stating, “The real concern is not the telekung (prayer garment), but her safety and security, the breach of privacy, and the lack of rights and evidence-based response by the government.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

As in years past, local human rights organizations and religious leaders said society continued to become less tolerant of religious diversity. In September, the interfaith organization Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, and Taoism (MCCBCHST) released a press statement to express “grave concern on the escalation of religious animosity between religious groups manufactured by some politicians to divide and rule.” NGOs also cited some Muslim groups’ continuing public condemnation of events and activities they said were “un-Islamic” as well as heavily publicized statements targeting non-Sunni Muslims and non-Muslim groups.

In January, the NGO ILMU, whose members were closely linked to the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) political party and who have in the past spoken out against Shia Islam, hosted a national convention on “Knowledge of the Hadith,” in Kuala Lumpur. Sheikh Abdurrahman Ibrahim al-Rubai’in, the religious attache of the Saudi Arabian embassy, in his keynote speech, said it was useless to include Shia Muslims in any efforts to unite Muslims, since “They are deviant.” He added, “The difference between Sunnis and Shias is not merely over jurisprudence, but also between truth and falsehood.”

Hundreds of Muslim students gathered in January outside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur to demand the government ban the Chinese educational group Dong Zong, on the grounds that Dong Zong opposed the inclusion of Jawi lessons in the national school syllabus. The PAS youth chief spoke at the protest and blamed Chinese majority political parties in the ruling and opposition coalitions for perpetuating baseless fears against Islam. The Malaysian Muslim Students Coalition said Dong Zong was attempting to foment a repeat of the country’s bloody 1969 race riots. Also in January, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad labeled Dong Zong as “racist” against the Malay-Muslim majority after the group petitioned against the government’s move to introduce Jawi lessons in schools on grounds that the measure would be a form of “Islamization.”

The leader of the apolitical group of Malay-Muslim NGOs Pertubuhan Pembela Islam (Pembela), Aminuddin Yahaya, called on the new Perikatan Nasional coalition government to appoint an ethnic Malay attorney general and to “take action” against insults to Islam. “We have to take this seriously because Malays don’t insult other religions or other races, but other races insult Malays and Islam. Therefore, there must be enforcement.”

Religious converts, particularly those converting from Islam, sometimes faced severe stigmatization. In many cases, converts reportedly concealed newly adopted beliefs and practices from their former cobelievers, including friends and relatives.

Religious identities continued to affect secular aspects of life. Muslim women who did not wear the headscarf or conform to religious notions of modesty were often subject to shaming in public and on social media.

In March, the Malaysian rock band Bunkface released its song “The End of Times,” which caused controversy over lyrics that urged the LGBTQ community to “go and die.” In a statement, the band defended the lyrics as a criticism of the growing Muslim LGBTQ movement in the country and indicated its rejection of any rights for LGBTQ Muslims, describing the LGBTQ community as haram. “What has been set as haram will always remain haram,” the band said in its press released. YouTube, Spotify, and Apple Music removed the song from their platforms following international media attention.

In April, a video of a local man harassing a Rohingya individual from Burma surfaced on Facebook amid an increase in comments online aimed at the Rohingya community. In the four-minute video, the man demanded the Rohingya prove his Islamic faith. In April, activist Tengku Emma Zuriana Tengku Azmi of the European Rohingya Council rights group said in response, “There is harassment [of Rohingya] on the streets and online. I’ve never seen anything like this in Malaysia before.” In the same month, Tengku Emma was threatened with rape on social media, including the online group “32 Million Malaysians Reject Rohingya,” after asking the government to allow boats carrying Rohingya asylum seekers to land.

Religious groups hosted virtual interfaith dialogues and intercultural celebrations throughout the year. In September, the Dalai Lama and a professor from the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization, Osman Bakar, discussed compassion and mercy as common values in Islam and Buddhism in a virtual forum organized by the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia. The Dalai Lama stressed the importance of Buddhists, Muslims, and other religious groups’ taking the opportunity to discuss different ways of promoting people’s right to pursue different ways of life. In an interfaith dialogue in December, Council of Churches Malaysia secretary general Hermen Shastri said the establishment of a “truly interfaith council” was hindered by a “majority vs. minority” mentality, since interfaith groups in the country have yet to form an entity that engages with the majority Islamic community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials engaged with a wide variety of federal and state government officials at the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Royal Malaysian Police, and Prime Minister’s Department, as well as with other agencies, on religious freedom and tolerance issues throughout the year, including concerns about the denigration of religious minorities, the unilateral conversion of children, and the disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, and Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu.

Embassy officials met with members of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslim groups, who described heavy government restrictions on their religious activities and continued societal discrimination. The embassy also met with Sunni Muslims whose activities were limited by the government, such as those from SIS, G25, and the Islamic Renaissance Front, and with MCCBCHST to discuss strategies for engaging the government on issues of religious freedom.

The embassy broadcast messages related to religious freedom on its social media platforms on International Religious Freedom Day and throughout the year.

The embassy nominated Susanna Liew, wife of missing pastor Raymond Koh, for the International Women of Courage (IWOC) award and facilitated her travel to the United States to attend the annual IWOC ceremony in Washington D.C. in March.

Mauritania

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and designates Islam as the sole religion of the citizenry and state. The law prohibits blasphemy and apostasy, and defines them as crimes punishable by death. In February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of the Alliance for the Refoundation of the Mauritanian State (AREM), an association that aims to promote a secular state. Authorities initially charged eight persons with blasphemy; five of them were held in pretrial detention from February to October. The court did not convict any of the eight of blasphemy, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All of the defendants were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five held in pretrial detention since February were all released by October 26, since their time in pretrial detention was counted towards their overall sentence. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs and Traditional Education (MIATE) continued to collaborate with independent Muslim religious groups as well as with foreign partners to combat what it termed threats of extremism, radicalization, and terrorism, primarily through workshops throughout the country.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

U.S. embassy officials raised apostasy, blasphemy, and other religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, and the Ambassador urged authorities to release the five individuals who were held in pretrial detention for nearly eight months on charges of blasphemy. Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Islamic Affairs, and the Minister of Justice. Embassy staff also met with senior members of the opposition Tawassoul Party to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom. The embassy also promoted messages of religious freedom on its social media platforms in English, French, and Arabic, including to celebrate International Religious Freedom Day.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.0 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to host government estimates, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 99 percent of the population. Unofficial estimates, however, indicate that Shia Muslims constitute 1 percent of the population and non-Muslims, mostly Christians and a small number of Jews, make up a further 1 percent. Almost all non-Muslims are foreigners.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic and recognizes Islam as the sole religion of its citizenry and the state. The law and legal procedures derive from a combination of French civil law and sharia. The judiciary consists of a single system of courts that relies on a combination of sharia and secular legal principles.

The law prohibits apostasy. The criminal code requires a death sentence for any Muslim convicted of apostasy, but the government has never applied this provision since it was enacted in 2018.

The criminal code also treats blasphemy as a capital offense and subject to the death penalty. Courts may consider an individual’s repentance as a mitigating factor in determining the punishment for offenses related to blasphemy and apostasy. The government has never applied capital punishment for blasphemy.

The penal code stipulates that the penalty for unmarried individuals of any gender caught engaging in sexual activity is 100 lashes and imprisonment of up to one year. The penalty for married individuals convicted of adultery is death by stoning, although the last such stoning occurred more than 30 years ago. The penal code requires death by stoning for males convicted of consensual homosexual activity. These punishments apply only to Muslims.

The government does not register Muslim religious groups, but all nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including humanitarian and development NGOs affiliated with religious groups, must register with the Ministry of Interior. Faith-based NGOs must also agree to refrain from proselytizing or otherwise promoting any religion other than Islam. The law requires the Ministry of Interior to authorize in advance all group meetings, including non-Islamic religious gatherings and those held in private homes.

By law, the MIATE is responsible for enacting and disseminating fatwas, fighting “extremism,” promoting research in Islamic studies, organizing the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and monitoring mosques. The government also appoints the High Council for Fatwa and Administrative Appeals, which advises the government on conformity of legislation to Islamic precepts, and which has sole authority to regulate fatwa issuance and resolve related disputes among citizens and between citizens and public agencies.

The law requires members of the Constitutional Council and the High Council of Magistrates to take an oath of office that includes a promise to God to uphold the law of the land in conformity with Islamic precepts.

Public schools and private secondary schools, but not international schools, are required to provide four hours of Islamic instruction per week. Religious instruction in Arabic is required for students seeking the baccalaureate.

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

Government Practices

In early February, police arrested 15 individuals in connection with a meeting of AREM, an association that promotes a secular state. Although several of those arrested were released after questioning, eight were charged with blasphemy and other offenses related to holding unauthorized meetings and using social media to attack Islam. Five of the eight were held in pretrial detention from February until their court hearing on October 20. The court did not to convict the eight men of blasphemy, which is punishable by death, but instead convicted all of them on lesser counts of violating the “prohibitions prescribed by Allah.” All eight were fined and sentenced to various prison terms. The five who were held in pretrial detention since February were sentenced to six- and eight-month prison terms, but the judge said that their time spent in pretrial detention would be counted towards their overall sentences, and the five were released by October 26.

The government continued to forbid non-Muslims from proselytizing, although there was no specific legal prohibition. The government continued to ban any public expression of religion except that of Islam.

The possession of non-Islamic religious materials remained legal, although the government continued to prohibit their printing and distribution. The government maintained a Quranic television channel and radio station. Both stations sponsored regular programming on themes of moderation in Islam.

Authorized churches were able to conduct services within their premises but could not proselytize. An unofficial government requirement restricted non-Islamic worship to the few recognized Christian churches. There are Roman Catholic and other Christian churches in Nouakchott, Kaedi, Atar, Nouadhibou, and Rosso. Citizens could not attend non-Islamic religious services, which remained restricted to foreigners.

On January 21, President Mohamed Ould Cheikh El Ghazouani chaired the opening ceremony of the first international forum on the role of Islam in Africa. The government organized the forum in collaboration with Cheikh Mahfoudh Ould Boya’s forum for peace. The forum explored areas of cooperation among Islamic countries and published a statement outlining the importance of tolerance and moderation in Islam in Africa.

On May 6, the government adopted a draft bill to prevent violence against women and girls. The government adopted the bill after consultation with the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the MIATE, which discussed ways to make the draft law more compatible with sharia principles. Although the draft law advanced in the legislative process, the National Assembly, which previously rejected two earlier drafts of this bill on grounds of “noncompliance with Islam,” had not voted on whether to adopt the law by year’s end.

During the year, relations between the government and leaders of the Islamist movement in the country continued to improve, according to media reports. On June 24, President Ghazouani met with the former president of the Islamist Tawassoul Party, Mohamed Jemil Mansour. The government also worked with Tawassoul, the largest opposition party in the National Assembly, to adopt legislation aimed at mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Several international Christian NGOs reported they continued to operate successfully in the country. The government continued to advance the draft Law on Associations (the “NGO Law”) through the legislative process. The law, once adopted, would change the registration system to make it easier for NGOs, including faith based organizations, to register and operate.

The MIATE continued to collaborate with independent Islamic religious groups and other foreign partners to combat what it termed extremism, radicalization, and terrorism. On September 10, the MIATE organized a two-day meeting with the European Union and G5 Sahel member states, including Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, and Niger, at which they shared best practices for preventing violent extremism and stressed the importance of a moderate, tolerant version of Islam.

The government continued to provide funding to mosques and Islamic schools and universities under its control. The government also organized an examination to recruit 800 imams and prayer callers, which officials said enabled them to select imams who supported moderate versions of Sunni Islam instead of imams that supported Wahhabism. The government paid monthly salaries of 5,000 ouguiyas ($140) to 800 imams who passed the examination conducted by a government-funded panel of religious authorities. It also paid monthly salaries of 2,500-10,000 ouguiyas ($68-$270) to 30 members of the National Union of Mauritanian Imams, an authority established to regulate the relationship between the religious community and the MIATE.

Islamic classes remained part of the educational curriculum, but class attendance was not mandatory and not required for graduation. Academic results in the classes did not count significantly in the national exams that determined further placement. Many students reportedly did not attend these classes for various ethnolinguistic, religious, and personal reasons. The Ministry of National Education and the MIATE continued to reaffirm the importance of the Islamic education program at the secondary level as a means of promoting Islamic culture and combating religious extremism.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently discussed religious tolerance with senior government officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Justice, and Minister of Islamic Affairs. Embassy officials raised religious freedom issues with authorities on multiple occasions, including throughout the pretrial detention period for those whom authorities accused of blasphemy and proselytizing. Embassy officials also met with senior members of Tawassoul to discuss political and social issues, including religious freedom.

On several occasions, the Ambassador met with religious leaders to discuss issues related to religious tolerance. Visiting U.S. officials also routinely raised the importance of religious tolerance with a range of societal groups, including think tanks and journalists.

The embassy also frequently used its social media platform to share religious freedom posts, including on International Religious Freedom Day, in English, French, and Arabic.

Nepal

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

Nigeria

Executive Summary

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. The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil courts, sharia courts function in 12 northern states and the Federal Capital Territory. Customary courts function in most of the 36 states. General insecurity throughout the country’s regions increased during the year: a terrorist insurgency in the North East; brazen kidnapping and armed robbery rings in the North West and southern regions; militant groups and criminal gangs in the South South region; and conflict between farmers and herders over access to land in the North Central region. There were incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, predominantly Christian but also Muslim, in the North Central and North West regions. The government continued ongoing security operations and launched additional operations that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources that frequently involved rival ethnic groups. Various sources said the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity throughout the country; the International Crisis Group said that state governments relied heavily on armed vigilante groups to help quell the violence, which it said was counterproductive. Some said this lack of government response exacerbated insecurity and failed to address underlying causes. A report by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) stated the presence of state forces was “too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities, or mitigate and suppress violence.” The government continued its detention of Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, head of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN), a Shia organization, and his wife despite a December 2016 court ruling that they be released by January 2017. All the other members of IMN arrested during the 2015 clash with the military were released by February. On September 29, the Kaduna State High Court rejected a motion filed by El-Zakzaky and his wife to dismiss the case. The court adjourned the case to November and later to January 2021. During the year authorities arrested and detained two individuals under blasphemy laws: Yahaya Sharif-Aminu, sentenced to death for blasphemy on August 10, and 16-year-old Umar Farouq, sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Authorities detained Mubarak Bala, head of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, in April without filing any charges, although his attorneys stated they believed he was being held on charges related to allegations of insulting Islam on Facebook. The government at both the federal and state levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches and mosques throughout the country closed in April and May, during which time state governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders. Beginning in June, the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions included reopening religious houses of worship with prevention measures in place.

Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa (ISIS-WA) attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out a range of attacks targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques.

Violent conflicts between predominantly Muslim Fulani herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers in the North Central states continued throughout the year. Some religious groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to express concern that this conflict had religious undertones. In addition to religious differences, local authorities, scholars, and regional experts pointed to ethnicity, politics, criminality, lack of accountability and access to justice, and increasing competition over dwindling land resources as among the key drivers of the violence. Attacks and killings attributed to Muslim Fulani herdsmen continued during the year. According to ACLED data, total civilian deaths numbered 2,454 during the year, compared with 2,198 in 2019 and 3,106 in 2018. Some domestic and international Christian groups stated that Muslim Fulani herdsman were targeting Christian farmers because of their religion. Local Muslim and herder organizations said unaffiliated Fulani were the targets of Christian revenge killings. Local and international NGOs and religious organizations criticized what they said was the government’s inability or unwillingness to prevent or mitigate violence between Christian and Muslim communities. Christian organizations reported several cases during the year of Muslim men kidnapping young Christian girls and forcing them into marriage and conversion to Islam.

The U.S. embassy, consulate general, and visiting U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion and religious tensions in the country in discussions throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. Embassy and consulate general officials further strengthened their engagement on religious freedom issues with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations, emphasizing the importance of interfaith relationships. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of the respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses in the country and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities for affected communities. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives over the drivers of conflict in the country. Embassy officials and the Counselor of the Department of State met with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom and security during his visit in October.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 214 million (midyear 2020 estimate). While there are no official indicators of religious affiliation in the country, the Pew Global Religious Futures report estimates it is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians, while approximately 2 percent belong to other or no religious groups. Many individuals syncretize indigenous animism with Islam or Christianity.

A 2010 Pew report found 38 percent of the Muslim population self-identifies as Sunni, the vast majority of whom belong to the Maliki school of jurisprudence, although a sizable minority follows the Shafi’i school of fiqh. The same study found 12 percent of Muslims in the country self-identify 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 brotherhoods including Tijaniyyah, Qadiriyyah, and Mouride. There are also Izala (Salafist) minorities and small numbers of Ahmadi and Kalo Kato (Quraniyoon) Muslims. A 2011 Pew report found roughly one quarter of Christians are Roman Catholic and three quarters Protestant, with small numbers of Orthodox or other Christian denominations. Among Protestant groups, the Anglican, Baptist, and Presbyterian Churches maintain the largest populations, while evangelicals, Pentecostals, Anabaptists (Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), Methodists, Seventh-day Adventists, New Apostolics, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses report tens of thousands of adherents each. Other communities include Baha’is, Jews (both internationally recognized and unrecognized, as well as significant numbers of other Judaic-oriented groups), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, animists, and individuals who do not follow any religion.

The Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri ethnic groups are most prevalent in the predominantly Muslim North West and North East regions. Significant numbers of Christians, including some Hausa, Fulani, and Kanuri, also reside in the North East and North West. Christians and Muslims reside in approximately equal numbers in the North Central and South West regions, including Lagos, where the Yoruba ethnic group – whose members include both Muslims and Christians – predominates. In the South East and South South region, where the Igbo ethnic group is dominant, Christian groups, including Catholics, Anglicans, and Methodists, constitute the majority. In the Niger Delta region, where ethnic groups include Ijaw, Igbo, Ogoni, Efik, Ibibio, and Uhrobo, among others, Christians form a substantial majority; a small but growing minority of the population is Muslim. Evangelical Christian denominations are growing rapidly in the North Central and South East, South South, and South West regions. Ahmadi Muslims maintain a small presence in several cities, including Lagos and Abuja. The Shia Muslim presence is heavily concentrated in the North West region states of Kaduna, Katsina, Sokoto, Zamfara, and Kano.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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 based on religion or have names that have a religious connotation. The constitution highlights religious tolerance, among other qualities, as a distinct component of the “national ethic.”

The constitution provides for states to establish courts based on sharia or customary (traditional) law, in addition to common law civil courts, although civil courts have preeminence over all other courts. Sentences may be appealed from sharia and customary courts to civil courts. In addition to civil courts, 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 noncriminal proceedings; such courts do not have the authority to compel participation by non-Muslims or Muslims. At least one state, Zamfara, requires sharia courts to hear noncriminal cases in which all litigants are Muslim and provides the option to appeal any decision to the common law court. Non-Muslims have the option to have their cases tried in civil or sharia courts.

In addition to noncriminal matters, sharia courts also hear criminal cases if both the complainant and defendant are Muslim and agree to the venue. Despite constitutional language supporting only secular criminal courts and the prohibition against involuntary participation in sharia criminal courts, a Zamfara State law requires a sharia court hear all criminal cases involving Muslims in that state. Sharia courts may pass sentences based on the sharia penal code, including for serious criminal offenses for which the Quran and Islamic law provide hudud punishments such as caning, amputation, and 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, while not required to have any formal training in the sharia penal code, may seek advice from sharia experts. Included in the sharia laws are blasphemy laws which can carry sentences up to and including the death penalty, though the secular court system has historically vacated such sentences on appeal.

In the states of Kano and Zamfara, state-sanctioned Hisbah Boards regulate Islamic religious affairs and preaching, license 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.

On August 7, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Companies and Allied Matters Act of 2020 (CAMA), which streamlines procedures for and increases the ease of doing business in the country by outlining management responsibilities of businesses and organizations. The law contains provisions that, according to some legal scholars, could place some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of the government.

Both federal and state governments have the authority to regulate mandatory religious instruction in public schools. The constitution prohibits schools from requiring 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 stated that 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 states that no religious community shall be prevented from providing religious instruction to students of that community in any place that community wholly maintains.

Several states have laws requiring licenses for preachers, places of worship, and religious schools of registered religious groups. In Katsina State, the law establishes a board with the authority to regulate Islamic schools, preachers, and mosques, including by issuing permits, suspending operations, and imprisoning or fining violators. The Katsina law stipulates a punishment of one to five years in prison, a fine of up to 500,000 naira ($1,300), or both for operating without a license.

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

Government Practices

Numerous fatal intercommunal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim Fulani herders. The government undertook 20 targeted military operations whose aim it stated was to root out bandits and armed gangs in the region and to arrest perpetrators of communal and criminal violence, but multiple sources stated that the government measures were largely reactive and insufficient to address the violence.

According to multiple academic and media sources, banditry and ideologically neutral criminality was the primary driver of violence in the North West region, although religious figures and houses of worship were often victims. The government launched additional security operations in the North West region that it stated were meant to stem insecurity created by armed criminal gangs and violent conflict over land and water resources, which frequently involved predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian.

Various sources stated the government did not take significant measures to combat insecurity, including ethnoreligious violence, throughout the country. The NGO International Crisis Group said in a report released during the year, “A further factor that has exacerbated violence in the North West is the state authorities’ negligence in dealing with the crisis.” The report said that many state governments relied primarily on arming vigilante groups to counter the violence, which it said was counterproductive. An ACLED report stated, “Responding to communal violence is not a priority of Nigeria’s state forces. A lack of government engagement leads to an increased reliance on local vigilante groups, and in turn, an increased accessibility to arms. Despite increasing their activity substantially since 2015, the overall presence of state forces is too inconsistent and limited to protect or support communities or mitigate and suppress violence.”

In a speech given at the funeral of Michael Nnadi, a Catholic seminary student killed by gang members in Kaduna State on January 31, Catholic Bishop of Sokoto Matthew Kukah commented on the situation in the northern part of the country, saying the government and what he called “the northern Muslim elite” was largely to blame for violence and poverty, especially affecting Christians. In his address he said, “We are being told that this situation has nothing to do with religion. Really? It is what happens when politicians use religion to extend the frontiers of their ambition and power…By denying Christians lands for places of worship across most of the northern states, ignoring the systematic destruction of churches all these years, denying Christians adequate recruitment, representation and promotions in the State civil services, denying their indigenous children scholarships, marrying Christian women or converting Christians while threatening Muslim women and prospective converts with death, they make building a harmonious community impossible.”

On March 19, Sultan of Sokoto Sa’ad Abubakar III stated at a Nigerian Interreligious Council (NIREC) meeting, “We have been reading and hearing reports about the persecution of Christians in Nigeria and I keep asking myself how? Christians are being killed, Muslims are also being killed and they are all lives created by God. For me, there is no persecution of anybody in this country. If you claim there is a persecution of Christians in Nigeria, there would also be claims of persecution of Muslims, but that would not solve the problem. People claim they are denied places to build mosques, churches in some parts of the country. But the right thing to do in such cases is to approach relevant authorities and not to make claims of persecution. I can quote from now till the next 100 years of things that have been done or not done to Muslims, but we usually approach relevant authorities in ways that we believe would bring solutions to the problems.”

Some religious freedom activists said the Buhari administration was sympathetic to foreign Fulanis and that many state governors made it easy for foreign Fulanis to receive documents referring to one’s ancestral home that could facilitate access to government services or certain privileges, which compounded resource disputes and sectarian conflict. Some civil society representatives protested President Buhari’s appointment of primarily Muslim northerners to high-level positions. They said there was a culture of impunity in the country and a lack of accountability for those who commit mass civilian killings.

In June, the UK Parliament’s All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief released a report, Nigeria: Unfolding Genocide?, in which the group stated, “Another of the main drivers of the escalating violence is the Nigerian Government’s inability to provide security or justice to farmer or herder communities.” The report stated the parliamentary group agreed with Amnesty International’s conclusion that “failure to protect communities, as well as cases of direct military harassment or violence, combined with an unwillingness to instigate legitimate investigations into allegations of wrongdoing, ‘demonstrate, at least, willful negligence; at worst, complicity’ on the behalf of some in the Nigerian security forces.” The government responded in August by welcoming the report as well as “inputs that would help any peaceful coexistence of Nigerian citizens,” although it said it was “incorrect to assert that the government was doing nothing to address the intertwined threats” of farmer-herder clashes and Boko Haram terrorists. It also urged the authors of the report “to visit Nigeria, whether formally or informally, to discuss the points raised” in it.

According to media reports, Operation Sahel Sanity, one of multiple government paramilitary operations in the north, destroyed 197 of what it termed bandit hideouts, killed 220 bandits, arrested 892 suspects, and rescued 642 kidnap victims in the North West region during the second half of the year. Despite this, the reports said that government was unable to keep pace with the growing number and frequency of attacks, saying this was mostly because the security forces in the country were too few and spread too thin and bogged down in the northeast fighting Boko Haram and ISIS-WA. In November, President Buhari asked his chief of staff, Ibrahim Gambari, to engage with political, traditional, and religious leaders throughout the areas of the country that had seen outbreaks of violence to combat insecurity and engage with the country’s significant youth population. Following the National Governors’ Forum meeting on November 5, the 36 state executives committed to guidelines to engage with religious, traditional, and civil society leaders to “drive a common agenda and generate…support for security personnel who ensure the safety and wellbeing of all Nigerians.”

The government’s proscription of the IMN remained in place throughout the year, following a Federal High Court ruling in 2019 and the government’s subsequent banning of the IMN as an illegal organization. The government continued to emphasize that the IMN’s proscription “has nothing to do with banning the larger numbers of peaceful and law-abiding Shiites in the country from practicing their religion.”

Shia Rights Watch reported on January 23 that government forces used tear gas and firearms against protesters calling for the release of IMN head Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky, and authorities killed one protester and severely injured another.

Shia Rights Watch reported in June that the Federal High Court in Abuja awarded five million naira ($13,000) each for wrongful death to the families of three IMN members whom the police allegedly killed in July 2019. The judge also ordered the National Hospital to release the bodies of the three men. The body of a fourth individual, whom police also allegedly killed the same day, was not released but was kept in a different hospital.

An IMN spokesperson said police killed three IMN members during the group’s annual Ashura procession in Kaduna on August 24 and a further two died in clashes with police on August 30.

On August 24, an IMN spokesperson confirmed that all IMN members arrested in the 2015 Zaria clashes with the army except Sheikh Ibrahim El-Zakzaky and his wife had been released by February, despite a December 2016 court ruling that El-Zakzaky and his wife be released by January 2017. Local and international NGOs continued to criticize the lack of accountability for soldiers implicated in a 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. The Kaduna State High Court rejected El-Zakzaky’s motion to dismiss his and his wife’s case on September 29. On October 19, IMN members protested El-Zakzaky’s continued detention on the fifth anniversary of the violent clash with police in Zaria. On November 28, the High Court adjourned the case of El-Zakzaky and his wife to January 2021.

Blasphemy laws were part of the expanded sharia laws introduced between 1999 and 2000 in 12 Muslim majority states in the northern part of the country. Although in past years blasphemy laws were rarely, if ever, implemented, authorities arrested two individuals for blasphemy during the year. In September, a Kano State sharia court convicted and sentenced 16-year-old Farouq Omar, who had no legal representation at the time, to 10 years in prison and menial labor for committing blasphemy during an argument with a friend; after his case was reported in the press, Omar gained volunteer legal representation and his lawyers appealed the ruling. Various human rights groups and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) condemned the judgment and called for its reversal. The same Kano State sharia court in August convicted and sentenced 22-year-old Yahaya Aminu-Sharif to death for blasphemy after he allegedly elevated a Tijaniyyah saint above the Prophet Mohammed in lyrics for a song he had written. Aminu-Sharif’s lawyers appealed the court’s decision. On April 28, authorities arrested Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, without charge. His attorneys said they believed it was related to Bala’s alleged insulting of Islam on social media. Bala was detained in a Kano prison without formal charges but was granted access to his lawyer in October. On December 21, the High Court ordered the police and other federal authorities to release Bala; however, because he was in Kano State custody, he remained in detention at year’s end.

Criminal groups committed crimes of opportunity, including kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery, and banditry in North West and South East regions. According to security experts, this criminal activity increased in volume, geographic scope, and attendant violence during the year. Clergy were often targeted as victims of these crimes, according to Christian organizations, because they are viewed as soft targets who often travel conspicuously without security in the evenings, are typically unarmed, have access to money, and generate significant media attention. While many churches, including the Catholic Church, formally refused to pay ransom, some communities raised money to ensure the return of their religious leaders. Family members of kidnap victims also sometimes paid ransom. Federal and state governments responded to increased criminality in the region with new security initiatives. The Nigerian Police Force increased the number of police checkpoints on major road networks. State governors across the regions ran local “community policing” operations to combat kidnappings, primarily through state-supported vigilante groups such as neighborhood watch groups, the Enugu Forest Guard, and the Abia State and Anambra State Vigilante Services. Media reports often said Fulani herdsmen were responsible for these attacks, particularly those in the South West region, but, according to analysts, most incidents were perpetrated by local armed criminal groups.

According to Muslim leaders in Nasarawa State and Benue State governor Samuel Ortom, there were groups of foreign Sahelian nomadic Mbororo pastoralists present in the country since 2017 who were often mistaken for indigenous Nigerian Fulani herdsmen. Christian leaders throughout the country criticized what they stated was a formal role that state governments played in welcoming the influx of these foreigners in a situation of increased levels of poverty and reduced job opportunities for permanent residents. Yoruba sociocultural groups, community leaders, and politicians in Oyo, Osun, and Ekiti States increasingly employed what sources stated was incendiary speech against the Mbororo, blaming them for a rise in crime and accusing the “invading herdsman” of looking to “Fulanize the south.”

The government at both the federal and state levels put temporary limitations on public gatherings, including religious services, in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Most churches and mosques throughout the country closed, but state governments arrested both Christian and Muslim leaders for violating lockdown orders. In March, both Christian and Muslim communities quickly complied when the government imposed quarantine measures; religious leaders said they underscored the necessity of staying home during Holy Week, including Easter, and the run-up to Ramadan. In Kaduna State, authorities arrested and arraigned two Christians on criminal disobedience charges on March 27 for attempting to hold church services, while three Muslims were charged with similar offenses on March 30 for holding congregational services in a mosque. Abuja officials arrested a prominent imam for violating stay-at-home orders but refrained from arresting a pastor who was preaching alone on camera at the Christ Embassy Church to worshipers online on Easter Sunday, April 12. In predominantly Christian Delta State, authorities arrested three pastors on Easter Sunday for violating lockdown orders issued the previous day. In Benue State, security personnel forcefully dispersed church services in remote areas where clergy disobeyed lockdown orders, although churches within city centers complied with the lockdown.

On July 8, police in Ohafia, Abia State, arrested Ifekwe Udo, the founder of the Assemblies of Light Bearer Greater Church of Lucifer, popularly known as the Church of Satan, for violating coronavirus pandemic lockdown directives. The following day, Christian youths stormed the church and demolished it. The town banished Udo in August after authorities released him from detention. At year’s end, he remained in exile in neighboring Imo State.

Beginning in June, the government’s easing of lockdown restrictions included reopening religious houses of worship that had pandemic prevention measures in place. In September, federal mandates limited public gatherings to no more than 50 persons in enclosed spaces. State-level mandates varied on the reopening of religious services as the pandemic progressed. In September, the Delta State government urged churches to hold multiple services to reduce the numbers of congregants at any one time in their buildings in compliance with modified coronavirus pandemic protocols. Due to the pandemic and Saudi Arabia’s closure of the Muslim holy places to international Hajj pilgrims, in August the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria announced that 90 percent of intending pilgrims declined a refund of their Hajj fare in lieu of a prepayment for the following year’s pilgrimage. The government similarly curtailed its sponsorship of Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem in response to the pandemic.

On August 20, Jigawa State Hisbah authorities announced they had destroyed approximately 600 confiscated bottles of beer in Tundun Babaye village. In October, the Kano State government called for the arrest and prosecution of officials of the Nigerian Breweries company for arranging for the secret importation of beer, which is banned in the state on religious grounds.

Members of both Christian and Muslim groups continued to report some state and federal government laws discriminated against them. In August, the Anglican Church spoke against a newly enacted Anambra State law on burials that dictated the type, manner, and time of the religious service or rites and how they would be performed. The law was passed without the Church’s input, which it said violated the country’s constitution.

While CAMA, which President Buhari signed into law on August 7, neither specifically addresses nor exempts nonprofit, nongovernmental, or religious organizations nor contains language about religion, some NGOs and religious organizations raised concerns about the law. The Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN), the prominent umbrella organization of the country’s Christian groups, and NIREC criticized CAMA as possibly unconstitutionally infringing on freedom of association and religion by placing some smaller religious organizations under the administrative control of government. Under the new law, the federal government has broad and discretionary powers to withdraw, cancel, or revoke the certificate of any business or association; suspend and remove trustees (and appoint any one of their choice to manage the organization “in the public interest”); take control of finances of any association; and merge two associations without the consent and approval of their members. On August 31, Buhari denied CAMA had any intentional religious discrimination and called on CAN to propose amendments to the law. On October 5 he appealed to those who were aggrieved with some laws to be patient and seek reforms in line with democratic practices.

NIREC, headed by the Sultan of Sokoto and the president of CAN, met in March to discuss insecurity and the rise of crime in the country as well as the probable impact of COVID-19 on the lives of citizens. NIREC called on people of all religions to follow government health regulations and maintain calm.

State-level actors, including government, traditional, religious, and civil society organizations, regularly negotiated resolution of disputes. In September, religious and community leaders in the ethnically and religiously diverse Jos North Local Government Area in Plateau State pledged to live in peace and enhance economic development and tranquility following a two-day workshop organized by the African Initiative for Peace Building and Advancement. On October 14, Nasarawa State governor Abdullahi Sule, a Muslim, inaugurated the headquarters of the Evangelical Reformed Church of Christ in Alushi, calling on all Christians and Muslims in the diverse state to support his efforts to enhance peace, unity, and the development of Nasarawa.

Due to what sources stated was the promotion of peaceful coexistence by Plateau State governor Simon Lalong, in October, the Islamic Society of Removal of Innovation and Reestablishment of the Sunna (JIBWIS) began reconstruction of a mosque that had been demolished during sectarian riots in 2004 in the predominantly Christian state.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to estimates from the Council on Foreign Relations online Nigeria Security Tracker, Islamist terrorist violence killed 881 persons (including security forces and civilians) during the year. More than 22,000 persons, most of them children, remained missing as a result of the Boko Haram Islamist insurgency, according to an International Committee of the Red Cross statement in September.

Terrorist groups including Boko Haram and ISIS-WA attacked population centers and religious targets and maintained a growing ability to stage forces in rural areas and launch attacks against civilian and military targets across the North East, according to observers. The groups continued to carry out suicide bombings – many by drugging and forcing young women and girls to carry out the bombings – targeting the local civilian population, including churches and mosques. According to local media, on January 26, two girls blew themselves up outside a mosque in Borno State, killing two others and injuring 14 persons praying at the time. Local media further reported that on Christmas Eve, Boko Haram terrorists killed seven persons in a raid on a Christian village in Borno State and torched homes and a church.

In January, members of Boko Haram kidnapped, held for ransom, and later beheaded Reverend Lawan Andimi, a Christian pastor and chairman of a local chapter of CAN. Following the Andimi killing, President Buhari released an op-ed entitled, Buhari: Pastor Andimi’s faith should inspire all Nigerians. In January, Boko Haram released a video in which a child soldier shoots a prisoner identified as a member of the Church of Christ in Nations. In the video, the shooter said the killing was in retaliation for Christian atrocities against Muslims in the country. According to media reports in February, more than 100 Boko Haram militants opened fire on civilians, set fire to houses, and burned down at least five churches in Garkida, Adamawa State. At a press conference in February, Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said of Boko Haram and ISIS-WA, “They have started targeting Christians and Christian villages for a specific reason, which is to trigger a religious war and throw the nation into chaos.”

ISIS-WA activity along the Maiduguri-Damaturu highway, the main humanitarian artery from neighboring Yobe State into Borno, included screenings at illegal checkpoints in Borno with the purported aim of detaining Christians, off-duty security force personnel, and humanitarian workers. On October 29, a security-focused NGO stated that suspected ISIS-WA operatives abducted three passengers they reportedly identified as Christians. Two of the three individuals were local NGO staff workers who were believed to remain in captivity at year’s end.

On the sixth anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 pupils from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in April 2014, 112 remained in captivity, according to government and media reports.

At year’s end, Leah Sharibu, captured by ISIS-WA in February 2018, remained a captive, reportedly because she refused to convert to Islam from Christianity.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Numerous fatal clashes continued throughout the year in the North Central region between predominantly Christian farmers from various ethnic groups and predominantly Muslim herders of mostly Fulani ethnicity. Scholars and other experts, including international NGOs, cited ethnicity, politics, religion, lack of accountability and access to justice, increasing competition over dwindling land and water resources, population growth, soil degradation, and internal displacement from crime and other forms of violence as drivers that contributed to the violence. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s December 2020 report Countries at Risk for Mass Killing 2020-21, “violence [in Nigeria] is being perpetrated by many groups with a variety of motivations (e.g., land disputes, banditry, ethnic grievances, etc.) and though some may share an ethnicity and many of these groups target civilians, we do not see sufficient evidence that they are working in coordination as part of a campaign against a particular group of civilians.” Several international and domestic experts noted that armed conflicts in the Sahel and Lake Chad Basin had altered grazing routes and brought foreign transhumance (movement of livestock) groups in contact with new communities, sometimes leading to conflict because they were unaware of preexisting agreements between the local herding and farming groups. According to the UN, demographic and ecological pressures also exacerbated crime and intercommunal strife in the North Central and southern regions of the country in recent years. According to ACLED data, total civilian deaths numbered 2,454 during the year, compared with 2,198 in 2019 and 3,106 in 2018.

Multiple Christian NGOs stated that religious identity was a primary driver of the conflict between Muslim herdsmen and Christian farmers.

The president of CAN, Reverend Samson Ayokunle, stated in a press conference on January 27 that the country was “under siege” by Boko Haram terrorists, Fulani terrorist herdsmen, bandits, and kidnappers “with a goal to Islamize Nigeria.” Ayokunle stated Muslim terrorists “have been going around invading predominantly Christian villages and towns…killing, maiming…and raping.” The Nigeria Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs reacted to what it said was Ayokunle’s inflammatory language and voiced concerns that CAN was playing politics, fearmongering, and fueling divisive attitudes throughout the country.

According to Morning Star News, Fulani herdsman burned down a pastor’s home and a church building on January 26 and 27 in Plateau State. Morning Star News reported that Fulani herdsman entered the home of Pastor Matthew Tagwaif of the Evangelical Church Winning All in Ngbra Zongo village, Plateau State on April 7 and killed the pastor and three others including a 10-year-old boy. According to Morning Star News, Fulani herdsman entered a church in Tegina Kabata village, Niger State, on April 12 in which a wedding was taking place. They abducted the bride and groom and several other persons in attendance. Five other Christians were also killed in a series of attacks in the village.

There were also incidents of violence involving predominantly Muslim Fulani herders and settled farmers, who were both Muslim and Christian, in the North West region. On November 20, hundreds of individuals described as bandits attacked a mosque in Zamfara State during Friday prayers, killing at least five worshippers and abducting 30 members of the congregation, including the imam and other prominent members of the community. Zamfara governor Bello Mohammed Matawalle publicly condemned the attack and successfully organized the release of 11 kidnap victims.

Media reported that gang members kidnapped four Catholic seminary students on January 8 in Kaduna State. The gang subsequently released three of the victims but killed 18-year-old Michael Nnadi on January 31. On April 25, the Nigerian Police Force announced the capture and arrest of the Nnadi’s alleged kidnappers and killers.

Media reported on October 5, armed bandits ransacked the St. Augustine Catholic Church in Benue State and robbed the parish priest and the church offertory at gunpoint. According to media reports, on September 29, 10 armed gang members entered a Pentecostal church in Akwa Ibom State during Sunday morning services and shot several parishioners.

On May 28, unknown gunmen abducted the CAN chairman of Nasarawa State, who was released unharmed several days later after a ransom of 20 million naira ($51,900) had been paid.

The Southern Kaduna Peoples Union (SOKAPU), an organization stating it represents Christians in the southern part of Kaduna State, said that violence and criminality were neglected throughout the state, suggesting that publicized security measures were mostly for “political optics” and only served a particular segment of the population. SOKAPU said the creation of emirates and appointment of Muslim emirs in predominantly Christian chiefdoms had heightened tensions in southern Kaduna.

Interfaith activists such as Christian Pastor James Wuye and Imam Muhammad Ashafa of the Kaduna Interfaith Center said the government was not doing enough to combat thuggery and violence in their communities. In response to interethnic communal violence in southern Kaduna State in July and August, the Sultan of Sokoto decried the unwarranted killings of hundreds of Muslims and Christians as “madness that has to be stopped immediately.” CAN president Reverend Ayokunle, noting the conflict was predominantly ethnic, said he was ready to partner with the Kaduna State government to ensure the swift end of the crisis.

On October 24, in the wake of “#EndSARS” (referring to the Special Antirobbery Squad [SARS] arm of police) protests against alleged police brutality, Christian Igbo youths allegedly killed 11 Muslims in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, and burned down the central mosque in Orlu, Imo State. In November, Enugu State governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi ordered the immediate rebuilding of two mosques that had been destroyed during the #EndSARS protests in the Nsukka Local Government Area in the predominantly Christian state.

On June 17, the Muslim organization Society for the Support of Islam, known as Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), released a statement condemning the violent actions of Boko Haram in the country and criticizing the government for what it said was an insufficient response to stop the terrorist group. Several Christian leaders expressed support for JNI’s statement.

There were several reported cases of young Christian girls being kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam throughout the year. For example, media reported that a 17-year-old girl went missing in Kaduna State on January 5. According to the report, on January 7, several men came to her father’s house to tell him to attend a sharia court in which the judge read a predetermined judgment that the girl had to stay with her kidnappers. She later escaped, however, and returned to her parents. She said she had been kept in a locked room for more than a month and forced to convert to Islam. In April, media outlets reported there was outrage in the country concerning a video posted on social media showing the Kano State governor leading a Christian girl through the Islamic shahada prayer to show she accepted Islam. According to World Watch Monitor, a local source said the governor did not “force” anyone to convert to Islam but individuals instead came to him to convert. According to the Hausa Christians Foundation, six young women and an older married woman were kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam between March 23 and April 30. Five of the women were kidnapped in Kaduna State, one in Kano State, and one in Katsina State.

In May, a federal high court in Bayelsa State sentenced Yunusa Dahiru to 26 years in prison for abducting a Christian girl and forcing her to convert to Islam and marrying her in August 2015.

On February 2, CAN estimated that five million persons in 28 of the country’s 36 states answered its call for a three-day fast, concluding in a prayer walk, to protest the persecution of Christians.

Due to restrictions on religious gatherings put into place in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many religious groups moved to online services and some increased their followers through virtual means. Christian and Muslim leaders largely worked together to ensure their followers helped to prevent the spread of coronavirus while raising awareness of the hardship the lockdowns had on those who could not provide for their families. In Kaduna State, Christian clerics and their Muslim counterparts sent encouraging text messages of tolerance and brotherhood on Easter.

In October, the Bible Society of Nigeria inaugurated two new areas in Osun and Oyo States. In November, the Jewish worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement established a second emissary position in the country in Lagos in addition to a previously established one in Abuja.

In February, the Pew Research Center published findings on attitudes towards democratic principles, such as regular elections, free speech, and free civil society as well as religious freedom, in 34 countries, based on interviews it conducted in its Spring 2019 Global Attitudes Survey. According to the findings, 88 percent of Nigerian respondents considered religious freedom to be “very important,” ranking it among highest of their priorities for democratic principles of the nine tested.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy and consulate general officials as well as visiting high-level U.S. government officials voiced concern over abuses and discrimination against individuals based on religion, including the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in meetings throughout the year with government officials, including the Vice President, cabinet secretaries, and National Assembly members. They also addressed religious tensions and efforts to bring religious groups together with several state governors, religious leaders, and other officials throughout the country. They discussed government and government-supported grassroots efforts to reduce violence, combat insecurity, and promote religious freedom and interreligious tolerance.

Embassy and consulate general officials continued to promote religious tolerance and interfaith relationship-building with a wide range of religious leaders and civil society organizations. The Ambassador and other senior embassy officials engaged with various religious groups, including CAN, JNI, JIBWIS, and others throughout the year and delivered remarks on the importance of respect for religious freedom at large religious gatherings, such as the Interfaith Dialogue Forum for Peace’s Third Annual Peace Conference on Interreligious Dialogue: Strengthening the Culture of Peace, Reconciliation and Justice on January 22. To mark Religious Freedom Day on January 16, the Ambassador hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders to discuss issues of peace and security and to promote religious freedom. In July, the embassy held a roundtable with prominent religious leaders from different churches and dioceses and discussed the violence occurring in the country, providing an overview of challenges and opportunities facing affected communities. In October, a visiting high-level delegation from the Department of State, led by the Counselor, met with various religious and government leaders to discuss the religious freedom environment. Interfaith discussions sought to identify areas of consensus and narrow the gap between competing narratives regarding the main drivers of conflict in the country.

The embassy funded peacebuilding programs in conflict-prone states such as Kaduna, Plateau, and Nasarawa. The programs trained leaders in farming and herding communities, including traditional, youth, religious, and female leaders, to build mechanisms to resolve tensions before they became violent conflicts. “Peace ambassadors” from embassy-funded projects continued to work to bridge the gap between victims, traditional/religious leaders, and the security apparatus in Kajuru, Kaduna State. During the months of the countrywide lockdown, they visited potential conflict areas to support victims of crisis, provided support to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continued to promote dialogue among stakeholders to deter reprisal attacks and promote sustainable peace.

The embassy expanded activities to reduce violent conflicts in the affected religious communities by promoting social cohesion, religious freedom, and the ability to mitigate community disputes peacefully without degenerating into ethnoreligious conflict. It also intensified its work on religious freedom issues through an existing five-year program in six northwest and north central states. This activity provided interfaith dialogue training to leaders with the goal of building capacity among communities to manage disputes. The program produced English and Hausa-language radio programs designed to deepen community engagement in peacebuilding and preventing violent extremism.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State designated Nigeria a “Country of Particular Concern” for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom and announced a waiver of sanctions that accompany designation in the “important national interest of the United States.”

North Korea

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religious belief, with the stipulation that “religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the State or social order.” In July, the UN Secretary-General reported to the UN General Assembly that the country “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly.” Multiple sources indicated the situation had not changed since the 2014 Report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in the DPRK was published. The COI found an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. In many instances, the COI determined that there were violations of human rights committed by the government that constituted crimes against humanity. The government reportedly continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to limit the availability of details related to individual cases of abuse. It also made it difficult to estimate the number of religious groups in the country and their membership. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Open Doors USA (ODUSA) estimated that at year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, the NGO Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. The Database Center for North Korean Human Rights (NKDB), a South Korea-based NGO, citing defectors who arrived in South Korea from 2007 until December 2019 and other sources, reported 1,411 cases of violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief by DPRK authorities, including 126 killings and 94 disappearances. In October, the United Kingdom-based NGO Korea Future Initiative (KFI) released a report based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, or perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims punished for engaging in religious practice or having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, or sharing religious beliefs. The KFI report said they were subjected to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, forced abortion, execution, and public trials. For the 19th consecutive year, ODUSA ranked the country number one on its annual World Watch List report of countries where Christians experienced “extreme persecution.” NGOs and defectors said the government often applied a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing family members of Christians. According to ODUSA, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they [are] deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. In October, the UN special rapporteur stated the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures, including imprisonment, against the practice of shamanism and “superstitious” activities. In September 2019, an NGO posted on social media a government video depicting Christians as “religious fanatics” and “spies” and calling converts “worthless people.” According to Radio Free Asia (RFA), authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019. According to NGOs, the government used religious organizations and facilities for external propaganda and political purposes. In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office after defector groups in South Korea sent materials over the border that included Bibles and other Christian materials.

The government encouraged all citizens to report anyone engaged in religious activity or in possession of religious material. There were reports of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious networks remained difficult to quantify. Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from family members, neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear of being branded as disloyal and concerns their activities would be reported to authorities. Some defector and NGO reports confirmed unapproved religious materials were available clandestinely. According to one source, the practice of consulting fortune tellers was widespread.

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK. The United States cosponsored a resolution adopted by consensus by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights” and expressed very serious concern about abuses including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience, religion, or belief. The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. In a speech delivered at the Vatican in September, the Secretary of State urged Christian leaders to support religious freedom for Christians in the DPRK.

Since 2001, the DPRK 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 December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 25.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate). The North Korean government last reported religious demographics in 2002, and estimates of the number of total adherents of different religious groups vary. In 2002, the DPRK reported to the UN Human Rights Committee there were 12,000 Protestants, 10,000 Buddhists, 800 Catholics, and 15,000 practitioners of Chondoism, a modern religious movement based on a 19th century Korean neo-Confucian movement. South Korean and other foreign religious groups estimate the number of religious practitioners is considerably higher than reported by authorities. According to the Religious Characteristics of States Dataset Project, in 2015 the population was 70.9 percent atheist, 11 percent Buddhist, 1.7 percent followers of other religions, and 16.5 percent unknown. UN estimates place the Christian population at between 200,000 and 400,000. The Center for the Study of Global Christianity estimates there are 100,000 Christians, and ODUSA estimates the country has 400,000 Christians. In its 2020 World Christian Database, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity reported 58 percent of the population is agnostic; 15 percent atheist; 13 percent “new religionists” (believers in syncretic religions); 12 percent “ethnoreligionists” (believers in folk religions); and 1.5 percent Buddhists. Christians, Muslims, and Chinese folk religionists make up less than 0.5 percent of the population collectively. The NKDB reported that among defectors practicing a religion, the majority were Protestant with a smaller number of Catholics, Buddhists, and others. The COI report stated, based on the government’s own figures, the proportion of religious adherents among the population dropped from close to 24 percent in 1950 to 0.016 percent in 2002. Consulting shamans and fortune tellers and engaging in shamanistic rituals is reportedly widespread but difficult to quantify. The NKDB reported that five priests from the Russian Orthodox Church are in Pyongyang.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states that citizens have freedom of religious belief. This right is granted through the approval of the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies. It further states, “Religion must not be used as a pretext for drawing in foreign forces or for harming the state and social order.”

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

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

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

Government Practices

There were reports the government continued to execute, torture, arrest, and physically abuse individuals engaged in almost any religious activities. The country’s inaccessibility and lack of timely information continued to make individual arrests and punishments difficult to verify. The July 30 UN Secretary-General’s report Situation of the human rights situation in the DPRK stated the DPRK “continues to severely restrict the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of association and peaceful assembly… During the reporting period [September 2019 to July 2020], there was no evidence of any improvement with respect to the fulfilment of these fundamental rights and freedoms.” The report stated that the government “maintains a monopoly over information and retains total control of organized social life.” Multiple sources indicated the situation in the country had not changed since publication of the 2014 COI final report, which concluded there was an almost complete denial by the government of the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion as well as the rights to freedom of opinion, expression, information, and association. It further concluded that in many instances, the violations of human rights committed by the government constituted crimes against humanity, and it recommended the United Nations ensure those most responsible for the crimes against humanity were held accountable.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government on April 23 reportedly extended national emergency quarantine measures until the end of the year and ordered the public to refrain from attending large gatherings, including weddings, funerals, coming-of-age ceremonies, and observance of ancestral rites. The October 14 Report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea stated, “The surveillance and control over the population continue in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the decreased contact with the outside world during the COVID-19 pandemic could exacerbate entrenched human rights violations, with more freedoms being restricted, discrimination worsening, and treatment in detention, including in political prison camps aggravating.”

In October, KFI released a report entitled Persecuting Faith: Documenting Religious Freedom Violations in North Korea, Volume I. The report was based on 117 interviews with defectors who were survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators of religious freedom violations from 1990 to 2019. Investigators identified 273 victims of religious freedom violations. Of these, 215 adhered to Christianity, 56 adhered to shamanism, and two to other beliefs. The victims ranged in age from three to older than 80 years old. Women and girls accounted for nearly 60 percent of documented victims. According to the report, the government charged individuals with engaging in religious practice, conducting religious activities in China, possessing religious items, having contact with religious persons, attending places of worship, and sharing religious beliefs. In some cases, the government charged a single victim with multiple offenses. Individuals were subject to arrest, detention, prolonged interrogations, refoulment, punishment of family members, torture or sustained physical abuse, sexual violence, execution, and public trials and “resident exposure meetings.” According to the report, “In many cases, a single victim experienced multiple violations.”

In December 2019, ODUSA published a report entitled North Korea: Country Dossier. The report identified Communist doctrine and the cult of personality surrounding leader Kim Jong Un as the main drivers of religious persecution. According to the report, Christians were regarded as enemies of the Workers Party of Korea’s ideology.

The NKDB, relying on reports from defectors and other sources, aggregated 1,411 specific cases of abuses of the right to freedom of religion or belief by authorities within the country from 2007 to December 2019. Charges included propagation of religion, possession of religious materials, religious activity, and contact with religious practitioners. Of the 1,411 cases, authorities reportedly killed 126 individuals (8.9 percent), disappeared 94 (6.7 percent), physically injured.79 (5.6 percent), deported or forcibly relocated 53 (3.8 percent), detained 826 (58.5 percent), restricted movement of 147 (10.4 percent), and persecuted 86 (7.9 percent) using other methods of punishment.

The NGO NK Watch estimated that 135,000 political prisoners continued to be held in four political prison camps between September 2019 and July 2020. According to the South Korean government-affiliated Korea Institute for National Unification’s (KINU) 2019 white paper on human rights, the government operated five political prison camps. ODUSA estimated that as of year’s end, 50,000 to 70,000 citizens were in prison for being Christian. In May, CSW estimated 200,000 individuals were being held in prison camps, many for being Christian. CSW and ODUSA said the government maintained a policy of arresting or otherwise punishing relatives of Christians, meaning they could be detained regardless of their beliefs. According to one defector, an entire family was arrested when an informant revealed the family had a Bible.

In its annual World Watch List report, ODUSA for the 19th year in a row ranked the country number one on its watch list of countries where the government persecutes Christians. The NGO stated in its dossier, “If North Korean Christians are discovered, they are deported to labor camps as political criminals or even killed on the spot.” ODUSA stated arrests and abductions of foreign missionaries and punishments for Christians increased. “Christians do not have the slightest space in society; meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible and if some dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.” The ODUSA dossier stated increased diplomatic activity starting with and following the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in South Korea in February 2018 did not improve religious freedom for Christians in the country. According to the dossier, police raids aimed at identifying and punishing citizens with “deviating thoughts,” including Christians, reportedly increased.

Religious organizations and human rights groups outside the country continued to report that members of underground churches were arrested, beaten, tortured, and killed because of their religious beliefs. One defector told the NKDB in 2018 that a Christian woman was beaten while in custody, denied water, and died of dehydration. Another defector told NKDB in 2017 that in 2011, a Christian woman became so ill in detention she could not feed herself, and when she asked a guard a question, he beat her to death with a ladle.

According to KFI, Christians reported experiencing various forms of torture, “including: being forced to hang on steel bars while being beaten with a wooden club; being hung by their legs; having their body tightly bound with sticks; being forced to perform “squat-jumps” and to sit and stand hundreds or thousands of times each day; having a liquid made with red pepper powder forcibly poured into their nostrils; being forced to kneel with a wooden bar inserted between their knee hollows; strangulation; being forced to witness the execution or torture of other prisoners; starvation; being forced to ingest polluted food; being forced into solitary confinement; being deprived of sleep; and being forced to remain seated and still for up to and beyond 12 hours a day.” The report also documented incidents of torture and physical assault inflicted on persons adhering to shamanism. One victim who had been imprisoned for three years for practicing shamanism sustained permanent damage to the eyes because of repeated physical assaults.

According to KFI, authorities subjected pregnant adherents to forced abortions in detention or killed their infants shortly after birth by smothering them.

KFI also reported that officials repeatedly warned citizens in lectures and “people’s unit meetings” to not read Bibles and to report anyone who owned a Bible. The report documented multiple instances in which authorities found an individual in possession of a Bible and sent the person and other household members to prison. In one case, a Korean Workers’ Party member was arrested for possessing a Bible and executed at Hyesan airfield in front of 3,000 residents. Another respondent told investigators that a relative was arrested for possessing a cross and a Bible after the relative’s partner reported the individual to authorities.

In September 2019, the Christian advocacy group Voice of the Martyrs USA (VOM) posted to YouTube what it described as a “government training video.” In the video, the narrator tells the story of a Christian named Cha Deoksun from Sariwon City who crossed the border illegally into China, where she converted to Christianity. The narrator said the pastors of the church were disguised members of the South Korean secret service and converts were “spies.” Upon returning to North Korea, Cha traveled around the country preaching and organizing an underground church. The narrator described Cha as a “religious fanatic” and “good-for-nothing.” According to the video, she converted her family and other “worthless people.” At some point, “one of our conscientious citizens” reported Cha to authorities and she was arrested. VOM stated, “It is unclear how Deoksun died, but it is possible that she was executed.”

According to KFI, authorities arrested and executed individuals for possessing and sharing religious items such as Bibles. In one case, a victim who brought Bibles into the country was arrested and executed by firing squad close to Samjiyon Hospital, Ryanggang Province, in front of approximately 300 witnesses. In another case, a victim who had been in contact with religious persons was detained and interrogated in North Hamgyong Province. During her detention, an officer shouted at her, “Hey, you [expletive]. Does God know that you are in here?” The officer ordered the woman to crawl backwards out of her cell on hands and knees and beat her with a wooden club.

According to the NKDB, in 2016, there were forced disappearances of persons found to be practicing religion within detention facilities.

International NGOs and North Korean defectors continued to report that any religious activities conducted outside of those that were state-sanctioned, including praying, singing hymns, and reading the Bible, could lead to severe punishment, including imprisonment in political prison camps. According KINU’s 2019 white paper on human rights, authorities punished both “superstitious activities” – including fortune telling – and religious activities, but the latter more severely. In general, punishment was very strict when citizens or defectors had studied or possessed a Bible or were involved with Christian missionaries; authorities frequently punished those involved in superstitious activity with forced labor, which reportedly could be avoided by bribery.

KFI documented cases in which family members of persons who had been charged with crimes associated with religion were subsequently targeted. In certain incidents, this led to the arrests of children as young as three. In other incidents, entire families were arrested. Investigators also documented incidents in which the spouses of persons sentenced for religious crimes were forced to divorce victims.

According to RFA, authorities launched crackdowns on Falun Gong practitioners in 2019.

The government reportedly detained foreigners who it said were engaged in religious activity within the country’s borders. There was no further information on Kim Jung-wook, detained in October 2013; Kim Guk-gi, detained in October 2014; or Choi Chun-gil, detained in December 2014 – three South Korean missionaries detained in the country and sentenced to life in prison for “spying and scheming.” In December 2018, The Korea Times reported the South Korean government tried to negotiate their release.

During the year, VOM undertook a letter-writing campaign to urge the government to release Jang Moon Seok (aka Zhang Wen Shi), an ethnic-Korean Chinese national living in Changbai, China, on the border with North Korea. VOM stated that “Deacon Jang” assisted North Koreans who crossed the border and shared his faith with them. According to VOM, in November 2014, North Korean authorities kidnapped Jang from China, imprisoned him, and sentenced him to 15 years in prison.

In 2019, the HRNK reported the government continued to promote a policy that all citizens, young and old, participate in local defense and be willing to mobilize for national defense purposes. There were neither exceptions for these requirements nor any alternative to military service for conscientious objectors.

Juche (“self-reliance”) and Suryong (“supreme leader”) remained important ideological underpinnings of the government and the cults of personality of previous leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, as well as current leader Kim Jong Un. Refusal on religious or other grounds to accept the leader as the supreme authority was regarded as opposition to the national interest and reportedly resulted in severe punishment. Some scholars stated the Juche philosophy and reverence for the Kim family resembled a form of state-sponsored theology. Approximately 100,000 Juche research centers reportedly existed throughout the country. KINU’s 2019 white paper reported one defector as saying, “North Korea oppresses religion, particularly Christianity, because of the sense that the one-person dictatorship can be undermined by religious faith.”

The 2014 COI report found the government considered Christianity a serious threat that challenged the official cults of personality and provided a platform for social and political organization and interaction outside the government. The report concluded that Christians faced persecution, violence, and heavy punishment if they practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches. The report further recommended the country allow Christians and other religious believers to exercise their religions independently and publicly without fear of punishment, reprisal, or surveillance.

According to NGOs, the government’s policy towards religion was intended to maintain an appearance of tolerance for international audiences while suppressing internally all religious activities not sanctioned by the state. As it had in years past, KINU stated in its 2019 annual white paper on human rights that it was “practically impossible for North Korean people to have a religion in their daily lives.” According to the NKDB, the constitution represented only a nominal freedom granted to political supporters and only when the regime deemed it necessary to use it as a policy tool. A survey of 12,625 refugees between 2007 and March 2018 by the NKDB found 99.6 percent said there was no religious freedom in the country.

According to the NKDB, the South Korean government estimated that as of 2018, there were 121 religious facilities in the DPRK, including 60 Buddhist temples, 52 Chondoist temples, three state-controlled Protestant churches, and one Russian Orthodox church. The 2015 KINU annual white paper counted 60 Buddhist temples and reported most citizens did not realize Buddhist temples were religious facilities and did not regard Buddhist monks as religious figures. The temples were regarded as cultural heritage sites and tourist destinations. KINU’s 2019 annual white paper concluded no religious facilities existed outside of Pyongyang.

In its 2019 report, KINU stated the government continued to use authorized religious organizations for external propaganda and political purposes and reported citizens were strictly barred from entering places of worship. Ordinary citizens considered such places primarily as “sightseeing spots for foreigners.” KINU concluded the lack of churches or religious facilities in the provinces indicated ordinary citizens did not have religious freedom. In its 2020 annual report, the NKDB stated, “Although there are several churches and other religious facilities in North Korea, such as Chilgol and Bongsu Church, as well as Jangchung Cathedral, they are sponsored entirely by the state, and therefore access to the facilities for the sake of genuine religious activity, especially for regular citizens, is heavily restricted.” Less than 2.5 percent of 13,958 defectors the NDKB interviewed between 1997 and 2019 said they had visited religious facilities. The 2014 COI report concluded that authorities systematically sought to hide the persecution of Christians who practiced their religion outside state-controlled churches from the international community by pointing to the small number of state-controlled churches as exemplifying religious freedom and pluralism.

The five state-controlled Christian churches in Pyongyang included three Protestant churches (Bongsu, Chilgol, and Jeil Churches), a Catholic church (Changchung Cathedral), and the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Chilgol Church, a state-controlled Protestant church, was dedicated to the memory of former leader Kim Il Sung’s mother, Kang Pan Sok, a Presbyterian deaconess. The number of congregants regularly worshiping at these churches was unknown, and there was no information on whether scheduled services were available at these locations. Some defectors who previously lived in or near Pyongyang reported knowing about these churches. In KINU’s 2019 report, one defector said that when he lived in Pyongyang, authorities arrested individuals, whom they believed lingered too long outside these churches to listen to the music or consistently drove past them each week when services were being held, on suspicion of being secret Christians. This defector also said authorities quickly realized one unintended consequence of allowing music at the services and permitting persons to attend church was that many attendees converted to Christianity, and therefore authorities took steps to mitigate that outcome. Numerous other defectors from outside Pyongyang reported no knowledge of these churches. According to KINU, in years past, foreign Christians who visited the country testified they witnessed church doors closed on Easter Sunday, and many foreign visitors said church activities seemed to be staged. In its 2019 dossier on North Korea, ODUSA stated, “The churches shown to visitors in Pyongyang serve mere propaganda purposes.”

Foreign legislators who attended services in Pyongyang in previous years reported congregations arrived and departed services as groups on tour buses, and some observed the worshippers did not include any children. Some foreigners noted they were not permitted to have contact with worshippers, and others stated they had limited interaction with them. Foreign observers had limited ability to ascertain the level of government control over these groups but generally assumed the government monitored them closely. KINU’s 2019 white paper described the example of Bongsu Protestant Church in Pyongyang, which was built in September 1988. Defectors reported that only the building guard and the guard’s family lived there, but when foreign guests came to visit, several hundred citizens between the ages of 40 and 50 were carefully selected and gathered to participate in fake church services.

In its 2002 report to the UN Human Rights Committee, the government reported the existence of 500 “family worship centers.” According to the 2019 KINU report, not one defector who testified for the report was aware of the existence of such “family churches.” According to a survey of 12,810 defectors cited in the 2018 NKDB report, none saw any of these purported home churches, and only 1.3 percent of respondents believed they existed. Observers stated “family worship centers” could be part of the state-controlled Korean Christian Federation (KCF).

The 2018 NKDB report noted the existence of state-sanctioned religious organizations in the country, such as the KCF, Korea Buddhist Union, Korean Catholic Council, Korea Chondoist Church Central Committee, Korea Orthodox Church Committee, and Korean Council of Religionists. There was minimal information available on the activities of such organizations, except for some information on inter-Korean religious exchanges in 2015.

The government-established Korean Catholic Council continued to hold masses at the Changchung Cathedral, but the Holy See continued not to recognize it as a Roman Catholic church. There were no Vatican-recognized Catholic priests, monks, or nuns residing in the country.

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

Five Russian Orthodox priests served at the Russian Orthodox Church of the Life-giving Trinity, purportedly to provide pastoral care to Russians in the country. The clergy included North Koreans, several of whom had reportedly studied at the Russian Orthodox seminary in Moscow.

In 2019, United Press International cited a report by the state-run media outlet Ryomyong describing an Easter Sunday Mass at Pyongyang’s Changchung Cathedral. According to Ryomyong, citizens and foreign worshippers attended.

The NKDB stated officials conducted thorough searches of incoming packages and belongings at ports, customs checkpoints, and airports to search for religious items as well as other items the government deemed objectionable. ODUSA reported some individuals brought audio devices containing the Bible and other religious materials from China or smuggled in radios for local residents to listen to Christian broadcasts from overseas.

According to KFI, beginning in kindergarten, children were taught antireligious views, with a particular focus on Christianity. The report stated, “While Buddhism and Cheondogyo were explained as matters of historical interest, rather than as religions, it was Christianity that was singled out for attention within the public-school system. Multiple respondents spoke of textbooks containing sections on Christian missionaries that listed their “evil deeds,” which included rape, blood sucking, organ harvesting, murder, and espionage.”

In June, the government demolished the inter-Korean liaison office, a building in the city of Kaesong near the border with South Korea. Media reported that the demolition occurred in retaliation after defector groups in South Korea sent anti-DPRK government leaflets and other materials over the border. Christian media reported that items sent over the border also often contained Christian materials, including tracts and testimonies written by North Korean Christian refugees, physical Bibles, and digital copies of the Bible on flash drives. Kim Yo Jong, then first deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and the sister of Kim Jong Un, denounced those who sent the material as “betrayers” and “human scum.”

According to KINU, religion continued to be used to justify restricting individuals to the lowest class rungs of the songbun system, which classifies persons on the basis of social class, family background, and presumed support of the regime. The songbun classification system resulted in discrimination in education, health care, employment opportunities, and residence. KINU continued to report that religious persons and their families were perceived to be “antirevolutionary elements.”

According to KINU’s 2019 report, the government continued to view religion as a means of foreign encroachment. In the report, KINU quoted the North Korean Academy of Social Science Philosophy Institute’s Dictionary on Philosophy as stating, “Religion is historically seized by the ruling class to deceive the masses and was used as a means to exploit and oppress, and it has recently been used by the imperialists as an ideological tool to invade underdeveloped countries.” KINU reported citizens continued to receive education from authorities at least twice a year that emphasized ways to detect individuals who engaged in spreading Christianity.

The government reportedly continued to be concerned that faith-based South Korean relief and refugee assistance efforts along the northeast border with China had both humanitarian and political goals, including the overthrow of the government, and to allege that these groups were involved in intelligence gathering. The government reportedly maintained tight border controls that became even stricter in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19, hindering relief and assistance activities.

In 2019, the Asia Times reported that South Korean-based Christian charities said the government sometimes declined aid for political reasons and that in some cases, the charities distributed the aid in secret through underground Christian networks.

In December, the UN General Assembly passed by consensus a resolution, cosponsored by the United States, that condemned “in the strongest terms the long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights in and by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, including those that may amount to crimes against humanity.” The General Assembly expressed its very serious concern at “the imposition of the death penalty for political and religious reasons,” and “all-pervasive and severe restrictions, both online and offline, on the freedoms of thought, conscience, religion or belief, opinion and expression, peaceful assembly and association[.]” The UN General Assembly also strongly urged the government “to respect fully all human rights and fundamental freedoms[.]” The annual resolution again welcomed the Security Council’s continued consideration of the COI’s relevant conclusion and recommendations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Due to the country’s inaccessibility, little was known about the day-to-day life of individuals practicing a religion. Travel restrictions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated this inaccessibility.

The 2014 COI report concluded government messaging regarding the purported evils of Christianity led to negative views of Christianity among ordinary citizens.

Defector accounts indicated religious practitioners often concealed their activities from neighbors, coworkers, and other members of society due to fear they would be reported to authorities. According to the ODUSA dossier, due to the constant indoctrination permeating the country, Christians were seen as hostile elements in society, and family members and neighbors were expected to report suspicious activities to the authorities, including through the network of neighborhood informers. For this reason, “many parents prefer not to tell their children anything about their Christian faith.”

In 2019, the South China Morning Post reported that a defector described her family quietly singing Christian hymns on Sundays while one person watched for informers. Another described hiding under a blanket or in the bathroom while praying. ODUSA reported that many Bibles, devotionals, Christian books, and songbooks to which individuals had access dated from the 1920s through the end of World War II. These were kept hidden and passed among believers. One man said persons remained careful even within their own families when teaching Christian beliefs for fear of being reported. According to the NGO, “Meeting other Christians in order to worship is almost impossible, and if some believers dare to, it has to be done in utmost secrecy.”

In 2019, KINU again reported accounts of private Christian religious activity in the country, although the existence of underground churches and the scope of underground religious activity remained difficult to quantify. While some NGOs and academics estimated that up to several hundred thousand Christians practiced their faith in secret, others questioned the existence of a large-scale underground church or concluded it was impossible to estimate accurately the number of underground religious believers. Individual underground congregations were reportedly very small and typically confined to private homes. In the “government training” video released by VOM in September 2019, the narrator claimed Cha Deoksun and other believers met in the woods. Some defectors and NGOs said unapproved religious materials were available and that secret religious meetings occurred, spurred by cross-border contact with individuals and groups in China. According to The Christian Post, the NKDB stated in its annual white paper published in October that since 2000, as many as 559 defectors said they had “seen a Bible.” NKDB stated that of the 14,091 individuals who defected between 1997 and 2019, only 167 (1.2 percent) said that they had personally experienced practicing religion in secret. Only 677 (5 percent) of 13,557 individuals had witnessed others practicing in secret.

While COVID-19 restrictions prevented individuals from attending weddings and funerals, KINU reported that in prior years, religious ceremonies accompanying these events were almost unknown. Other sources, however, indicated there were still shamanistic elements in weddings and funerals.

According to KFI, the government intensified its campaign against shamanism during the year. The government hung posters and issued directives warning citizens against engaging in “superstitious acts.” These directives were posted in apartment blocks. NGOs noted, however, an apparent continued increase in shamanistic practices, including in Pyongyang. KFI stated that shamanism was illicitly practiced by both ordinary citizens and officials. Investigators documented many persons engaging both publicly and privately in shamanistic practices, including traditional rituals, fortune telling, physiognomy, exorcism, the use of talismans, the use of the Christian Bible, the use of birth charts, and tarot cards. One source told RFA it was common for individuals to consult fortune tellers before planning weddings, making business deals, handling health matters, or considering other important decisions. One source told Asia Press that government officials also consulted fortune tellers about their health and careers. NGOs reported authorities continued to take measures against the practice of shamanism. According to the source, however, fortune tellers who faced punishment were those “who [made] a lot of wrong predictions” and therefore did not receive the protection of officials. The source said, “The good fortune tellers are paid by officials and therefore do not get caught.” One defector who escaped in 2019 told KFI investigators, “People who practice shamanism will be sentenced to a maximum of five years in a re-education camp if the penalty is harsh. They used to be sentenced to a labor training camp for three or six months, but the sentence has been made stricter.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government does not have diplomatic relations with the DPRK and has no official presence in the country.

The United States cosponsored the resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in December that condemned the country’s “long-standing and ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights,” and it expressed very serious concern about abuses, including imposition of the death penalty for religious reasons and restrictions on the freedoms of conscience, religion, or belief.

The U.S. government raised concerns about religious freedom in the country in other multilateral forums and in bilateral discussions with other governments, particularly those with diplomatic relations with the country. This included an October meeting of like-minded countries to coordinate actions and discuss the DPRK’s human rights record. The United States made clear that addressing human rights, including religious freedom, would significantly improve prospects for closer ties between the two countries. Senior U.S. government officials met with defectors and NGOs that focused on the country.

In a speech delivered in September at the Vatican, the Secretary of State urged Christian leaders to support religious freedom and speak up for persecuted Christians, including those in the DPRK. On October 27, on the occasion of International Religious Freedom Day, the Secretary stated North Korea was one of the world’s “most egregious religious freedom abusers.”

Since 2001, the DPRK 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 December 2, 2020, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation: the existing ongoing restrictions to which North Korea is subject, pursuant to sections 402 and 409 of the Trade Act of 1974 (the Jackson-Vanik Amendment) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Pakistan

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion and requires all provisions of the law to be consistent with Islam. The constitution 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 up to the death penalty. According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges, at least 35 of whom had received death sentences, as compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 who received death sentences in 2019. According to the Center for Social Justice, a national nongovernmental organization (NGO), at least 199 individuals were accused of blasphemy offenses, a significant increase over 2019 and the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. The accused were mostly Shia (70 percent of cases) and Ahmadi Muslims (20 percent of cases). Other NGOs corroborated that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a national NGO, expressed concern over a surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the continued potential for sectarian violence. It stated that more than 40 cases against religious minorities were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone. In October, the Lahore High Court acquitted a Christian of blasphemy, the first such ruling since 2018. The court acquitted a second Christian in December. Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders continued to report they were affected by discriminatory and ambiguous legislation and court judgments that denied them basic rights, including a 2018 Islamabad High Court judgment that some government agencies continued to use to deny national identification cards to Ahmadi Muslims. In May, the Cabinet approved a proposal creating a National Commission for Minorities within the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the fact that Ahmadi Muslims were excluded. The government of Punjab, the country’s largest province, passed a series of measures against Ahmadi Muslim beliefs. Throughout the year, some government officials and politicians engaged in anti-Ahmadi rhetoric and attended events that Ahmadi Muslims said incited violence against members of their community. Following the July killing of U.S. citizen and self-identified Ahmadi Muslim Tahir Naseem, who was standing trial for blasphemy charges, some political party leaders celebrated the killer’s actions. In December, using expanded authorities granted by the government in November, the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority publicly demanded the removal of “sacrilegious” content from the Google Play Store and Wikipedia. NGOs expressed concern that authorities often failed to intervene in instances of societal violence against religious minorities due to fear of retaliation, inadequate staff, or apathy. Perpetrators of societal violence and abuses against religious minorities often faced no legal consequences due to a lack of follow-through by law enforcement, bribes offered by the accused, and pressure on victims to drop cases. The government took some measures to protect religious minorities. On January 26, for example, a local court sentenced four boys for vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar District, the first attack on a Hindu temple in that area in more than 30 years; minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack. In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad.

Armed sectarian groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and the once-banned anti-Shia group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), which is connected to other organizations banned by the government as extremist, and groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, continued to stage attacks targeting Shia Muslims, including the predominantly Shia Hazara community. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), however, the number of sectarian attacks and killings by armed groups decreased compared with previous years, corresponding with a continued overall decline in terrorist attacks. The government continued to implement the National Action Plan against terrorism, including countering sectarian hate speech and extremism as well as conducting military and law enforcement operations against violent groups. Multiple civil society groups and faith community leaders stated the government had increased efforts to provide enhanced security at religious minority places of worship, which had been frequent targets of attack in past years. Police and security forces throughout the country enhanced security measures during religious holidays in consultation with religious leaders.

Throughout the year, unidentified individuals targeted and killed Shia Muslims, including ethnic Hazaras, and Ahmadi Muslims in attacks believed to be religiously motivated. There were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis following the Tahir Naseem killing in a Peshawar courtroom. An Ahmadi trader in Peshawar was shot near his business on August 12. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Ahmadi professor Naeemuddin Khattak was shot and killed while driving home from work. On November 9, also in Peshawar, unknown gunmen killed an 82-year-old retired government worker who was a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community while he was waiting for a bus. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear. 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; and of societal harassment, discrimination, and threats of violence directed at members of religious minority communities. Sunni groups held three large rallies in Karachi in September, with speakers warning Shia Muslims of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions. NGOs expressed concern about what they stated was the increasing frequency of attempts to kidnap, forcibly convert, and forcibly marry young women from religious minority communities, especially young Hindu and Christian women. There continued to be reports of attacks on holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols of Hindu, Christian, and Ahmadiyya minorities. According to Ahmadi Muslim civil society organizations, the government failed to restrict advertisements or speeches inciting anti-Ahmadi violence, as provided for in the National Action Plan. Civil society groups continued to express concerns about the safety of religious minorities.

Senior Department of State officials, including the Office of International Religious Freedom’s Special Advisor for Religious Minorities, the Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, and other embassy officers met with government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect. Embassy officers continued to engage civil society leaders, local religious leaders, religious minority representatives, and legal experts in discussing ways to combat intolerance and promote interfaith cooperation to increase religious freedom. Visiting U.S. government officials met with religious minority community representatives, parliamentarians, human rights activists, and members of the federal cabinet to highlight concerns regarding the treatment of religious minority communities, the application of blasphemy laws, and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion. The embassy highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on its social media platforms throughout the year. U.S. government cultural centers in Khairpur, Hyderabad, and Karachi held events to promote religious freedom. Following the killing of Tahir Naseem, the Department of State issued a statement expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to reform its blasphemy laws and court system and to ensure that the suspect in Naseem’s killing be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad in November, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom posted an official tweet calling upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.

On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated 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 234.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the provisional results of a national census conducted in 2017 (the most recent), 96 percent of the population is Sunni or Shia Muslim. According to government figures, the remaining 4 percent includes Ahmadi Muslims (whom national law does not recognize as Muslim); Hindus; Christians, including Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Protestants, among others; Parsis/Zoroastrians; Baha’is; Sikhs; Buddhists; Kalash; and Kihals and Jains.

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 Muslims, including Hazara, Ismaili, and Bohra (a branch of Ismaili), are generally believed to make up 15-20 percent. Unofficial estimates vary widely with regard to the size of minority religious groups. Religious community representatives estimate religious groups not identifying as Sunni, Shia, or Ahmadi Muslim constitute 3 to 5 percent of the population.

According to the 2017 census results, the population is 1.6 percent Hindu, 1.6 percent Christian, 0.2 percent Ahmadi Muslim, and 0.3 percent others, to include Baha’is, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians. Taking into account the Ahmadi boycott of the official census, however, community sources put the number of Ahmadi Muslims at approximately 500,000 to 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 and their political influence, because minority seats in the national and provincial parliaments are allocated based on census figures.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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.” 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 Mohammed,” life imprisonment for “defiling, damaging, or desecrating the Quran,” and up to 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 for possible removal or to the Federal Investigative Agency for possible criminal prosecution.

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 Mohammed… 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 Mohammed.” It also states that “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 “posing as Muslims,” using Islamic terms, carrying out Islamic customs, 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, the amount of which is at the discretion of the sentencing judge.

The penal code does not explicitly criminalize apostasy, but renouncing Islam is widely considered by clerics to be a form of blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty.

The government may use the antiterrorism courts, established as a parallel legal structure under the 1997 Antiterrorism Act, 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 mandatory, automatic 2.5 percent zakat (tax) from Sunni Muslims who hold savings accounts in banks. It distributes the funds through a government-run charity as stipends for poor families and students, payment for medical treatment, and support to Sunni mosques and madrassahs registered with the government. Sunni Muslims who want to distribute zakat themselves may request an exemption, and Shia Muslims are exempted by filling out a declaration of faith form.

The constitution mandates that 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 that 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 that 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 the country: Barelvi, Deobandi, Shia, Ahle Hadith, and the Jamaat-i-Islami, which is considered ultraconservative. The wafaqs operate through an umbrella group, Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris Pakistan, to represent their interests to the government. The government requires all madrassahs to register with the Ministry of Education in addition to registration with one of the five wafaqs.

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. Some personal laws regulating marriage, divorce, and inheritance for minority communities date from prepartition 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 grants the FSC “revisional jurisdiction” (the power to review of its own accord) over criminal cases in the lower courts 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’s review power 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 that affect them or violate their rights. By law, decisions of the FSC may be appealed to the Supreme Court’s Shariat Appellate Bench. A full bench of the Supreme Court may grant a further appeal.

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 province-level Sindh Hindu Marriage Act and the national-level Hindu Marriage Act (applying to federal territory and all other provinces) codify legal mechanisms to formally register and prove the legitimacy of Hindu marriages. In addition to addressing a legal gap by providing documentation needed for identity registration, divorce, and inheritance, the Hindu Marriage Acts allow marriages to be voided when consent “was obtained by force, coercion, or by fraud.” The acts allow for the termination of the marriage upon the conversion of one party to a religion other than Hinduism. The Sindh provincial government has legislation allowing couples to seek divorce and granting Hindu women the right to remarry six months after a divorce or a spouse’s death. The Sindh Hindu Marriage Act also applies to Sikh marriages. The Punjab Sikh Anand Karaj Marriage Act allows local government officials in that province to register marriages between a Sikh man and Sikh woman solemnized by a Sikh Anand Karaj marriage registrar.

Some court judgments have considered 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.

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 abuses. 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. A constitutional amendment devolves responsibility for 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 (primarily Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Kalash, and Parsis but excluding Shia and Ahmadi Muslims) at the federal and provincial levels of government.

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, although 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 Mohammed 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 National Database and Registration Authority (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 Mohammed 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 elected Muslim officials to swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam. This requirement effectively prohibits Ahmadi Muslims from holding elected office, as they recognize a prophet subsequent to Mohammed.

The constitution reserves seats for non-Muslim members in both the national and provincial assemblies. The 342-member National Assembly has 10 reserved seats for non-Muslims. The 104-member Senate has four reserved seats for non-Muslims, 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 Order, 1984 (Law of Evidence),” under which the in-court testimony of men in certain civil matters pertaining to contracts and financial obligations 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.

Government Practices

Instances of torture and mistreatment by some police personnel were part of broader human rights concerns about police abuses against citizens of all faiths reported by local and international human rights organizations; some police agencies took steps to curb abuses by incorporating human rights curricula in training programs.

On January 29, an antiterrorism court in Lahore acquitted and ordered the release of 42 individuals accused of participating in the 2015 lynching of two Muslim men in Lahore. The killings took place during protests sparked by twin suicide bombings outside two churches there. The victims, burned to death by an angry mob, were Babar Noman and Hafiz Naeem.

According to civil society reports, there were many individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and at least 35 under sentences of death, compared with 82 individuals imprisoned on blasphemy charges and 29 under sentences of death in 2019. The government has never executed anyone specifically for blasphemy. According to data provided by the Center for Social Justice (CSJ), authorities accused at least 199 individuals of new blasphemy offenses during the year. Leaders in other NGOs agreed the actual number of blasphemy cases was likely higher, but uneven reporting and lack of media coverage in many areas made it difficult to identify an exact number. According to the CSJ, 2020 saw the highest number of blasphemy cases in a single year in the country’s history. Other NGOs also said that 2020 had seen an increase in blasphemy cases. Shia and Ahmadi Muslims were the most often accused, accounting respectively for 70 and 20 percent of all cases. Sunni Muslims made up 5 percent of all accused blasphemers, followed by Christians at 3.5 percent, and Hindus at 1 percent.

Courts issued two new death sentences for blasphemy and sentenced another individual to five years’ imprisonment. Other blasphemy cases continued without resolution. At least one individual was accused of spreading blasphemous content through social media under PECA. Civil society groups continued to state that the blasphemy laws disproportionately affected members of religious minority communities. Persons accused of blasphemy were often simultaneously charged with terrorism offenses.

According to NGOs and media reports, individuals convicted and sentenced to death in well-publicized blasphemy cases dating as far back as 2014 – including Nadeem James; Taimoor Raza; Junaid Hafeez; Mubasher, Ghulam, and Ehsan Ahmed; Shafqat Emmanuel; and Shagufta Kausar – remained in prison and continued to await action on their appeals. In all these cases, judges repeatedly delayed hearings, adjourned hearings without hearing arguments, or sent appeals to other judicial benches. Civil society and legal sources said judges were generally hesitant to decide blasphemy cases due to fear of violent retribution.

Human rights groups reported an increase in blasphemy cases and allegations against members of the Shia Muslim community. On September 5, the HRCP expressed concern over the surge in blasphemy cases against religious minorities, particularly the Shia community, and the potential for sectarian violence. The HRCP reported that more than 40 such cases were registered under the blasphemy laws in August alone.

On January 30, police arrested two Shia men in Tando Mohammed Khan, southern Sindh, and charged them with blasphemy. According to police, the content they posted on Facebook insulted the companions of Mohammed, which, they said, infuriated Sunni Muslims.

On April 14, police filed a blasphemy case against Shia singer Zamin Ali in Jamshoro, Sindh. The case was based on the complaint of a local shopkeeper who claimed Zamin Ali’s Facebook page contained a blasphemous song that hurt the religious sentiments of Sunni Muslims. By year’s end, police had dropped the case due to lack of evidence and pressure from activists.

On August 30, police charged Shia cleric Taqqi Jaffar with blasphemy for criticizing Mohammed’s companions during a Karachi Muharram procession. Jaffar made his remarks in Arabic, which were then aired on a popular Karachi news station, 24 News HD. Following complaints by some Sunni groups, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority temporarily suspended 24 News from broadcasting, citing Jaffar’s comments as “hate-inciting content.”

The blasphemy charges against Jaffar were followed by anti-Shia rallies throughout the country and at least three rallies in Karachi by Sunni groups on September 11 and 13 attended by thousands of individuals. Speakers at these rallies warned Shia of dire consequences, including beheadings, if they continued to blaspheme against the Prophet Mohammed’s companions.

On June 10, police arrested Sajid Soomro, a professor at Shah Abdul Latif University, in Khairpur, Sindh, on blasphemy charges. According to eyewitnesses, police officials in at least four police vans cordoned off the area and arrested Soomro, who initially resisted. Subsequently, Arfana Mallah, a professor at Sindh University Jamshoro who criticized Soomro’s arrest and the blasphemy laws, was herself accused of committing blasphemy and had to apologize publicly. Soomro was free on bail at year’s end, but the case was still pending in court.

NGOs, legal observers and religious minority representatives continued to raise concerns regarding the failure of lower courts to adhere to basic evidentiary standards in blasphemy cases, and the slow pace of adjudicating these cases, which led to some suspects remaining in detention for years as they waited their initial trial or appeals, and to some convicted persons spending years in prison before higher courts overturned their convictions and freed them for lack of evidence. According to legal advocacy groups, some lower courts continued to conduct proceedings in an intimidating atmosphere, with members of antiblasphemy groups, such as the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), often threatening the defendants’ attorneys, family members, and supporters. At other times, advocacy groups reported that blasphemy trials were held inside jails for security reasons, in which case the hearings were not public, resulting in a gain in immediate security but a loss of transparency. These observers said the general refusal of lower courts to hold timely hearings or acquit those accused persisted due to fear of reprisal and vigilantism. Legal observers also reported judges and magistrates often delayed or continued trials indefinitely to avoid confrontation with, or violence from, groups provoking protests.

While the law requires a senior police official to investigate any blasphemy charge before a complaint may be filed, a requirement that NGOs and legal observers stated helped contribute to an objective investigation and the dismissal of many blasphemy cases, some NGOs said police did not uniformly follow this procedure. There were some cases in which police received custody of the accused from a court for 14 days for a senior officer to carry out an investigation. At the same time, NGOs reported that sometimes lower-ranking police would file charges of blasphemy, rather than a senior police superintendent who had more authority to dismiss baseless claims, or that police would not carry out a thorough investigation. NGOs and legal observers also stated police often did not file charges against individuals who made false blasphemy accusations.

During the year, courts overturned some blasphemy convictions upon appeal and acquitted others after the accused had spent years in prison. On October 6, the Lahore High Court acquitted Sawan Masih, a Christian man sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2014, but Masih continued to face death threats and had to go into hiding with his family. His was the first acquittal for blasphemy since October 2018, when Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death in 2010, was acquitted. On December 15, the Lahore High Court acquitted a second Christian man, Imran Ghafur Masih, who had been sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010. Courts also penalized antiblasphemy groups. In January, an antiterrorism court sentenced 86 members of the TLP to 55-year prison terms each for taking part in violent protests following Bibi’s acquittal.

Police intervened on multiple occasions to quell mob violence directed at individuals accused of blasphemy. On September 10, police saved a Hindu trader from a mob that accused him of committing blasphemy and called for his death in Kashmore, Sindh. Several hundred protesters led by religious leaders took to the streets and chanted slogans against the alleged blasphemer. Police took him into protective custody and transferred him to a senior police officer’s office as the mob blocked the Indus Highway and demanded police hand over the alleged blasphemer. Also in September, according to law enforcement reports, Peshawar police rescued an Ahmadi family after a large mob gathered outside their home, accusing the family of preaching Ahmadi beliefs.

There were reported cases of government intervention and assistance from courts and law enforcement in situations of attempted kidnapping and forced conversion, although enforcement action against alleged perpetrators was rare. In January, after going missing, a 15-year-old Hindu girl appeared in a video with Ali Raza, a Muslim man, in which the two claimed they had willingly married and she had converted to Islam. Her family said she had been kidnapped and forcibly converted. In court proceedings, the girl retracted her video statement and said she wanted to return to her parents. In February, a court in Jacobabad, Sindh, ruled that the marriage with Raza was illegal under the 2013 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act. On July 9, the Sindh High Court ordered that the girl could return to her Hindu parents. According to local sources, the high-profile case led to communal tensions in Jacobabad, the couple’s home district, and clerics from the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazal party publicly accused the girl of apostasy and called for her death. The girl remained in a government shelter for several months before returning to her parents.

On November 23, the Sindh High Court dissolved the marriage of an underage Christian girl to a 44-year-old Muslim man. According to her parents, the girl had been abducted and raped after being forcibly converted to Islam in Karachi. The Sindh High Court on October 27 originally upheld the validity of the marriage, citing the marriage certificate that indicated the girl was 18 years old, and ruling that she had converted to Islam and married of her own free will. Following petitions, the court reversed its decision and declared the marriage illegal under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act and ordered the girl placed in a shelter after she refused to return to her parents. The court also barred her alleged husband and his family from meeting her and ordered police to arrest those who facilitated the marriage.

The Ministry of Interior maintained multitier schedules of religiously oriented groups it judged to be extremist or terrorist 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). On August 23, the Sindh provincial government barred 142 “firebrand” speakers and religious scholars from leaving their home districts for 60 days to avoid violent disturbances during Shia Muharram commemorations. These 142 individuals included both Shia and Sunni clerics who in the past had given controversial statements leading to sectarian tensions.

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 Mohammed.

Community leaders continued to report that 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 Mohammed 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.

In 2018 the Islamabad High Court issued a judgment requiring citizens to declare an affidavit of faith to join the armed forces, 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 the 2018 judgment by year’s end, but Ahmadiyya community representatives said that NADRA required Ahmadis to declare in an affidavit that they are non-Muslims to obtain a national identification card, another requirement of the high court judgment.

According to Ahmadiyya leaders, the government effectively disenfranchised their community by requiring voters to swear an oath affirming the “finality of the Prophethood of Mohammed,” something that they stated was 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 practice of boycotting elections.

Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives continued to state that Ahmadi families were unable to register their marriages with local administrative bodies, known as union councils, since those councils considered Ahmadis to be outside the authority of the Muslim Family Law of 1961.

Some community representatives said Christians continued to face difficulties in registering marriages with Islamabad union councils because the councils claimed they had no authority to deal with unions recorded by Christian marriage registrars (usually church authorities). Parliament, church leaders, and advocates continued to debate the text of a draft law to govern Christian marriages nationwide, because the existing regulation dated from 1872. Members of parliament and officials of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Law and Justice held consultations with church leaders from prominent Christian denominations and with NGO representatives, but the denominations, church leaders, and NGO representatives had not agreed on elements of the draft law pertaining to divorce and interfaith marriage by year’s end. NGOs lobbying for amendments to permit divorce in a wider range of circumstances praised the Ministry of Human Rights’ efforts to consult with stakeholders and the ministry’s overall efforts to accelerate progress on the bill.

Although the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act covers registration of Sikh marriages in that province, members of the Sikh community reportedly continued to seek a separate Sikh law so as not to be considered as Hindus for the purposes of the law. The Sindh provincial cabinet adopted regulations to implement the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act in December 2019, which provided more specific rules for implementation. In 2020, the provincial government began to implement the act, and NADRA began registering Hindu marriages in Sindh, according to Hindu community activists.

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 in Haifa, Israel. Christian advocates also called on the government to allow them to travel to Israel.

According to media reports and law enforcement sources, 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 again restricted the movement and activities of dozens of clerics on the Ministry of Interior’s Schedule 4 listing. 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.

Some religious minority leaders stated 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. Others said parliamentarians occupying reserved seats had little influence in their parties and in the National Assembly because they did not have a voting constituency.

The requirement that Muslim elected officials swear an oath affirming their belief that Mohammed is the final prophet of Islam continued to discourage Ahmadi Muslims from seeking public office. To seek office, Ahmadis would be forced to do so because by law they are considered non-Muslims, even though they self-identify 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, the Ministry of Interior could grant visas to foreign missionaries invited by organizations registered in the country. The visas were valid for one year and allowed one reentry into the country per year, although it was understood by missionary sources that only “replacement” visas for those taking the place of departing missionaries were available for long-term missionaries seeking to enter the country for the first time. The website further stated extensions could be granted for two years with two reentries per year, excluding from India.

The government continued its warnings against blasphemy and other illegal content on social media through periodic print advertisements and text messages sent by the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA). The text messages stated, “Sharing of blasphemy, pornography, terrorism, and other unlawful content on social media and the internet is illegal. Users are advised to report such content on content-complaint@pta.gov.pk for action under PECA 16 (the 2016 PECA act).”

In a January press release, PTA stated it was “proactively playing its role in blocking/removal of unlawful content, with social media platforms being approached in this regard,” and it encouraged the public “to report such content directly to PTA and avoid sharing it on social media platforms and other websites.”

In February, the National Assembly introduced a draft law requiring internet and technology companies to open offices in Islamabad, locate their servers within the country, and remove “objectionable” internet content within a specified timeframe. According to technology companies and religious minority activists, the definition of objectionable content in the draft law was vague and subject to government interpretation.

On October 9, the PTA blocked the video-sharing social media application TikTok, based on what it called “immoral and indecent” content. Reactions to the PTA’s measure was mixed, with many social media users praising the decision to ban TikTok, but others concerned that the government could use this to target religious minorities. On October 19, the PTA lifted the block after the government received reassurances from the company that it would more closely regulate content, but NGOs and activists expressed concern that the government could use this authority to target religious minorities.

In November, the government finalized its Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content Rules 2020, which sought to codify the PTA’s authority to regulate content the government deemed “unlawful.” The rules not only enhanced the PTA’s ability to compel online content platforms such as Facebook, Google’s YouTube, Twitter, and Wikipedia to remove content but also extended the regulator’s purview to include local internet service providers that could also be held liable for such content. In late December, the PTA publicly used this new authority for the first time to demand the removal of “sacrilegious” content. The PTA cited public complaints against an “unauthentic version” of the Quran uploaded by the Ahmadiyya community on the Google Play Store and information that portrayed Mirza Masroor Ahmad as a Muslim on Wikipedia, which the PTA characterized as “misleading, wrong, deceptive, and deceitful.” The PTA successfully removed the same Quran application from the Apple Store in July. On December 24, the PTA issued a legal notice to two Ahmadi U.S. citizens requiring them to remove their website, trueislam.com, or face fines, sanctions, or potential prison sentences.

According to representatives of some minority religious groups, the government continued to allow most organized religious groups to establish places of worship and train members of the clergy. Similar to the previous year, some Sikh and Hindu places of worship reopened during the year. The Katas Raj Hindu temple was reopened for Hindus after renovation in the Chakwal district of Punjab. An additional six Sikh gurdwaras and seven Hindu temples were also reopened after renovation in Punjab.

In July, religious and right-wing parties criticized the government’s plan to permit construction of a new Hindu temple in Islamabad. Prime Minister Imran Khan gave verbal approval to build the temple following a request from the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Hindu and Christian members of the National Assembly. Then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government had granted the land to build the temple in 2016. Islamist political parties and Punjab Provincial Assembly speaker Chaudhry Elahi (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – PTI – party) criticized the decision before written approval was issued, however, declaring new temples should never be built in an Islamic country. Opponents filed a petition to stop construction with the Islamabad High Court on June 29, and vandals destroyed the land’s boundary wall on July 5. On October 28, the Council on Islamic Ideology gave its approval for construction, ruling that Islamic law allows Hindus a place of worship, but noting there is no tradition for the government to provide funds for places of worships owned by private parties. The government announced it would seek a review from the Council on Islamic Ideology and at the end of the year it was unclear whether it still maintained its support for the temple.

On July 21, the government returned a 200-year-old Sikh gurdwara to the Sikh community in Quetta. The gurdwara had been used as a government-run girls’ school since 1947. Danesh Kumar, the adviser on minority affairs to the Balochistan Chief Minister, said the government had decided to hand over sacred sites of religious minorities in Balochistan to promote interfaith harmony.

On February 7, the district administration returned a century-old Hindu temple to the Hindu community in Zhob, Balochistan. The temple had also been part of a government-run school. Hindu community representatives welcomed the decision to return the temple to the community after 70 years.

Although there continued to be no official restriction on the construction of Ahmadiyya places of worship, according to Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders, local authorities regularly denied requisite construction permits, and Ahmadis remained forbidden to call them mosques.

Authorities provided enhanced security for Shia Muslim, Christian, and Hindu places of worship at various times throughout the year, including around particular religious holidays or in response to specific threats. In August and September, increased security was provided throughout the country for the Shia community’s Muharram processions. In Islamabad, the deputy inspector general of police said as many as 15,000 police, Rangers, and Frontier Corps personnel were involved. In Peshawar, security was increased around churches ahead of Christmas after security forces arrested four militants on December 17 who were allegedly planning an attack on Christmas Day, which is also celebrated as Quaid-i-Azam Day, the birthday of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. Ahead of Christmas in Lahore, police deployed some 6,000 officers and officials at 623 churches. Police also deployed snipers and used closed-circuit television cameras and metal detectors to ensure the security of churches and Christmas markets. In Sindh, police provided enhanced security at churches and Hindu temples, especially in Karachi, on eves of festivals such as Christmas and Diwali.

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 continued to assume primary responsibility for the protection of the rights of religious minorities. The NCHR was also mandated to conduct investigations of allegations of human rights abuses, but legal sources said the commission had little power to enforce its requests. Since 2019, the NCHR has been without a mandate for a second four-year term and lacked newly appointed commissioners, making it effectively nonfunctional throughout the year.

Members of religious minority communities said there continued to be an inconsistent application of laws safeguarding minority rights and enforcement of protections of religious minorities at both the federal and provincial levels by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Human Rights. Religious minority community members also stated the government was inconsistent in safeguarding against societal discrimination and neglect, and that official discrimination against Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Ahmadi Muslims persisted to varying degrees, with Ahmadi Muslims experiencing the worst treatment.

In May, the Cabinet approved a Religious Affairs Ministry proposal establishing a National Commission for Minorities housed within the ministry. The proposal named a prominent Hindu business owner and ruling PTI party leader as the commission’s chair, along with other Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Parsi, and Kalash members. The commission also included two Sunni Muslim clerics and senior civil servants from the Ministries of Interior, Law and Justice, Human Rights, Federal Education and Professional Training, Religious Affairs, and the Council of Islamic Ideology.

The plan followed a 2014 Supreme Court decision that ordered the government to take steps to ensure the rights of minorities and promote a culture of religious and social tolerance, but religious freedom activists and civil society groups said the proposal was “toothless” and raised concerns regarding the Religious Affairs Ministry’s lack of public consultation, the limited powers of the proposed body, and the ultimate decision to exclude Ahmadis. Information Minister Shibli Faraz’s announcement that the Cabinet had decided against including an Ahmadi Muslim representative on the new commission contributed to a wave of hate speech against Ahmadis, according to community representatives. The Religious Affairs Ministry later issued a statement saying Ahmadis would not be included on the commission, “given the religious and historical sensitivity” of including Ahmadis in government institutions. Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they had never been approached about participating in the commission and would never join a body that required them to identify as non-Muslims.

The Punjab Provincial Assembly also unanimously passed a resolution in May insisting that the federal National Commission on Minorities not include a representative from the Ahmadi community until community leaders submitted in writing that they accepted their status as non-Muslims under the constitution. The resolution stated, “This House demands that if the chief of Qadianis [a derogatory term for Ahmadis] submits in writing declaring that they accept the Constitution of Pakistan and accept their status as non-Muslims, then we will have no objection to their inclusion into the Commission.”

Speaker of the Punjab Provincial Assembly and Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) party leader Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi made numerous statements denouncing Ahmadis and any effort to undermine the status of Mohammed as Islam’s final prophet. The Punjab provincial government adopted three anti-Ahmadi measures: in May, a resolution that Ahmadis not be permitted to join the federal government’s National Commission for Minorities unless they “acknowledge” they are not Muslims; in June, a new curriculum law that requires school textbooks to state the finality of the Prophet Mohammed; and in July, the “Protection of the Foundations of Islam” bill giving the provincial government authority to censor objectionable materials and inspect any publishing house or private home for banned Ahmadi literature.

Lawmakers from the National Assembly, the Sindh Provincial Assembly, and the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly also adopted resolutions requiring the title “last of the prophets” to be used when referring to Mohammed. Video footage from a National Assembly session in July showed opposition lawmakers immediately criticizing Prime Minister Khan when he failed to use the phrase after speaking the name of the Prophet Mohammed in an address to parliament.

In April, police arrested Ramzan Bibi, an Ahmadi Muslim woman, after a neighbor accused her of blasphemy against Mohammed – a crime that carries the death penalty – in an argument over Bibi’s charitable donation to a non-Ahmadi mosque. Bibi remained in custody at year’s end.

In May, the Federal Investigative Agency raided the Lahore home of Ahmadi missionary and youth worker Rohan Ahmad, arresting him on charges of cybercrime, blasphemy against the Quran, and propagating the Ahmadi faith through a WhatsApp group in September 2019. At year’s end, he was still being held at Camp Jail, Lahore, and had not been charged

In July, the Lahore High Court Bar Association (LHCBA) demanded that the federal interior ministry prevent the Ahmadi community from sacrificing animals on Eid al-Adha. In a letter written to the Interior Minister, the LHCBA quoted the section of the constitution stating that Ahmadis are non-Muslim.

In August, a case was opened against three Ahmadi men after an official of a religious seminary approached police complaining that the men sacrificed an animal on Eid al-Adha. The complainant said the three men “hurt the belief of Muslims” by engaging in Islamic rituals as non-Muslims. No arrests were made, and no one was charged.

In October, Punjab police arrested three Ahmadis for using Islamic symbols and practices in their mosque. The charges carry up to three years’ imprisonment and a fine. A complainant filed a criminal charge against them on May 3, triggering the police investigation. As of year’s end, the case was awaiting prosecution.

Government officials and politicians attended and spoke at multiple Khatm-e-Nabuwat (Finality of Prophethood) conferences held in major cities and at religious sites around the country. These conferences were organized by groups that stated they were defending the teaching that Mohammed is the final prophet but were often characterized by both secular and Ahmadi critics as engaging in hate speech against Ahmadi Muslims.

On September 7, the JUI-F party held a large Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in Peshawar, with party leaders and national and provincial parliamentarians in attendance. At the conference, JUI-F national leader Fazl ur Rehman praised the lawyers who were defending the teenager accused of killing U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem, a self-proclaimed Ahmadi, in Peshawar and blamed Western nations for supporting Ahmadi Muslims. That same day, a Punjab Provincial Assembly lawmaker from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Mohammed Ilyas Chinyoti, participated in an international Khatm-e-Nabuwat conference in the Chanab Nagar area of Punjab near the Ahmadiyya Muslim community’s headquarters. Speakers at that conference repeatedly used anti-Ahmadi rhetoric.

The Ministry of Human Rights and the Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training held consultations with minority faith representatives during the year in a review of textbooks for derogatory material.

In June, the Punjab Provincial Assembly unanimously passed the Curriculum and Text Book Board Amendment Bill, which Governor Chaudhary Muhammad Sarwar signed into law. The law requires clearance from the Muttahida Ulema Board, a Punjab-based advisory council of religious scholars from multiple Muslim schools of thought, to publish content on Islam in school textbooks, which Assembly Speaker Elahi said was necessary to “stop the publishing of blasphemous material” against Mohammed and his companions. Civil society representatives said the bill targets Ahmadis, who do not have representation on the ulema board and who are barred by the constitution and the penal code from identifying as Muslims. Some politicians acknowledged privately the bill was intended to ensure textbooks identify Mohammed as the final prophet, thereby excluding Ahmadis from the definition of Islam taught in public schools.

On July 22, the Punjab Provincial Assembly passed the Protection of Foundation of Islam Bill, which prohibits the printing and publication of objectionable material in the province. Governor Sarwar did not sign the bill, which was promoted by the PML-Q party, noting controversy about its provisions and concerns that it could be seen as anti-Shia. According to a Punjab government official, Sarwar had no intention of signing the bill until there was a consensus that it would not harm religious minorities. Other government officials, including Prime Minister Khan, advised Sarwar against signing the bill, according to a Lahore-based journalist. Among the restrictions outlined in the bill, publishers, editors, and translators would be barred from printing or publishing any book and material containing statements or anything deemed to be of a blasphemous nature. The bill would also require the words “last of the prophets” to be written after the name of Mohammed and specific honors for his companions revered in the Shia community (“may Allah be pleased with them,” rather than “peace be upon them”). Ahmadi community leaders said they saw the requirement to designate Mohammed as last of the prophets as directly targeting them. Shia leaders, meanwhile, denounced the specific honors prescribed by the bill to Mohammed’s companions, which they said risked stoking discord between Shia and Sunnis, given their fundamental disagreements over some of the companions’ status within Islam.

The law also would make “desecration” (including physical destruction of books or symbols, along with verbal, written, or online actions perceived to be insults) of any prophet, any of the four divine books (the Quran, Torah, Psalms of David, and Gospel of Jesus), any family and companions of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as abetting or glorifying terrorists, or promoting sectarianism in any book, punishable with a maximum of a five-year jail term and a substantial fine of up to 500,000 Pakistani rupees ($3,100). According to the bill, all publishers would be required to submit to the Directorate General Public Relations, the provincial government authority with jurisdiction over printing presses and publishing houses, four copies of every edition of each title they print. The directorate would be empowered to inspect printing presses, bookstores, and publishing houses and confiscate books before or after they are printed if they are judged to contain “objectionable” content.

While schools were required to teach Islamic studies and the Quran to Muslim students, sources reported many non-Muslim students were also required to participate because their schools did not offer parallel courses in their own religious beliefs or ethics. The government did not permit Ahmadis to teach Islamic studies in public schools. Members of religious minority communities 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.

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 were required to sign on their applications for admission to universities 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 if they did not claim to be Muslims.

There were continued reports that some madrassahs taught violent extremist doctrine, which the government sought to curb through madrassah registration and curriculum reform.

Members of religious minorities, particularly lower-caste Hindus, complained of forceful evictions from their homes and villages by individuals desiring their land with assistance from government officials. On July 13, hundreds of members of the Bheel community, including women and children, marched and demonstrated against the demolition of their homes by revenue officials whom they said were in collusion with an influential landlord of the area in Mithi, Sindh. The protesters said that when they opposed the illegal evictions of villagers, they were charged in “fake” cases by revenue officials. They complained that Dalits, who are considered to be the lowest in the traditional Hindu caste structure, were being targeted and subjected to violence and torture in Thar and other areas. For example, in March, media reported that a woman from Meghwar committed suicide after being repeatedly raped by a man of an upper-caste Hindu clan in Deeplo, Sindh. The woman’s family said she was pregnant at the time of her suicide and that police initially refused to file charges against the man because of his caste.

Most minority religious groups said they continued to face discrimination in government hiring. According to religious minority activists, provincial governments also often failed to meet quotas for hiring religious minorities into the civil service.

Minority rights activists said most government employment advertisements for janitorial staff continued to list being non-Muslim as a requirement. Minority rights activists criticized these advertisements as discriminatory and insulting. For example, the Lahore Waste Management Company continued to employ mainly Christian street sweepers, which HRCP criticized as the result of employment advertisements continuing to specify that religious minorities should apply. Citing a sanitation job advertisement issued by the Sindh provincial government, HRCP stated such advertisements infringed on human dignity and violated the constitutional guarantee of equality of all citizens. In May, the New York Times reported the issue, which was subsequently raised by international human rights NGOs.

Representatives of religious minorities said a “glass ceiling” continued to prevent their promotion to senior government positions, but one NGO also stated that due to insufficient higher education opportunities compared to the majority religious community, few religious minorities met the qualifications to apply for these positions. Although there were no official obstacles to the advancement of minority religious group members in the military, they said that in practice, non-Muslims rarely rose above the rank of colonel and were not assigned to senior positions.

Print and broadcast media outlets continued to publish and broadcast anti-Ahmadi rhetoric. In May, after the government announced that Ahmadis would be excluded from the National Commission for Minorities, Religious Affairs Minister Qadri said on a popular television show, “Anyone supporting Ahmadis is not a Muslim.” Ahmadiyya Muslim community representatives stated that the Urdu-language press frequently printed hate speech in news stories and editorials, some of which could be considered as inciting anti-Ahmadi violence. Inflammatory anti-Ahmadi rhetoric continued to exist on social media and was at times spread by senior members of mainstream political parties.

Following the killing of U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in July, JUI-F leader Mufti Kifayatullah celebrated the accused killer for his act of “justice.” Some political figures, including the ruling PTI Party’s Sindh provincial president Haleem Adil Sheikh, who is also a member of the Sindh Provincial Assembly, changed their social media profile pictures to that of Naseem’s killer.

On January 26, a local court sentenced four young boys, who had confessed to vandalizing a Hindu temple in Sindh’s Tharparkar district, to a juvenile center in Hyderabad. The incident was the first attack on a Hindu temple in Tharparkar in more than 30 years. Minority lawmakers and civil society activists reacted strongly to the attack, stating the boys had been instigated by local Muslim clerics.

Civil society members reported authorities took no action to prevent attacks on Ahmadi mosques or punish assailants who demolished, damaged, forcibly occupied, or set fire to Ahmadi mosques. Local authorities did not allow the repair or unsealing of Ahmadi mosques damaged or demolished by rioters in previous years. In February, a crowd occupied and vandalized a 100-year-old Ahmadi mosque in Punjab. In July, residents in the Sheikpura District of Punjab damaged Ahmadi gravestones.

Community leaders continued to state the government did not take adequate action to protect its poorest citizens, including religious minorities, such as Christian and Hindu Dalits, from bonded labor practices. In May, Daniel Masih appealed to the court in the Sargodha District of Punjab, urging authorities to rescue his brother Bashir and his family from bonded labor under a Muslim landlord. Hindu Dalits remained vulnerable to human rights violations and pressure by perpetrators to withdraw police cases. On September 30, media reported that a 17-year-old girl from a Hindu Dalit community committed suicide after having been gang-raped a year earlier by Muslim men and subsequently blackmailed by them in Tharparkar, Sindh. Three suspects were arrested for the rape but were released on bail, and the girl’s family said they harassed and pressured the girl to withdraw the case.

Actions of Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

According to civil society and media, armed sectarian groups connected to organizations banned by the government, including the LeJ, TTP, and the once-banned anti-Shia group SSP, continued to be responsible for violence and other abuses against religious minorities. Groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States and other governments, such as ISIS, also committed violent acts. Among the targets of these attacks were Shia Muslims, particularly the predominantly Shia Hazara community.

According to the SATP, the number of sectarian attacks by armed groups continued to decrease, corresponding with an overall decline in terrorist attacks. Data on sectarian attacks varied because no standardized definition existed of what constituted a sectarian attack among reporting organizations. According to the SATP, at least 10 persons were killed and three injured in 10 incidents of sectarian violence by extremist groups during the year. These attacks targeted gatherings of Shia individuals.

There were multiple reports of targeted killings of Shia Muslims in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, although because religion and ethnicity were often closely related, it was difficult to categorize some incidents as being solely based on religious identity. In September, unidentified gunmen killed two prominent members of the local Shia community in the Kohat District of that province. This was part of an increase in anti-Shia activity that month nationwide that included the shooting of a prominent Shia religious leader in Punjab’s Mandi Bahauddin District and the shooting of a Shia employee of the National Bank of Pakistan in Islamabad. On October 11, unidentified militants abducted six Shia pilgrims near the Pakistan-Iran border region of Panjgur, in Balochistan. The six, all from Karachi, were returning from a pilgrimage in Iran; they remained missing at year’s end.

According to the SATP and media reports, antiterrorism courts convicted and sentenced several individuals affiliated with terrorist organizations and involved in past sectarian attacks and targeted killings. On June 25, an antiterrorism court sentenced five al-Qa’ida militants to 16 years’ imprisonment each for terrorist financing and possession of explosives. The militants were also convicted for running an al-Qa’ida media cell in Gujranwala. On July 27, an antiterrorism court sentenced a member of SSP to 13 years’ imprisonment for facilitating terrorist activities.

The Hindu community in Sindh and Balochistan remained vulnerable to targeted killings and kidnappings for ransom. On July 19, members of the Hindu community staged a sit-in in Khuzdar, Balochistan, to protest the July 18 killing of local Hindu trader Nanak Ram by unidentified assailants in the Wadh area of Khuzdar District. On July 31, Hindu business owner and member of the Khairpur Chamber of Commerce and Industries Raja Kishan Chand was killed by unknown gunmen in that city. In a statement, the Pakistan Hindu Council condemned the killing as well as two other July incidents of violence towards Hindu citizens in the district.

According to the nonprofit Middle East Media Research Institute, the December edition of the Urdu language TTP magazine Journal of The Tehreek-E-Taliban Pakistan blamed “the Jews and their puppets” for the COVID-19 pandemic and for harassing Muslims during the pandemic. The author of the article wrote that COVID-19 had been hidden since the 1960s to be “used against Muslims.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Targeted killings of Shia and Ahmadi Muslims and violence and discrimination against Christians, Hindus, and Ahmadi Muslims continued to occur. Throughout the year, unidentified individuals assaulted and killed Shia and Ahmadis in attacks sources believed to be religiously motivated. The attackers’ relationship to organized terrorist groups was often unclear.

Shia Hazaras in Quetta, Balochistan, continued to express concern about targeted killings taking place for the last several years. Although the government continued to implement elevated security measures around Hazara neighborhoods in Quetta, some Hazara community members continued to state that these measures had turned their neighborhoods into isolated ghettos.

In July, a teenager killed U.S. citizen Tahir Naseem in a Peshawar courtroom, where Naseem was on trial for blasphemy. The young man and two coconspirators were indicted, taken into government custody, and were awaiting trial at year’s end. The 16-year-old suspect was being tried as a juvenile; the two coconspirators were a prayer leader and a young lawyer involved in the blasphemy complaint against Naseem. Many social media users celebrated Naseem’s killing. At least three top Twitter trends praised the killer and called him the “savior” and “pride” of Pakistan. Twitter and WhatsApp users circulated graphic images and video footage from the courtroom, depicting Naseem slumped over a chair and crowds of men ignoring the body and seeming to congratulate the killer.

Following Naseem’s death, there were a series of additional violent incidents targeting Ahmadis, and Ahmadiyya community members said they felt in more danger than ever before. Unknown assailants shot a Peshawar trader, also an Ahmadiyya community member, near his business on August 12. Police stated they believed he was targeted because of his religious beliefs. On October 5, also in Peshawar, Professor Naeemuddin Khattak, a member of the Ahmadiyya community, died after being shot while driving home from work. Khattak’s brother, who witnessed the killing, named two suspects in his criminal complaint, including a friend of Khattak – a lecturer from the University of Agriculture in Peshawar – with whom Khattak had had a heated religious argument on October 4. On November 9, also in Peshawar, an 82-year-old retired Ahmadi government worker was killed by unknown gunmen while waiting for a bus. Ahmadiyya community leaders said he was targeted due to his religious beliefs.

On November 20 in a rural area of Punjab, a teenage boy killed Ahmadi doctor Tahir Ahmad and seriously wounded three of his family members. On November 21, Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari posted a tweet calling for the government to protect all its citizens. Ahmadiyya community members said they were surprised by this instance of a senior government official condemning anti-Ahmadi violence, but added that they do not expect it to become the new norm. The special assistant to the Prime Minister for religious harmony, Tahir Ashrafi, said it was “the responsibility of the government and court to punish” the perpetrator in a televised interview.

In its 2020 World Watch List report, the international NGO Open Doors listed Pakistan, noting that Christians face “extreme persecution in every area of their lives, with converts from Islam facing the highest levels.” According to Open Doors, all Christians in the country “are considered second-class citizens, inferior to Muslims.” The NGO stated Christians are often given jobs “perceived as low, dirty and dishonorable, and can even be victims of bonded labor.” The NGO also said that Christian girls in the country were increasingly “at risk of abduction and rape, often forced to marry their attackers and coerced into converting to Islam.”

AsiaNews, the official press agency of the Roman Catholic Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reported that two members of a Christian family were shot and wounded after buying a house in a neighborhood inhabited primarily by Muslims on June 4 in the Sawati Phatak Colony of Peshawar. Police arrested several members of a neighboring Muslim family in connection with the incident. Salman Khan, the head of the Muslim family, remained at large. According to AsiaNews, once Khan learned the family was Christian, he ordered them to leave immediately, because “Christians are enemies of Islam.” After harassing the family for a few days, Khan gave them a 24-hour ultimatum to leave. When he and his sons returned to the house, they shot and wounded two of the Christian family members.

Civil society activists and media reported young Christian and Hindu women being abducted and raped by Muslim men. Victims said their attackers singled them out as vulnerable due to their religious minority identity. According to the NGOs Center for Legal Aid, Assistance, and Settlement (CLAAS) and the Pakistan Center for Law and Justice, there were also reports of religious minority women being physically attacked by men. On October 9, a Hindu teacher was attacked by a Muslim man with an axe on her way to her school in Mithi, Sindh. The teacher survived the attack and told media the man had been following and harassing her for days. Despite her filing a complaint, police did not open a case initially. The man was later arrested by police after the Sindh education secretary intervened in the case.

The HRCP said forced conversions of young women of minority faiths, often lower-caste Hindu girls from rural Sindh province, continued to occur. On October 13, according to local media reports, Reeta Kumari, a pregnant Dalit Hindu woman, told the Sindh High Court in Sukkur that she had been abducted by a Muslim man, Rafique Domki, in Islamkot. She said Domki had taken her to Balochistan two months earlier and held her there until police rescued her. She denied her abductor’s claim that she had willfully married him and converted to Islam, and instead asked the court to allow her to reunite with her Hindu husband and minor son. The court ordered police to hand over the woman to her Hindu husband and no police or court action was taken against Domki.

Christian activists also stated young women from their communities were vulnerable to forced conversions. On February 22, a Christian woman from Lahore fled to a shelter after a Muslim factory worker forced her to convert to Islam and marry him. The woman’s mother filed a police report against the abductor, who was subsequently arrested.

On July 22, Saeed Amanat, a Muslim man, abducted a 15-year-old Christian girl on her way to church in Faisalabad, Punjab. The girl’s family said they feared she had been forced to convert and marry a Muslim. On August 22, another teenage Christian escaped from the home of Mohamad Nakash, a Muslim who had kidnapped her in April and had been holding her since. On September 8, Mehwish Hidayat, a Christian woman, was reunited with her family after being abducted by a Muslim man and spending three months in captivity.

Also in September, a Karachi court issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Jabbar, a Muslim man who allegedly abducted, forcibly married, and converted a teenage Christian girl in Karachi in 2019. She was taken to Dera Ghazi Khan, in Punjab, to avoid Sindh provincial law, which bans marriage of girls younger than 18. At year’s end, she and her alleged husband had not appeared in court in Karachi, despite multiple court orders to do so.

International and local media, as well as Christian activists, reported that young Christian women, many of them minors, were specifically targeted by Chinese human traffickers because of their poverty and vulnerability. The traffickers told pastors and parents they would arrange marriages to Chinese men who had supposedly converted to Christianity, after which the women were taken to China, abused, and in some cases, sexually trafficked. Reports indicated parents and pastors were frequently paid by the traffickers for the women, and that some pastors were complicit in the trafficking.

Members of civil society reported that converts from Islam lived in varying degrees of secrecy for fear of violent retribution from family members or society at large.

Representatives of the Kalash, an indigenous group in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, continued to report their youth were under pressure from Muslim schoolteachers and others to convert from their traditional beliefs.

Throughout the year, Islamic organizations with varying degrees of political affiliation held conferences and rallies to support the doctrine of Khatm-e-Nabuwat. The events were often covered by English and local-language media and featured anti-Ahmadiyya rhetoric which Ahmadiyya community representatives said could incite violence against Ahmadis. In addition to the large JUI-F conference and rallies, the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami also held a large event in September in Peshawar; both parties criticized the PTI-led national government for failing to enforce Islamic law. The TLP and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a banned organization under the National Counterterrorism Authority’s Schedule-I list, also held smaller rallies. The rallies occurred days after a unanimous resolution by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Provincial Assembly condemning anti-Islam statements and the republication in France of the Charlie Hebdo cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed.

In September, several religious groups from the Deobandi and Barelvi schools of Sunni Islam organized a series of rallies in Karachi to denounce Shia “defamation” of revered Sunni religious figures. The rallies came after police charged Shia cleric Taqi Jaffar with blasphemy on August 30 for criticizing two companions of Mohammed during a Karachi Muharram procession.

Ahmadis continued to report widespread societal harassment and discrimination against community members, including physical attacks, destruction of homes and personal property, and threats intended to force Ahmadis to abandon their jobs or towns. On August 12, armed gunmen attacked the house of Ahmadi Muslim Syed Naeem Ahmad Bashir in the Sahiwal District of Punjab, firing into the courtyard at night, where they reportedly expected the family to be sleeping. The family was in another location, however, and survived. On August 20, attackers attempted to kill Sheikh Nasir Ahmad, an Ahmadi man from the Lalamusa area of central Punjab.

In October, members of a State Youth Parliament team in Gujranwala defaced a public portrait of the country’s first Nobel laureate, physicist Dr. Abdus Salam, an Ahmadi. The group also painted slogans insulting the Ahmadiyya community. On October 22, a private business school, the Institute of Business Administration in Karachi, cancelled an online seminar that was to feature U.S.-based Ahmadi economist Dr Atif Mian, citing pressure by “extremists.”

Christian religious freedom activists continued to report widespread discrimination against Christians in private employment. They said Christians had difficulty finding jobs other than those involving menial labor, with some advertisements for menial jobs specifying they were open only to Christian applicants. In January, two Christians, Kamran Sandhu and Nauman Aslam, applied for seats reserved for minorities in the Gujranwala Electric Power Company (GEPCO) in Punjab. Both passed the recruitment test and had successful interviews but were denied appointment by the assistant manager. CLAAS helped both file an antidiscrimination petition in the Lahore High Court. The court ordered the chief executive officer of GEPCO to hire the two Christians, but he did not do so. The CLAAS legal team filed a contempt of court application, but the Lahore High Court dismissed the plea. At the end of the year, CLAAS was planning to take the case to the Federal Ombudsman.

Observers reported that English-language media continued to cover issues facing religious minorities in an objective manner, but Urdu-language media continued to show bias in reporting on minority religious groups, including multiple instances in which media censored references to Ahmadis on talk shows, used inflammatory language, or made inappropriate references to minorities. In a September editorial, the largest Urdu daily, Nawa-i-Waqt, described the 1974 legislation declaring Ahmadis officially non-Muslim as a historic day in the country’s history. The high circulation daily Jang also published a lengthy editorial on the struggle to declare Ahmadis as non-Muslims in a special magazine edition.

Human rights and religious freedom activists and members of minority religious groups continued to report that they exercised caution and, occasionally, self-censorship when speaking in favor of religious tolerance because of a societal climate of intolerance and fear. Some activists reported receiving death threats because of their work.

Hindu activists in Sindh reported discrimination against the Hindu community during COVID-19 food-relief efforts by private charities. In April, some members of the Hindu community in Karachi’s Lyari area were denied food packages provided by a local charity, according to local sources.

Reports continued of attacks on religious minorities’ holy places, cemeteries, and religious symbols. In July, police arrested four men for destroying a 1,700-year-old Gandharan civilization statue of Buddha in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa after a video showing one of the men hammering the statue went viral on social media. The four men were charged with defacing antiquities. On October 25, a Hindu temple was vandalized in Nagarparkar, Sindh, during the nine-day Navratri celebrations. Several statues were destroyed. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah Imran Ismail issued a statement condemning the attacks.

On October 20, HRCP reported that an Ismaili Muslim mosque in Ghizer was attacked by unknown assailants, who opened fire on the building. No casualties were reported.

On December 30, a mob estimated at 1,000 people incited by a cleric attacked an historic Hindu temple site in Karak District, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, destroying the shrine of Hindu saint Shri Paramhans Jee Maharaj and an adjacent building under construction. Police arrested more than 45 JUI-F followers and clerics involved in the destruction. Government officials condemned the incident, suspended more than 100 police officials for failure to stop the mob, and ordered the temple rebuilt.

On October 7, Dr. Qibla Ayaz, then chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology, inaugurated a national code of conduct to promote interreligious harmony in the face of increased sectarian violence and mistreatment of religious minorities. Islamic and minority religious leaders endorsed the code. Ayaz also spoke at a seminar on interfaith harmony at the cultural center at the National Library of Pakistan in Islamabad.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, consuls general, other embassy officers, and visiting senior U.S. officials engaged government officials and senior advisors to the Prime Minister, including the Minister for Human Rights, and officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Federal Education and Professional Training, and Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony to discuss blasphemy law reform; laws concerning Ahmadi Muslims; the need to better protect members of religious minority communities; sectarian relations; and religious respect.

During his February visit to Karachi, the Department of State Special Adviser for Religious Minorities told students and faculty at Karachi University’s Department of Islamic Studies, “An inclusive society creates more space for trade and prosperity.” The audience applauded his comments about the protection of religious freedom for Muslims in the United States. Following the address, the Special Adviser convened an interfaith roundtable discussion at Karachi University, which included Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Sikhs, and Parsis. The event received positive coverage in local media. The Special Adviser went on to meet with federal and provincial government officials and civil society leaders in Islamabad and Lahore.

Three U.S. government cultural centers in Sindh Province and Islamabad held events to promote religious freedom. On January 21, the center in Khairpur hosted a Religious Freedom Day event at which 25 students discussed the importance of being able to practice religion freely in Pakistan. On January 22, the Hyderabad center hosted an event on educational institutions’ roles in promoting tolerance and creating peaceful communities. Sanjay Mathrani, a former participant in a U.S. government exchange program, was a featured speaker. On August 24, the Karachi center hosted a talk entitled, “How to Develop Religious Tolerance and Empathy,” with Syed Ali Hameed from the Shaoor Foundation and a consulate general officer.

Embassy officers met with civil society leaders, experts, and journalists to stress the need to protect the rights of religious minorities and to continue to support measures that decrease sectarian violence. They also met with representatives of other embassies, leaders of religious communities, NGOs, and legal experts working on religious freedom issues to discuss ways to increase respect among religions and to enhance dialogue. Department of State programs, including outreach activities such as speakers and workshops, helped to promote peacebuilding among religious and community leaders. The embassy and consulates highlighted the principles of religious freedom and examples of interfaith dialogue in the United States on their social media platforms throughout the year.

In July, the Department of State issued a statement following the killing of Tahir Naseem expressing outrage over the killing and noting that Naseem had been lured from his home in the United States by individuals who used blasphemy laws to entrap him. The statement also called on the government to “immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

In an official tweet in November following the killing of Ahmadi physician Tahir Ahmad, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom said the killing was “the latest in a series of recent killings targeting the Ahmadiyya community. We call upon authorities to ensure the safety of all Pakistanis.”

On December 2, the Secretary of State redesignated Pakistan as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, for having engaged in or tolerated 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.

Qatar

Executive Summary

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. The constitution guarantees the freedom to practice religious rites in accordance with “the maintenance of public order and morality.” The law punishes “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations constitute the registered religious groups in the country. Unregistered religious groups are illegal, but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately. The government continued to censor or ban print and social media religious material it considered objectionable. In July, the government issued administrative deportation notices to four longtime resident Indian-national Christians and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. After closing all mosques and churches in mid-March as part of its measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, the government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June and the reopening of other houses of worship and all other mosques in mid-August. In September, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups temporarily banning any worship outside the Mesaymeer Religious Complex, which is located on government land and provides worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, justifying the ban on its efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19 and for security reasons. Sixty-one church villas were slated to open but had not received permission from the government by year’s end. Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971. The Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) reported that some particularly offensive material was removed from school textbooks and the “curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The NGO stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum” and “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom and violent jihadi movements are praised.”

The Doha branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa after the booking created controversy in the country. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims. In June, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud, later removed from the daily’s website, which stated that Jews over the course of history had infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism was to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies, stating, “This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and Muslims.”

U.S. embassy officials continued to meet with relevant government bodies as well as with quasigovernmental religious institutions, concerning the rights of religious minorities, Sunni-Shia relations, and anti-Semitism. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the Ministry of Education (MOE) about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12, including a discussion during a December 15 visit by the Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism. In March, the embassy participated in a religious freedom conference among various faiths and academics hosted by the government-funded Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), which included embassy-funded guest speakers. Throughout the year, the embassy met with various faith communities, including the Hindu, Shia Muslim, Baha’i, and evangelical Christian communities, and the Christian Church Steering Committee (CCSC), which oversees a variety of Christian denominations, to discuss issues of mutual concern. Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population as 2.4 million (midyear 2020 estimate). Citizens make up approximately 12 percent of the population, while noncitizens account for approximately 88 percent. Most citizens are Sunni Muslims, and almost all of the remaining citizens are Shia Muslims. Reliable figures are unavailable, but estimates based solely on the religious composition of expatriates suggest Muslims, while they are the largest religious group, likely make up less than half of the total population. The breakdown of the noncitizen population between Sunni, Shia, and other Muslim groups is not available.

Other religious groups, which are composed exclusively of expatriates, include (in descending order of size) Hindus, almost exclusively from India and Nepal; Roman Catholics, primarily from the Philippines, Europe, and India; and Buddhists, largely from South, Southeast, and East Asia. Smaller groups include Anglicans and Protestant denominations, Egyptian Copts, Baha’is, and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and states sharia shall be “a main source” of legislation. According to the constitution, the Emir must be Muslim. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the Emir’s branch of the al Thani family. The Emir exercises full executive power. The constitution guarantees the “freedom to practice religious rites” to all persons “in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality.” It prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.

Conversion to another religion from Islam is defined by the law as apostasy and is illegal, although there have been no recorded punishments for apostasy since the country’s independence in 1971.

The law provides for a prison sentence of up to seven years for offending or misinterpreting the Quran, “offending” Islam or any of its rites or beliefs, insulting any of the prophets, or defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism. The law stipulates a seven-year prison term for producing or circulating material containing slogans, images, or symbols defaming these three religions. The law also prohibits publication of texts provoking social discord or religious strife, with punishment of up to six months in prison.

To obtain an official presence in the country, expatriate non-Muslim religious groups must apply to register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). The only registered religious groups are Sunni and Shia Muslims and eight Christian denominations, which are the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, evangelical Protestant, and the Interdenominational Christian Churches. Protestant denominations other than the registered eight denominations, including nondenominational house churches, may register with the government with the support of the CCSC, an umbrella organization consisting of representatives of the eight already registered denominations.

Non-Christian groups must apply for registration through the MFA. Registered groups may hold bank accounts in the organization’s name, apply for property to build worship space (or have already built structures, such as private villas, recognized as worship spaces to avoid problems with authorities), import religious texts, and publish religious newsletters or flyers for internal distribution. Unregistered entities are unable to open accounts, solicit funds, worship in private spaces legally, acquire religious texts from outside the country, publish religious-themed newsletters or pamphlets, or legally hire staff.

According to the law, unregistered religious groups (i.e., those not registered or under the patronage of one of the registered groups) that engage in worship activities are illegal, and members of those groups are subject to deportation.

The law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. It prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols, which includes banning Christian congregations from advertising religious services or placing crosses outdoors where they are visible to the public. The law criminalizes proselytizing on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation of any religion other than Islam and provides for punishment of up to 10 years in prison. Proselytizing on one’s own accord for any religion other than Islam may result in a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment. The law calls for two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10,000 riyals ($2,700) for possession of written or recorded materials or items that support or promote missionary activity. The law allows importation of religious holy books, such as Bibles.

The government regulates the publication, importation, and distribution of all religious books and materials. The government reviews, censors, or bans foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Religious groups may publish newsletters without government censorship but may only distribute them internally within their respective communities. To import religious materials, groups must submit one copy to the Ministry of Culture and Sports and receive written approval before making large orders or risk having the entire shipment confiscated.

The only religions registered to have their own places of worship are Islam and Christianity. All mosques and Islamic institutions in the country must be registered with the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The law designates the MEIA Minister as the final authority for approving Islamic religious centers. The MFA approves non-Islamic houses of worship in coordination with the private office of the emir.

The Office of the Secretary General of the MFA, working in coordination with the director of the MFA’s Human Rights Department, is responsible for handling church affairs.

A non-Muslim woman is not required by law to convert to Islam when marrying a Muslim; the law considers offspring of such a marriage to be Muslim, however. The law dictates that a non-Muslim man marrying a Muslim woman must convert to Islam.

Islamic instruction is compulsory for Muslim and non-Muslim students attending state-sponsored schools. Non-Muslims may provide private religious instruction for their children at home or in their faith services. All children may attend secular and coeducational private schools. These schools must offer optional Islamic instruction; non-Islamic religious education is prohibited.

A unified civil court system, incorporating sharia and secular law, has jurisdiction over both Muslims and non-Muslims. The unified court system applies sharia in family law cases, including those related to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. For Shia Muslims, a judicial panel decides cases regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, and other family matters using Shia interpretations of religious law. In other religious matters, family law applies across all branches of Islam. Non-Muslims are subject to sharia in cases of child custody, but civil law covers other personal status cases, including those related to divorce and inheritance.

Criminal law is based on the principles of sharia. The type of crime determines whether those convicted receive a sharia-based sentence. There are certain criminal charges, such as alcohol consumption and extramarital sex, for which Muslims are punished according to sharia principles, including court-ordered flogging. Sharia-based punishments may also apply to non-Muslims in these cases. The government often commutes harsher punishments mandated by sharia. Muslim convicts may earn a sentence reduction of a few months by memorizing the Quran while imprisoned. Secular law covers dispute resolution for financial service companies. The law approves implementing the Shia interpretation of sharia upon the agreement and request of the parties involved in the dispute.

The penal code stipulates that individuals seen eating or drinking during daylight hours during Ramadan are subject to a fine of 3,000 riyals ($820), three months’ imprisonment, or both.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The government submitted documents to the United Nations in 2018, and made a formal statement in its treaty accession document, that the government shall interpret Article 18, paragraph 2, of the ICCPR (“No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”) “based on the understanding that it does not contravene the Islamic sharia” and that the government would reserve the right to implement paragraph 2 in accordance with its understanding of sharia. The government also formally stated in its accession document that it would interpret several other provisions of the ICCPR in line with sharia, including Article 27 (regarding the rights of minorities “to profess and practice their own religion”). The government made a formal reservation against being bound by gender equality provisions in Article 3 and Article 23.4 regarding family law and inheritance.

Government Practices

In July, the government issued administrative deportation notifications to four longtime resident Indian-national Christian expatriates and their families. The deported individuals attributed the deportations to their religious activities. Petitions to the government and requests to clarify the decisions were left unanswered.

As part of the government’s measures to combat the spread of COVID-19, all churches and most mosques were closed down from mid-March until mid-August. The government allowed the reopening of 500 mosques in June as part of a graduated reopening. (There are an estimated 2,100 in the country.) Although Christian congregations within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex were allowed to resume activities in August, the government sent a letter to nearly 150 unregistered religious groups in September banning any worship outside the complex and asking all house churches to find space inside the already over-crowded complex. In December, the government said 61 congregations out of the 150 under the umbrella of the Evangelical Church Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ) could reopen as a temporary solution until the alliance establishes its permanent premises in the complex. At year’s end, however, the 61 churches had not yet reopened, and the MFA had not responded to inquiries by the ECAQ management regarding the government’s reopening announcement.

The government continued to state it would consider requests from nonregistered religious groups to acquire a place of worship if they applied to register but, as in previous years, said none had done so.

In a May 6 interview on the Al Jazeera network, Dr. Ahmad al-Farjabi, identified by an NGO as a MEIA sharia expert, said that when a man suspects his wife might become “disobedient” and “rebellious,” he should take the measures prescribed by the Quran, which include beating her. Al-Farjabi added that even Western psychologists have said that wife-beating is “inevitable” in the case of women who had been beaten while they were growing up and for women who have no respect for their husbands. He said that these kinds of women must be “subdued by muscles,” and that some kinds of women “may be reformed by beating.” Al-Farjabi also said that he even heard from women at his lectures that it is preferable to beat one’s wife than to allow her to ruin the home and lose her children.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions were unable to follow up on their 2019 visit. During that visit, the UN representatives said there were approximately 26 cases of expatriate women serving prison terms for adultery and five cases of individuals serving time for “sodomy,” behaviors prohibited by sharia.

In its 2020 World Watch List report, the Christian NGO Open Doors USA stated, “Christians in Qatar, especially converts from Islam to Christianity, remain under extremely high pressure from the government and society – risking discrimination, harassment, police monitoring and intimidation. Even one’s family can be dangerous in a culture that sees conversion as a betrayal. In the Persian Gulf country, Islam is seen as the only acceptable faith, and conversion remains a capital offense. As for church gatherings, while Muslims are free to worship in public, Christians can only worship in private houses or designated places.”

Representatives of the Baha’i community stated that the community faced challenges with 13 cases of longtime (in some cases, lifelong) Baha’i residents who were either prevented from reentering the country or from renewing their residency permits. In 2019, the UN special rapporteur on minority issues and the UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion cowrote a letter to the government expressing concern over discriminatory treatment of Baha’is, including in the 13 Baha’i deportation and residency refusal cases, and over the challenges Baha’is faced in registering marriages. The government denied the allegations.

The CCSC continued to meet regularly with the MFA to discuss issues related to its congregants and to advocate for increased space for the large number of parishioners. The MFA also met with unregistered congregations to discuss their interests and needs.

The MEIA continued to hire clerics and assign them to specific mosques. The ministry continued to provide, on an ad hoc basis, thematic guidance for Friday sermons, focusing mainly on Islamic rituals and social values, with clear restrictions against using pulpits to express political views or attack other faiths. The ministry reviewed content but did not require clerics to obtain prior approval of their sermons. The government reserved the right to take judicial action against individuals who did not follow the guidance.

The MEIA continued to remind the public during Ramadan of its view of the correct way for Muslims to perform their religious duties. There were no reports of arrests or fines during the year for violation of the penal code’s ban on eating or drinking in public during daylight hours in Ramadan. All restaurants not located in hotels were required to close in daylight hours during Ramadan.

The Saudi Arabian government greatly reduced the number of pilgrims allowed to make the Hajj due to concerns regarding COVID-19. In the previous three years, however, the government had already discouraged citizens and residents from taking part in Umrah and Hajj due to an ongoing dispute with Saudi Arabia that started in 2017 and resulted in the severing of diplomatic ties. Officials at MEIA stated that concerns for pilgrims’ security due to the lack of diplomatic representation and coordination with Saudi authorities were behind discouraging citizens and expatriates from performing the Hajj and Umrah.

In a May 16 Al Jazeera interview, Dr. Abduljabbar Saeed, a department chair in the sharia faculty at the state-run Qatar University, cited a hadith in which the Prophet Muhammad said that Judgment Day will not come until the Muslims fight the Jews, who will hide behind rocks and trees, which will in turn call upon Muslims to kill the Jews hiding behind them. Saeed referred to a version of the hadith in which a type of tree called a gharqad will not call out to the Muslims. He said that he rejected this version and that he believed that every rock and every tree will call out to the Muslims. Saeed said that victory would only be achieved through sacrifice of all that is precious and through the “blood of the martyrs and over the skulls of the enemies.”

In August, the Israeli NGO Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education (IMPACT-se) issued a comprehensive interim report on religious textbooks in the country from 2016 to 2020. The report said, “The Qatari curriculum appears to be in a phase of transformation. While somewhat less radical than previous versions, the process of moderation is in its infancy. Some particularly offensive material has been removed after decades of radical propaganda in Qatari schools, but the curriculum does not meet international standards of peace and tolerance.” The report stated, “Elements of Salafism and Muslim Brotherhood dominate the religious tenor of the curriculum.” It added, “In Islamic religious studies there is very little improvement. Jihad war, martyrdom, and violent jihadi movements are praised….Christians are still seen as infidels (kafirun) and are expected to go to hell. Some anti-Christian material has been removed. Jew hatred continues to be a central problem for this curriculum, while slightly less widespread than previous iterations. Israel is demonized. Textbooks teach [that] Jews control and manipulate world powers and markets.”

The Anti-Defamation League reported that the government appeared to have eliminated nearly all of the anti-Semitic book titles from the 2020 Doha International Book Fair, provided its online catalogue for the event was still an accurate representation of what was for sale onsite. The NGO described these efforts as “significant improvements” in this area.

Although the law prohibits Christian groups from advertising religious services, Christian churches continued to post hours of services and other information on publicly accessible websites. The government, however, continued to prohibit them from publishing such information in local newspapers or on public bulletin boards. Church leaders and religious groups continued to state that individuals practiced self-censorship when expressing religious views online and relied mostly on word of mouth, church websites, social media platforms, and email newsletters to distribute information about religious groups’ activities.

The government maintained its policy of reviewing, censoring, or banning newspapers, magazines, books, and social media for “objectionable” religious content, such as an attack on Islamic values or depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. Journalists and publishers at times said they practice self-censorship regarding material the government might consider contrary to Islam.

The Mesaymeer Religious Complex, also known as “Church City” and located on government-owned land, continued to provide worship space for the eight registered Christian denominations, with clear government instructions that Christian symbols such as crosses, steeples, and statues were not permitted on the exterior of church buildings. The Anglican Center within the Mesaymeer Religious Complex housed a number of other smaller denominations and offered space to 88 congregations of different denominations and languages.

According to church leaders, approximately 75,000 to 100,000 expatriate Christians continued to attend weekly services at the Mesaymeer Religious Complex. Citizens of the country and other Muslims were not allowed to attend these services. Representatives of the CCSC continued to state there was overcrowding in seven buildings in the complex, and noted difficulties with parking, access, and time-sharing. In addition to the permanent buildings, the government allowed the churches to erect tents during Easter and Christmas outside of the primary complex to accommodate the extra congregants wanting to attend services during these holidays. The government continued to enforce strict security measures at the complex, including closing parking lots, setting a curfew on church access, and using metal detectors. Ministry of Interior (MOI) security personnel continued to ask churchgoers to show identification at the gates because non-Christians, either expatriates or citizens, continued to be prohibited access to the complex.

Representatives of the Hindu community continued to express concern that the government had not granted Hindus permission to open new places of worship.

The CCSC reported that Christian clergy were allowed to visit members of their congregations when they were hospitalized and to conduct monthly trips to both male and female prisons to meet with incarcerated Christians.

The government prohibited the slaughter of animals outside of licensed facilities, a measure it said was intended to ensure hygienic conditions. In practice, individuals were able to conduct ritual slaughter in private.

Church leaders stated their ability to collect and distribute funds for charity continued to be limited by the government’s restrictions on the number and type of bank accounts churches could hold, as well as reporting requirements on donors and on contractors doing business with churches. Some smaller unregistered churches continued to use the personal accounts of religious leaders for church activities.

The government-funded DICID postponed its international religious freedom conference originally scheduled for March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The country continued to host the headquarters of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a group widely viewed in the press and academia as being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Although IUMS stated that it was an independent association of scholars, observers said that its close relationship with the government helps it to serve as an instrument of the country’s soft power.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to press reports, the local branch of Northwestern University cancelled an event by the pro-LGBTQI rock band Mashrou’ Leilaa, whose booking created a controversy. A faculty member at a private graduate school posted a tweet that criticized Northwestern for its sponsorship of the event, stating that the concert crossed a “red line” for observant Muslims.

On June 3, the privately owned newspaper al-Raya published an article by Khalifa al-Mahmoud that was later removed from the daily’s website. In the article, al-Mahmoud claimed that Jews over the course of history infiltrated international power centers and shaped decision-making, including through the overthrow of governments, to serve their own interests. Pointing to the Rothschild family as an example, al-Mahmoud said that members of the family spread throughout Europe, taking over economies and profiting from wars. He also stated that the family controls the price of gold, media, and important banks to this day.

In his June 25 column in the online newspaper al-Arab, Abdallah Abd al-Rahman wrote that secularism is to blame for the “horrific state” of Arab and Muslim societies. He stated that colonial powers realized that “the idea of exporting the concepts of secularism or of the separation of religion and state to the Arab and Muslim world had no merit and would not last long. [They also realized] that it would expose [their own] ideology, which is hostile to the principles of religion and of the Islamic sharia.” Abd al-Rahman continued, “If we regard Islam as a spiritual connection [to God] and nothing else, or as a religion that is confined to the domain of the individual and his personal life, as reflected in his relationship with God – which is what the West or secular Christianity wants – this interpretation would divest the Islamic character of its cultural, educational, and behavioral content.…This is one of the gravest forms of treason against the noble Islamic nation, faith, and culture.…In our Islamic society, secularism represents a position of hostility to Islam and the Muslims…”

In poll conducted by the Arab Center of Washington, D.C. and released in November, 58 percent of respondents in Qatar either strongly agreed or agreed with the statement, “No religious authority is entitled to declare followers of other religions infidels.” The rate of agreement in Qatar was among the lowest of the 13 regional countries included in the poll, where 65 percent of respondents either strongly or agreed with the statement.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In September, embassy officials met with the MFA, MOI, and the MOE to discuss concerns of the evangelical church congregations following an MOI decision to ban house churches outside the religious complex.

In March, embassy officials attended a religious freedom conference hosted by DICID, which included embassy-provided guest speakers.

In October, embassy representatives met with leaders from the evangelical Christian community, CCSC, and small Shia community to learn about their ability to freely practice their faiths in the country.

Embassy representatives continued to meet with Ministry of Culture and Sports, MFA, and MOE officials regarding anti-Semitic books being available at the annual Doha International Book Fair. Partially as a result of these discussions, the government did not allow three publishers who sold offensive materials at previous fairs to return. Organizers also did not allow anti-Semitic books sold at the 2019 fair to be sold at this year’s event. Embassy officials maintained a dialogue throughout the year with the MOE about newly published Islamic studies textbooks for public school students in grades seven through 12. In December 15 meetings with senior MFA officials, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism discussed a newly released NGO report and press coverage on anti-Semitism in the country’s textbooks as well as an invitation from the government for the U.S. government to participate in a government-sponsored interfaith conference in 2021.

Embassy officials continued to facilitate an agreement between the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs and the CCSC to raise awareness among churchgoers about ongoing changes to the labor law, including amendment of the kafala (labor sponsorship laws), which affected the expatriate population, and the procedures for submitting complaints to authorities.

Thailand

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

According to Deep South Watch, during the year violence in the country resulted in at least 116 deaths – among them 83 Muslims, 29 Buddhists, and four individuals with unidentified religious affiliation – compared with 180 deaths, including 123 Muslims, 54 Buddhists, and three with unidentified religious affiliation, in 2019. Observers attributed the decline to a combination of the resumption of peace talks, improved security operations, and the impact of COVID-19. Local NGOs reported insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to statistics collected from the daily reports of the Provincial