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Afghanistan

On August 15, the Taliban took control of Kabul, declaring the establishment of an “Islamic Emirate” throughout the country.  On September 7, the Taliban announced an interim “caretaker government” made up exclusively of male Taliban members.  On September 22, the Taliban expanded its interim “caretaker government,” adding some representatives of religious and ethnic minority groups including Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Nuristani, and Khawaja, but no women.  By year’s end, the U.S. government had not yet made a decision as to whether to recognize the Taliban or any other entity as the Government of Afghanistan or as part of such a government.

Executive Summary

Following their takeover in August, the Taliban did not establish a clear and cohesive legal framework, judicial system, or enforcement mechanisms.  The Taliban conveyed that those laws enacted under the former government of Afghanistan that were in effect prior to their takeover remained in effect unless the laws violated sharia.  Taliban leaders issued decrees specifying acceptable behaviors under their interpretation of sharia, but variously described them as “guidelines” or “recommendations” and unevenly enforced them.  Press reports following the Taliban takeover raised fears the group would consider Christian converts as apostates.  These reports, combined with statements from some Taliban leaders starting in August reserving the right to enforce harsh punishments for violations of the group’s strict interpretation of sharia, drove some Christian converts into deeper hiding, according to International Christian Concern, an international nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on persecution of Christian communities.  At year’s end, there were no reports of Taliban representatives having directed sharia-related punishments.  According to Amnesty International, Taliban fighters killed 13 Shia Hazaras in Daykundi Province on August 31; the Taliban denied the allegations.  In November and December, the Taliban detained 28 members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community in Kabul.  According to members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the Taliban falsely accused them of belonging to ISIS-Khorasan (an affiliate of ISIS and a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization, also known as ISIS-K).  The Taliban held 18 of them through year’s end.  The NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW)reported the Taliban expelled Shia Hazara members from their homes in several provinces in October, in part to redistribute land to Taliban supporters.  In August, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) that the group would respect the rights of members of religious minority groups, including Shia Hazaras.  On November 16, Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told the press, “We are providing a safe and secure environment for everyone, especially the Hazaras.”  Both prior to and immediately following the Taliban takeover, predominantly Shia Hazara communities expressed fear the Ashraf Ghani administration and the Taliban lacked the ability to protect them from violence and discrimination.  According to Hazara community and NGO representatives, Shia Hazaras continued to face longstanding and widespread discrimination by Ghani government officials in public service delivery, public sector hiring, and other areas before August 15.After the Taliban takeover, Taliban leaders publicly pledged to protect the rights of Sikhs and Hindus, although some Sikhs and Hindus reported they had ceased to congregate at their gurdwaras (places of worship), and others sought to resettle abroad due to fear of violent attacks by the Taliban and ISIS-K.  In November and December, high level Taliban representatives held meetings with leaders of Shia, Sikh, and Hindu communities, reportedly to offer protection and improve relations.  According to community representatives, in these meetings the Taliban laid out rules for the behavior of women, forbade the playing of music, and presented restrictions on businesses owned by minority religious group members.  Some Hazara political figures expressed continued concern over the Taliban’s commitment to support freedom of worship but commented that this engagement represented a shift from the Taliban’s approach between 1996 and 2001.  According to civil society groups, at year’s end, approximately 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remained in the country, down from approximately 400 at the start of the year.  The Taliban closed the Ministry for Women’s Affairs in September, announcing the reconstituted Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, charged with enforcing the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia, would be housed in the same building.  While enforcement varied by province and district, local Taliban representatives enforced decrees on gender segregation, women’s dress and head covering, men’s facial hair, unaccompanied women, and music.  On December 3, Taliban “Supreme Leader” Hibatullah Akhunzada issued a decree stating that women should not be considered property and must consent to marriage.  Media reported the Taliban framed the decree as a call to adhere to broader Islamic law on women’s rights.  Some observers praised the decree; others said it did not go far enough because it did not mention a woman’s right to work or to access education and other public services.

the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (ISIS-K claimed responsibility.  ISIS-K also conducted such attacks against other groups.  In total, for the first six months of the year, 20 incidents targeted the Shia Hazara community resulting in 143 killed and 357 injured, compared with 19 attacks attributed to ISIS-K and other anti-government elements in 2020.  According to UNAMA, during the second half of the year, attacks claimed by or attributed to ISIS-K increased and expanded beyond the movement’s previous areas of focus in Kabul and the eastern part of the country.  Between August 19 and December 31, the United Nations recorded 152 attacks by the group in 16 provinces, compared with 20 attacks in five provinces during the same period in 2020.  In addition to targeting the Taliban, ISIS-K also targeted civilians, in particular Shia minorities, in urban areas.  ISIS-K claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on two Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar cities on October 8 and 15.  On October 8, an ISIS-K suicide bomber killed 70 to 80 members of the Hazara community at a mosque in Kunduz.  On October 15, a suicide bomber attack targeting the largest Shia mosque in Kandahar, the Fatima Mosque (also known as the Imam Bargah Mosque), killed more than 50 worshippers and injured at least 100.  Two December 10 attacks in western Kabul targeting a predominantly Shia Hazara neighborhood remained unclaimed at year’s end.  Prior to the Taliban takeover, antigovernment forces carried out several attacks on religious leaders that resulted in fatalities.  According to the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs (MOHRA), over the last two decades, the Taliban and other extremist groups had killed 527 religious scholars, including approximately 50 Sunni and Shia religious leaders killed between February 2020 and July 2021.  Prior to their August takeover and as previous years, the Taliban killed and issued death threats against Sunni clerics for preaching messages contrary to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islam.  Taliban fighters killed progovernment imams and other religious officials throughout the country, and the Taliban warned mullahs not to perform funeral prayers for Ghani administration security officials.  On May 8, unidentified individuals detonated a car bomb in front of the Sayed ul-Shuhada school in a predominantly Shia Hazara community, killing at least 85 civilians and injuring another 216.  No group claimed responsibility for the attack.  According to press interviews in October, Shia Hazaras struggled to take what some characterized as a “life or death” risk to go to mosque on Fridays.

Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Sunni Muslim minority groups continued to report that some Sunni Muslims verbally harassed them, although Hindus and Sikhs stated they still were able to practice their respective religions in public prior to August 15.  According to international sources, Baha’is and Christians continued to live 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 to or were studying Christianity reported receiving threats, including death threats, from family members.  Christians and Ahmadiyya Muslims reported they continued to worship only privately and in small groups, at home or in nondescript places of worship, to avoid discrimination and persecution.  Prior to the Taliban takeover in August, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, which they considered inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.

The U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations on August 31.  In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence.  On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar.  The U.S. delegation expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.”  After August 31, the U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the so-called Taliban Political Commission in Doha, Qatar, through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.  efore the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities.  To enhance the Ghani administration’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism and foster religious tolerance, embassy representatives met with the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) and MOHRA, among other government agencies.  The embassy regularly raised concerns about public safety and freedom to worship with security ministers.  Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials continued to meet regularly with leaders of major religious groups, as well as religious minorities, scholars, and NGOs, to discuss ways to enhance religious tolerance and interreligious dialogue.  While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored 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.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 37.5 million (midyear 2021).  According to Pew Forum data from 2009, Sunni Muslims constitute approximately 80-85 percent of the population, and Shia make up approximately 10-15 percent.

According to religious community leaders, the Shia population, approximately 90 percent of whom are ethnic Hazaras, is predominantly Jaafari, but also includes Ismailis.  Other religious groups, mainly Hindus, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians, together constitute less than 0.3 percent of the population.  According to Sikh leaders, there are fewer than 150 members of the Sikh and Hindu communities remaining in the country, compared with an estimated 400 at the start of the year and 1,300 in 2017.  Most members of the Sikh and Hindu communities are in Kabul, with smaller numbers in Ghazni and other provinces.  Hindu community leaders estimate there are fewer than 50 remaining Hindus, all male and primarily businessmen with families in other countries.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community in the country numbers in the hundreds.  Reliable estimates of the Baha’i and Christian communities are not available.  There are small numbers of practitioners of other religions.  There are no known Jews in the country, following the departure of the country’s last known remaining Jew after the Taliban takeover.

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 III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Religion and ethnicity in the country were often closely linked.  Sikhs, Hindus, Christians, and other non-Muslim minorities reported continued harassment from Muslims, although Hindus and Sikhs stated that prior to the Taliban takeover, they continued to be able to publicly practice their religions.

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.  They said fears of violent societal repression had further increased since the Taliban takeover.

According to Christians and Ahmadi Muslims, members of their groups continued to worship only in private to avoid societal discrimination and persecution, including harassment from neighbors and coworkers.  They also said that following the Taliban takeover in August, relatives and neighbors who were aware of their identities were more likely to treat them harshly or report them to the Taliban, whether out of self-preservation or to curry favor with the Taliban.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, women of several different faiths, including Sunni and Shia Islam, continued to report harassment from local Muslim religious leaders over their attire.  Clerics in numerous provinces preached that woman must wear modest dress and that the faithful should publicly enforce a strict implementation of sharia law.  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, before the Taliban takeover, in contrast to other more secure, Ghani administration-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 to increase their security in public.  Prior to the Taliban takeover, observers said local Muslim religious leaders continued their efforts to limit social activities, such as concerts, considered by the religious leaders to be inconsistent with Islamic doctrine.  Following the Taliban takeover, media reported instances of local Muslim religious leaders becoming more prohibitive of such activities.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, Ahmadiyya Muslims said they did not proselytize due to fear of persecution.  Ahmadiyya Muslims reported an 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.  Before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community said they were able to intermittently perform weekly congregational prayer at a nondescript location in Kabul.  According to international Ahmadiyya Muslim organizations with close ties to Ahmadi Muslims in the country, following the Taliban takeover, fear of persecution by the Taliban and its sympathizers had driven community members to refrain from worship at their center in Kabul.  Approximately 100 Ahmadi Muslims departed the country in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover.  As of year’s end, hundreds remained in country.  Ahmadi Muslims 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.  Ahmadi Muslim representatives said they did not initially report or publicize these threats because they feared additional verbal harassment and physical abuse from Taliban representatives.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, Christian representatives reported public opinion, as expressed in social media and elsewhere, remained hostile toward converts to Christianity and to the idea of Christian proselytization.  They reported pressure and threats, largely from family, to renounce Christianity and return to Islam.  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.  The dates, times, and locations of these services were frequently changed to avoid detection.  There continued to be no public Christian churches.  Following the Taliban takeover, Christians described raids by Taliban on the homes of Christian converts even after they had fled the country or moved out.  Christian sources stated the Taliban takeover emboldened intolerant relatives to threaten them with violence and inform on converts should they continue their practice of Christianity.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, some Sikhs and Hindus had refused to send their children to public schools because other students harassed their children, although only a few private school options were available to them due to the decreasing sizes of the two communities and their members’ declining economic circumstances.  According to community members, since the Taliban takeover, the small number of remaining Sikh and Hindu children did not attend school due to school closures related to COVID-19 and inclement winter weather.

Until the Taliban takeover, 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 known Jew departed Afghanistan in late August, saying he feared the Taliban would be unable to protect him from an ISIS-K attack.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, 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

On August 31, the U.S. embassy in Kabul suspended operations.

In October and November, the U.S. government condemned ISIS-K attacks on Shia mosques and engaged Taliban leadership to press for the protection of religious minorities from repression and violence.  On November 29-30, a U.S. government delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Qatar.  U.S. government officials expressed “deep concern regarding allegations of human rights abuses and urged the Taliban to protect the rights of all Afghans, uphold and enforce its policy of general amnesty, and take additional steps to form an inclusive and representative government.” U.S. representatives also expressed concern over the status of religious minorities in a meeting with senior Taliban representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan, in December.  The U.S. government also conveyed this message consistently in meetings with the “Taliban Political Commission” in Doha after August 31 through the Afghanistan Affairs Unit.

Before the Taliban takeover in mid-August, U.S. embassy officials worked with the government to promote understanding of religious freedom and its importance as well the need for the acceptance and protection of religious minorities.  In meetings with members of the President’s staff, the ONSC, MOHRA, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs, and the Ulema Council, embassy officials promoted understanding of religious freedom as well as the need to enhance the government’s capacity to counter violent religious extremism.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, senior embassy officials engaged leaders of the Sikh and Hindu communities in June to understand their concerns and their ability to practice their faith freely.

Until the Taliban takeover, embassy officials met with both government and religious officials to promote cooperation with ulema councils and emphasize the potential strong impact international Islamic scholars could have on moderating the Taliban.  The embassy coordinated with the ONSC, as well as other governmental and nongovernmental stakeholders, to promote respect for religious diversity.  While working with the Ghani administration, the embassy sponsored 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.

Prior to the Taliban takeover, the embassy also used social media to support religious freedom.  On May 20, the Ambassador, responding to a Taliban-attributed attack in Ghor in which three Hazara shopkeepers were killed, condemned via Twitter the Taliban’s and ISIS-K’s targeting of Hazaras.  This followed the Ambassador’s condemnation of the May 8 attack on a Kabul girls’ school in a Hazara community that resulted in the deaths of more than 80 persons.

Following the Taliban takeover, the United States continued to support the Afghan people.  The United States remained committed to providing humanitarian assistance and basic needs support to the Afghan people and continued to advocate for the need to respect the human rights, including religious freedom, of all Afghans through its engagements with the Taliban.

Algeria

Executive Summary

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.  Christian leaders expressed concern that the elimination of language providing for freedom of conscience in a new constitution that entered into force at the end of 2020 could lead to greater government persecution of religious minorities and reported changes in their interactions with governmental authorities they attributed to the new constitution.  In February, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders said there were 50 Ahmadi Muslims who were defendants in the court system, a decline from their October 2020 estimate of 220.  In November, authorities charged the president of the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA), Pastor Salah Chalah, and three Christian members of his leadership team with proselytizing on social media, practicing non-Muslim religious rites without authorization, and inciting an unarmed gathering.  In August, according to press reports, government authorities abducted Christian convert Soulimane Bouhafs in Tunisia – where he had refugee status – and transferred him to Algeria, where he was detained on charges of being a member of the Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylie (MAK), an organization the government has designated as terrorist.  In April, a court sentenced Said Djabelkheir, a well-known Islamic Sufi scholar, to three years in prison for “offenses to Islam.”  Djabelkheir wrote that the sacrifice of sheep predated Islam and denounced child marriage.  Several religious groups, including the Ahmadiyya Muslim community and the EPA, said the government again failed to act on their registration applications, pending since 2012.  In February, the government announced that mosques that had been closed due to COVID-19 mitigation measures could reopen, but Christian churches would remain closed.  According to media reports, authorities continue to arrest, jail, and fine members of the EPA on charges of proselytizing.  In April, the EPA reported that the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) routinely limited its import of Bibles.  Twenty EPA churches remained closed, 16 of them sealed off, under a government order from 2017.  In February and March, the MRA summoned EPA and Anglican Church officials for questioning.  Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist groups said the government did not respond to their requests for foreign religious workers’ visas, resulting in de facto visa refusals.

Some Christian leaders and congregants stated family members abused 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.  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 then Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers frequently met with senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to discuss religious tolerance and 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.

On November 15, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Algeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 43.6 million (midyear 2021), more than 99 percent of whom are Sunni Muslims following the Maliki school.  Religious groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims who reside principally in the Province of Ghardaia.  Religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

Christian groups include 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.  In 2020, the Christian advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO) International Christian Concern estimated there were 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 Kabylie, 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 new constitution, effective December 30, 2020, removed language from the 2016 constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience.  The previous constitution said, “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 religious conversion, including from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense.  The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($7,200) 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 ($360-$720) 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 shall 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.  The law requires all organizations registered prior to 2012 to reregister.  The Ministry of Interior grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized.  Unregistered associations have no legal status, and may not own property, open bank accounts, convene gatherings, or raise funds.  Members of active, unregistered groups are often subject to criminal prosecution.  The ministry registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate

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 allows applicants 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 MRA has the responsibility to review registration applications of religious associations, but the Ministry of Interior makes the final decision.  The law does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.

The National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship is charged with facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups according to law.  Non-Muslim religious leaders report no contact with the government committee.  The MRA chairs 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 (FIS), a political party banned since 1992, remains illegal.  Islamist insurgents, FIS guerrillas, and the government fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Islamic or otherwise, must take place.  The law states that religious gatherings, for worship or other purposes, 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 and be administered 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 wali (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 event’s organizers must be identified and must also 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 ($720) and a prison sentence of one to three years.  Any persons, including government-authorized imams, who act “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion, as determined by a judge” may be fined as much as 200,000 dinars ($1,400) or receive a prison sentence of three to five years.  The law states that such acts include using the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

The MRA provides financial support to mosques and pays the salaries of imams and other religious personnel, as well as healthcare 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 printed materials, including 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.”  In accordance with a governmental decree, a commission within the MRA reviews 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 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 law requires that couples present a government-issued marriage license before imams may conduct religious marriage ceremonies.

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.

The law prohibits all forms of expression that propagate, encourage, or justify discrimination.  The government passed a separate hate speech law in 2021, and religious belief or affiliation are not among the categories covered by the law.

The CNDH is responsible for monitoring and evaluating 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.

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

In February, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders said there were 50 Ahmadi Muslims who were defendants in cases in the court system, a decline from their October 2020 estimate of 220.  According to Ahmadiyya Muslim leaders, the authorities failed to pursue many of the cases predating 2018, and the cases were dismissed.

In February, a court in Algiers convicted Said Djabelkhir of blasphemy for “offending the precepts of Islam” and sentenced him to three years in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars ($360).  Djabelkhir is an expert on Sufism and founded the “Circle of Enlightenment for Free Thought,” an association for thinkers and academics who advocate a progressive Islam.  Authorities reportedly summoned Djabelkhir to court after a fellow academic filed a complaint that his writings on various Islamic rituals, such as the Hajj and animal sacrifices on Eid al-Fitr, among other critiques, constituted “an attack and mockery of the authentic hadiths of the Sunna [the custom and practice] of the Prophet” and had caused persons psychological harm.

On August 2, Ahmadiyya Muslim community leaders reported that the court tried and convicted two of its community members in Adrar on charges of holding an unauthorized gathering.  Their Algiers-based lawyer was unable to attend the court proceedings due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions, and the judge refused the defendants’ request to postpone the proceedings.  The authorities first imprisoned the two Ahmadis in November 2020, where they remained in pretrial detention until their trial.  The court sentenced them to six months’ imprisonment and a 50,000 dinar ($360) fine.

In August, authorities placed Christian convert Soulimane Bouhafs in pretrial detention on terrorism-related charges.  According to press reports, plainclothes agents abducted Bouhafs in Tunisia in August and transferred him to Algeria.  Bouhafs was a member of the MAK, a political group advocating political autonomy for the Berber region.  Authorities designated the MAK a terrorist organization in May.  Bouhafs spent two years in prison for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, but the President pardoned him in 2018.  Upon his release, Bouhafs fled to Tunisia, where he obtained refugee status from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.  He was arrested upon his return to Algeria.

In October, Ahmadi Muslim leaders reported courts had convicted several of its community members on charges of holding unauthorized gatherings and unauthorized fundraising.  In Batna, a court sentenced an Ahmadi to one year’s imprisonment and a 50,000 dinar ($360) fine; in Tizi Ouzou, a court sentenced an Ahmadi to two months’ imprisonment and a 20,000 dinar ($140) fine; and in Constantine and Tiaret, the court convicted two other Ahmadis who were awaiting their sentences.

In January, during an interview with daily newspaper Liberte, Catholic Archbishop of Algiers Paul Desfarges said he was worried about the removal of the article on freedom of conscience from the constitution, a decision that “greatly grieved and saddened” him, and he said that he could not understand it.  He added that he believed the article, along with one on freedom of religion, would “again find its rightful place one day.”  The day after the interview, the MRA sent the Catholic Church a letter that said the reporter’s question had misled the Archbishop, and that the conscience clause “provision does not exist in the 2016 constitution nor does it in the previous ones,” adding that the Archbishop had misunderstood the constitution’s translation from Arabic.  Other religious leaders also expressed concern about the removal of this language from the constitution.

On March 22, an Oran court upheld the five-year prison sentence and fine of 100,000 dinars ($720) of Hamid Soudad, convicted in 2018 of “denigrating the dogma or precepts of Islam” for reposting a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on his Facebook account.  Soudad’s lawyer, Farid Khemisti, attributed the severity of the sentence to Soudad’s conversion to Christianity.

In April, an Algiers court sentenced Said Djabelkheir, a well-known Islamic Sufi scholar, to three years in prison for “offenses to Islam.”  Djabelkheir wrote that the sacrifice of sheep predated Islam and denounced child marriage.  Djabelkheir told the newspaper Le Soir d’Algerie that he was surprised by the severity of his sentence and that he planned to file an appeal.

In April, authorities sentenced Hirak political protest activist Walid Kechida to three years in prison for insulting President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and “offending the precepts of Islam.”  Authorities arrested Kechida in 2020 after drawing attention by sharing memes that depicted the Prophet on the internet.

NGOs and Ahmadi Muslim religious leaders said the group remained unregistered because the Ministry of Interior never provided the Ahmadi community with a receipt acknowledging a completed registration application that the community submitted to the government in 2012 to reregister the group as the law required.  In September, the Ministry of Interior said it had never received a registration application from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, and Ahmadi leaders reported they were preparing to file another application.

In September, Ahmadi Muslim leaders said they sent a letter requesting to meet with President Tebboune about their registration problems but had not received a response.

In September, the Ahmadi community again reported administrative difficulties and harassment since the community was unregistered and therefore unable to meet legally and collect donations.  Members of the community stated that 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 regarded Ahmadis as non-Muslims.  The government said in 2019 it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis stated they would not accept registration as non-Muslims.

The EPA, the United Methodist Church (UMC), and the Seventh-day Adventist Church said they still had not received responses from the Ministry of Interior to their 2012 and subsequent applications to reregister.  According to a pastor associated with the EPA, the Church resubmitted its 2014 registration application in 2015 and 2016, but despite several follow-ups with the government, the Ministry of Interior never accepted its application.  None of the churches received receipts for their registration attempts.  In March, the EPA said the MRA had told it that the Ministry of Interior was responsible for registration-related decisions and that the MRA could not get involved with the EPA’s registration issue.

In April, EPA leaders reported the Church had sent four letters to President Tebboune requesting to meet with the MRA to address their registration problem.  At year’s end, they said they had not received a response.

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 Commission for Non-Muslim Worship, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration.  A Christian NGO and Christian publication stated that the government disproportionately targeted Protestant groups for unfavorable treatment.  Some Christian leaders in the country 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 did not view Ibadis as a minority group and considered the Ibadi religious school a part of the country’s Muslim community.  Muslim scholars stated Ibadis could pray in Sunni mosques, and Sunnis could pray in Ibadi mosques.

On February 14, then Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad reopened mosques, Catholic and Anglican churches, and other public places that the government had closed for a second time in November 2020 as part of its COVID-19 mitigation strategy.  On February 28, after the EPA asked the MRA if the reopening applied to other churches, the MRA told EPA leaders that it did not have the authority to authorize churches to reopen, calling the EPA’s request a “political issue.”  In March, the MRA told EPA president Pastor Salah Chalah the MRA was not able to authorize its churches to reopen.  In March, the EPA reported that local officials denied the Church’s request to resume in-person worship in Oran.  When the Church questioned the decision, local authorities showed them a signed authorization to seal the churches – which they threatened to do if the Church did not stop asking for permission to reopen.  Despite the restrictions, some EPA churches opted to hold Easter services on April 4.  The authorities did not react to the decision, and some churches besides Catholic and Anglican ones continued to hold in-person worship services.  In April, Chalah reported that the EPA-affiliated 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.

According to Catholic Church officials, the government changed the procedure in January for applying for authorization to conduct non-Islamic religious events.  In previous years, the Church submitted its written requests to the local police station, which then stamped the request with a receipt to show the request was registered and approved.  Beginning in January, the Church said police stations stopped issuing the receipts.  Church leaders also said the police began frequenting one church to inquire about its activities, even though Church officials provided written notification of those activities to the local police.

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 discreetly.

According to the MRA, the government continued to allow government employees to wear religious attire, including the hijab, crosses, and the niqab, at work.  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.

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, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding events in local community centers that Muslims might attend.

On June 30, a court in Ain Defla charged Christian convert Foudhil Bahloul with distributing Bibles, printing religious brochures to distribute to Muslims, and “agitating the faith of Muslims.”  Bahloul had been in detention since his initial arrest in April for allegedly receiving donations illegally.  At that time, police did not question him about the June 30 charges but reportedly questioned him about his religion and decision to convert from Islam.  They also searched his house and confiscated religious materials and his identification documents.  On July 7, the court sentenced Bahloul to six months’ imprisonment for illegally accepting donations and for proselytizing.  On December 7, the court of appeal in Ain Defla sentenced Bahloul to a six-month suspended prison term and a fine of 100,000 dinars ($720).

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 April, EPA leaders reported that the MRA routinely limited the number of Bibles it approved for importation.  For example, in late 2020, the Biblical Society, which imported religious texts for all Christian denominations, requested to import 300 Bibles, and the MRA approved 30.  The EPA told the MRA there were more than 100,000 Christians in the country and that they therefore needed more than 30 Bibles.  The MRA responded by asking for a list of the names and exact number of Christians living in each community, village, and city.  The EPA declined to provide this information, and the MRA increased the approved number of Bibles by an additional 5 percent, i.e., by one or two Bibles.  The EPA said the import fees cost more than the Bibles themselves but that it would continue to import Bibles only through official channels to avoid legal problems.

On June 6, a judge sentenced Christian Pastor Rachid Seighir to a one-year suspended sentence and a 200,000-dinar ($1,400) fine for “shaking the faith of Muslims” with Christian literature at his bookstore.  On June 2, the authorities ordered the sealing of Seighir’s Oratoire City Church in Oran.  Bookstore salesman Nouh Hamimi also received a one-year suspended sentence and a fine of 200,000 dinars ($1,400) in the same case.

On November 16, authorities charged EPA President Chalah and three Christian members of his leadership team with proselytizing on social media, practicing non-Muslim religious rites without authorization, and inciting an unarmed gathering.  Authorities postponed their trial to 2022.

MRA officials again 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 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 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.

On July 7, the authorities sealed three additional EPA affiliated churches in Oran:  the Oratoire City Church in Oran, the House of Hope Church in Ain Turk, and an EPA church in al-Ayaida.  In 2020, courts had upheld a 2017 government order to close the City Church in Oran.

At year’s end, there were a total of 20 EPA churches that the government had closed, including 16 that the government had physically sealed off.  The government said the churches it closed were operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failed to meet building safety codes.

The UMC continued to own and maintain Methodist properties throughout the country, despite the absence of an in-country bishop.  The government denied the previous bishop’s residency renewal in 2008.  Until 2019, the UMC maintained a power of attorney to manage the properties’ legal affairs, although the foreign-based Methodist bishop overseeing the UMC in the country reported that Algerian embassies abroad had regularly delayed the approval process to obtain the power of attorney.  In 2021, the UMC continued its attempts to establish another power of attorney since the previous one expired in 2019.

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

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.

Religious and civil society leaders again 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 war for independence.

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 state the delays significantly hindered religious practice.  One religious leader said the lack of visa issuances was 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.

In February, Catholic Church leaders reported that COVID-19-related entry requirements further exacerbated existing visa issues related to the Church’s foreign clergy.  In January, for example, a Nigerian priest bound for a parish in Oran received his visa, but the government subsequently denied his entry request.

In February, the government denied the Anglican canon’s residency permit and visa renewals.  The MRA told him that he was not eligible to renew his visa and had to submit a new application.  The MRA also said the Cairo-based Anglican bishop must submit a letter reappointing the canon to his position.  The government approved the canon’s visa in May but by year’s end had not approved a visa for his successor.

In April, the foreign-based Methodist bishop overseeing the UMC in the country stated that the UMC “gave up” on requesting clergy visas for its pastors.  He said that UMC-affiliated clergy were regularly denied tourist visas.  The last official UMC visit to the country took place in 2013.

During a May 5 speech to the Algerian Muslim Ulemas (scholars) Association, Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, former Minister of Religious Affairs and head of the High Islamic Council, stated, “Algerians can only be Muslim.”  Ghlamallah said “The seeds sown by France are still germinating,” and he told Muslim scholars to “eradicate these residues.”

In October, local media reported that Algerian Radio management fired Mourad Boukerzaza, the director of the Cirta radio station in Constantine, as well as several other employees, because the station broadcast a Christian-themed song, “Oh Jesus, Life in the Tomb,” by Christian Lebanese singer Fayrouz.  Algerian Radio disputed the reports as “fake news” and told state-run Algerie Presse Service (APS) that it fired the director in late September for “malfunctions and errors.”

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French and Arabic.  The country’s state-run dedicated religious television and radio channels broadcast messages against religious extremism and integrated messages of religious moderation 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.

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.

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 the Catholic chapel at Notre Dame de Santa Cruz and its large statue of the Virgin Mary as part of its cultural patrimony.  Catholic Church leaders in Oran reported a good relationship with the authorities and ongoing interfaith dialogue with Muslims there.

According to the government, the MRA contributed to the renovation and restoration of non-Islamic places of worship, specifically Notre Dame d’Afrique in Algiers, the Saint-Augustin Basilica in Annaba, and the Santa Cruz Chapel in Oran.  The MRA also said it organized an initiative, in partnership with the Ministry of Interior and local neighborhoods, to clean up Christian cemeteries as part of an ongoing effort to maintain historical and cultural landmarks

According to the government, the authorities regularly invite accredited religious representatives to attend the national holiday ceremonies.

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.  In January, Catholic officials reported that because of what they believed was growing intolerance of Christians, the Archdiocese of Algiers was unable to find a person willing to engrave a cross on the tombstone in Algiers of Archbishop Henri Teissier, who died in Oran in December 2020.

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.

EPA 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, for example in the Kabylie region, 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.

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.  The Notre Dame de Santa Cruz, site of a fort and Catholic chapel, and the Pierre Claverie Center, a Catholic church and community center, in Oran hosted frequent nonreligious community events and reported Muslims frequently participated alongside Christians.

Protestant leaders said other faiths privately expressed support, and the EPA again 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, registration concerns related to minority religious groups, the impact of constitutional changes, and jailed activists.  In April, embassy officials requested to meet with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Worship to discuss the inability of some religious groups to register, but they did not receive a response.

The then Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers met during the year with government-affiliated and independent religious leaders and with representatives of Muslim and Christian communities, including the Catholic and Anglican Churches, the EPA, and the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, 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 roles of women with religious and political leaders, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and the High Islamic Council.  The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.  Specifically, the embassy used its cultural engagements to emphasize tolerance and its social media engagements to promote the benefits of diversity and inclusion, and it held iftars during Ramadan with members of the country’s different religious communities.

On November 15, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Algeria on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Andorra

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of individuals to manifest their religion or belief and prohibits religious discrimination.  It names two co-princes – the President of France and the Roman Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain – as joint heads of state.  In accordance with the constitution, the government offers the Catholic Church privileges not available to other religious groups.  At year’s end, the government had not identified public land for use as a multiconfessional cemetery, despite announcing in 2020 that it had begun a search for a suitable property.  The government issued religious work permits only to Catholics, but it allowed non-Catholics to reside and perform religious work in the country under a different status.  In October, the government approved a ban on the use of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including headscarves, kippahs, and large crosses, after a Muslim family accused the French school of discrimination because it required the family’s daughter to remove her headscarf in school.

In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rent two prayer rooms.  The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community.

The U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona met and communicated regularly with senior officials from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice and Interior, and Social Affairs, Housing and Youth, as well as with officials in the Office of the Ombudsman.  During visits to the country and in periodic communications, consulate officials discussed with Jewish and Muslim leaders and human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) issues such as the lack of official status for faiths other than Catholicism and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.  The consulate general used social media to convey messages on the importance of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 86,000 (midyear 2021).  The Andorran government estimates the population at 78,000 (2020 data), including 38,000 citizens and 40,000 other residents, mostly from Spain, France, and Portugal.  The local government does not provide statistics on the size of religious groups, and there is no census data on religious group membership.  In 2019, government officials estimated that 92 percent of the population was Roman Catholic.  Muslim leaders estimate their community, largely composed of recent immigrants, has approximately 2,000 members.  The Jewish community reports it has approximately 100 members.  Other small religious groups include Hindus, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, the Baha’i Faith, the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification, the New Apostolic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution guarantees “freedom of ideas, religion, and worship.”  It prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion and stipulates no one shall be required to disclose his or her religion or beliefs.  The constitution states such freedoms may be limited only to protect public safety, order, health, or morals, as prescribed by law or to protect the rights of others.  The constitution acknowledges a special relationship with the Catholic Church “in accordance with Andorran tradition” and recognizes the “full legal capacity” of the bodies of the Catholic Church, granting them legal status “in accordance with their own rules.”  The Catholic Bishop of Urgell in Catalonia, Spain, whose diocese includes Andorra and is one of two constitutionally designated princes of the country, serves equally as joint head of state with the other prince, the President of France.  The current Bishop of Urgell is Archbishop Joan Enric Vives i Sicilia.

The law provides for the right to equal treatment and nondiscrimination, including for members of any religious group.  The law establishes judicial, administrative, and institutional guarantees, which protect and provide compensation for victims of discrimination.  The law also provides for fines of up to 24,000 euros ($27,200) in cases of discrimination, including on the basis of religious affiliation, and stipulates the burden of proof in such cases rests with the defendant, who must demonstrate there has not been discrimination.

Faiths other than Catholicism do not have legal status as religious groups.  The government registers religious communities as cultural organizations under the law of associations, which does not specifically mention religious groups.  To build a place of worship or seek government financial support for community activities, a religious group must acquire legal status by registering as a nonprofit cultural organization.  To register, a group must provide its statutes and foundational agreement, a statement certifying the names of persons appointed to the board or other official positions in the organization, and a patrimony declaration that identifies the inheritance or endowment of the organization.  A consolidated register of associations records all types of associations, including religious groups.

The national ombudsman is responsible for investigating complaints of racism, discrimination, and intolerance, including those involving a religious motivation, in the public and private sectors.  The ombudsman makes recommendations to the public administration to correct problems and reports annually to parliament.  The ombudsman is a member of the commissions established by the Observatory on Equality, which is tasked with collecting and analyzing data and advising the government on issues pertaining to equality and discrimination, including those involving religious issues.

The law requires individuals applying for official documents, such as residence permits, passports, and driver’s licenses, to appear and be photographed with their heads uncovered.

According to the law, municipalities are responsible for the construction, preservation, and administration of cemeteries and funerary services.

Government regulation permits ritual slaughter as required by the Islamic or Jewish faith, as long as it takes place under the supervision of the veterinary services of the country’s slaughterhouse.

Instruction in the Catholic faith is optional in public schools.  The Catholic Church provides teachers for religion classes, and the government provides space in public schools for Catholic religious instruction and pays the teachers’ salaries.

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

Government Practices

The Catholic Church continued to receive special privileges not available to other religious groups.  The government paid the salaries of the eight Catholic priests serving in local churches and granted all foreign Catholic priests citizenship for as long as they exercised their functions in the country.

Despite longstanding requests by Muslim and Jewish community representatives for cemeteries where they could bury their dead according to their rituals and traditions, the government had not identified by year’s end a location for a multiconfessional cemetery, despite the announcement in 2020 that it had begun a search for public land on which to build such a cemetery.  Government officials stated that the Ministry of Territorial Planning was still looking for a suitable site on public land.

Muslim community representatives stated they were disappointed by the lack of government response to their requests.  According to municipal authorities, Jews and Muslims could use existing cemeteries, but these did not allocate separate burial areas for these communities to use.  As a result, most Jews and Muslims continued to bury their dead outside the country.  Muslim community representatives, however, stated that the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult to bury their dead outside of the country due to pandemic travel and health restrictions.

The government continued to fund three public Catholic schools at the primary and secondary level.  These were open to students of all faiths.  Catholic instruction was mandatory for all students attending these schools.

The Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth stated that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Observatory on Equality stopped work during the year, but the work of the national ombudsman continued.

During the year, the national ombudsman’s office did not report receiving any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination or intolerance in the public or private sectors.  The principal religious groups said they had not reported any incidents of discrimination to the ombudsman.  The Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing and Youth said it had not received any complaints of religiously motivated discrimination.

In September, a Muslim family accused the French school Lycee Comte de Foix of discrimination and racism after the school required the family’s daughter, aged 11, to remove her headscarf while in school.  Government officials stated that French law prohibiting students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses, was applicable, as the school was part of France’s public school system, per a bilateral agreement.

At the time of the complaint, the country had no overarching laws regulating the use of religious symbols in its educational system.  On October 4, following the complaint, the government modified the public school regulations nationwide to include a ban on the use of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including headscarves, kippahs, and large crosses.

The government continued to maintain a policy of issuing religious work permits for foreigners performing religious functions only to members of the Catholic Church.  Foreign religious workers belonging to other groups said they could enter the country with permits for other positions such as schoolteachers or business workers and carry out religious work without hindrance.

Catholic rituals, such as priests blessing those gathered for an event or leading a Mass before an event, continued to be a part of many state ceremonies, including annual national day celebrations.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In the absence of a mosque in the country, the Muslim community continued to rely on two Islamic prayer rooms that it rented in Andorra la Vella and in Escaldes-Engordany.

The Catholic Church of Santa Maria del Fener in Andorra la Vella continued to lend its sanctuary twice a month to the Anglican community so that visiting Anglican clergy could conduct services for the English-speaking members of that community.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Ambassador, resident in Spain, and the Consul General and other officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Barcelona reiterated the importance of religious tolerance in periodic in-person and virtual meetings and other communications with officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs; Social Affairs, Housing, and Youth; and Justice and Interior, as well as the Office of the Ombudsman.  Consulate general staff discussed the implementation of the law pertaining to equal treatment and nondiscrimination with representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, Housing, and Youth and raised continued concerns about the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities with senior Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.

In periodic communications and meetings with representatives and human rights NGOs, consulate general officials discussed the groups’ views on issues pertaining to their exercise of religious freedom in the country, including the lack of legal status for religious groups other than the Catholic Church and the lack of cemeteries for the Jewish and Muslim communities.

 

Argentina

Executive Summary

The constitution and laws provide for freedom of religion and the right to profess freely one’s faith.  The constitution grants the Roman Catholic Church preferential legal status, but there is no official state religion.  Several religious groups continued to express frustration that the government required them to register as both civil associations and religious groups to be eligible for benefits that the Catholic Church received without requiring registration.  They also continued to criticize a 2020 General Inspectorate of Justice (IGJ) resolution requiring all civil associations, including religious groups, to have gender parity on their administrative and oversight bodies.  Although many religious leaders supported continuing government COVID-19 restrictions on public gatherings, they criticized specific incidents and restrictions that prevented or broke up religious gatherings.  In May, provincial police halted and dispersed an open-air Mass in Androgue, Buenos Aires Province, attended by approximately 120 persons.  According to the president of the interfaith Argentine Council for Religious Freedom (CALIR), local and national authorities repeatedly violated the right to religious freedom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.  On July 16, the 27th anniversary of the bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) community center, AMIA president Ariel Eichbaum urged the government to “intensify pressure on Lebanon and the Islamic Republic of Iran to cooperate on the investigation and extradite the accused that they are currently protecting.”  President Alberto Fernandez told Jewish community leaders he wanted to see progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 bombing, in which 86 persons died.  During the year, several religious groups and individuals protested the legalization of some abortions in January, including through statements, protests, and the refusal of some medical professional to perform abortions.  Numerous public and private entities adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism during the year, including the government of Santiago del Estero Province, according to a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

During the year, media reported the country experienced increases in overall antisemitic incidents in the forms of violence, hate speech, and misinformation.  According to media and the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA), there were violent attacks targeting Jews during the year, including a beating in January of an Orthodox Jewish father and some of his children in Cordoba Province and an attack in March in Buenos Aires by a woman on two Jewish Orthodox women.  Interreligious groups such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members include Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, as well as indigenous religious groups and CALIR, continued work to promote tolerance and increase opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges.

U.S. embassy officials met with senior government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship’s (MFA) human rights office to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and counteract religious discrimination.  The Charge d’Affaires spoke in September at AMIA’s in-person commemoration for the victims of 9/11 and said, “In our grief, the spirit of unity with like-minded partners like our friends at AMIA strengthens our resolve to continue to fight extremism and make the world a better, safer place for our children.”   Embassy officials supported interfaith cooperation and universal respect for freedom of religion through public statements and social media postings, as well as in meetings with religious groups.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 45.9 million (midyear 2021).  According to a 2019 survey by CONICET, the country’s national research institute, 62.9 percent of the population is Catholic; 15.3 Protestant, including evangelical Christian groups; 18.9 percent no religion, which includes agnostics; 1.4 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ); 1.2 percent other, including Muslims and Jews; and 0.3 percent unknown.  Other sources state Seventh-day Adventists, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Methodists, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ together total 3 percent of the population.  According to the Jewish Virtual Library, Jews numbered 180,000 in 2019.  The Islamic Center estimates the Muslim population at 800,000 to 1,000,000.  Evangelical Christian communities, particularly Pentecostals, are growing, but no reliable statistics are available.  There are also small numbers of Baha’is, Buddhists, and adherents of indigenous religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right to profess, teach, and practice freely one’s faith.  It declares the support of the federal government for “the Roman Catholic Apostolic faith,” but the Supreme Court has ruled that it is not an official or state religion.

The government provides the Catholic Church with tax-exempt subsidies, institutional privileges such as school subsidies, significant autonomy for parochial schools, and licensing preferences for radio frequencies.  The law does not require the Catholic Church to register with the Secretariat of Worship in the MFA.  Registration is not compulsory for other religious groups, but registered groups receive the same status and fiscal benefits as the Catholic Church, including tax-exempt status, visas for religious officials, and the ability to hold public activities.  To register, religious groups must have a place of worship, an organizational charter, and an ordained clergy, among other requirements.  To access many of these benefits, religious groups must also register as a civil association through the IGJ.

Registration is not required for private religious services, such as those held in homes, but it is sometimes necessary to conduct activities in public spaces pursuant to local regulations.  City authorities may require groups to obtain permits to use public parks for events, and they may require religious groups to be registered with the Secretariat of Worship to receive a permit.  Once registered, an organization must report to the secretariat any significant changes or decisions made regarding its leadership, governing structure, size of membership, and the address of its headquarters.

The mandatory curriculum in public schools is secular by law.  Students may request elective courses of instruction in the religion of their choice in public schools, which may be conducted in the school or at a religious institution.  Many Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups operate private schools, which receive financial support contingent on registration with the government.

Foreign officials of registered religious groups may apply for a specific visa category to enter the country.  The validity period of the visa varies depending on the purpose of the travel.  Foreign missionaries of registered religious groups must apply to the Secretariat of Worship, which in turn notifies immigration authorities to request the issuance of appropriate documents.

The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, nationality, ideology, politics, sex, economic or social condition, or physical characteristics, and it requires those found guilty of discriminatory acts to pay damages or serve jail time.  Discrimination may also be an aggravating factor in other crimes, leading to increased penalties.  The board of the National Institute against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism (INADI), a government agency under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, includes representatives of the major religious groups.  INADI investigates suspected and reported incidents of discrimination based on religion.  INADI is not authorized to enforce recommendations or findings, but its reports may be used as evidence in civil court.  The agency also supports victims of religious discrimination and promotes proactive measures to prevent discrimination.  INADI produces and distributes publications to promote religious tolerance.

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

Government Practices

Representatives of several religious groups continued to state that a government requirement for religious groups to register first with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship and then with the Ministry of Interior as a civil association was redundant, noting the Catholic Church faced no such requirement.  The groups said these legal processes were prerequisites for seeking tax-exempt status, visas for foreign clergy, and permission to hold public activities.  Religious group representatives said they deserved a unique process, separate from that for civil associations.

Representatives of some religious groups continued to criticize a 2020 IGJ resolution requiring all civil associations, including religious groups, to have gender parity on their administrative and oversight bodies.  Several religious groups continued to state this requirement was unconstitutional and violated religious freedom.  They also said the government had not implemented the resolution by year’s end and they knew of no religious organizations penalized for failing to comply with it.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government limited through September the size of religious activities nationwide to a maximum of 20 persons in enclosed or private open-air spaces, and to 100 persons in public open-air spaces.  It similarly limited cultural, social, and recreational activities but did not limit to the same degree professional gatherings, government events, and educational events.  On October 1, the government allowed full capacity for religious activities, although events of more than 1,000 persons required stricter protocols.

On May 2, provincial police halted and dispersed an open-air Mass in Androgue, Buenos Aires Province, attended by approximately 120 persons.  According to a police statement, the event was “openly in noncompliance” with national anti-COVID-19 restrictions.  Local media reported that attendees said the Mass was broken up “on very good terms.”  In a May 4 statement, CALIR president Juan Navarro said these police actions were not an isolated event and that local and national authorities had repeatedly violated the right to religious freedom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

On September 7, CALIR released a statement objecting to some municipalities’ prohibitions on religious services on Sunday, September 12, because of nationwide primary elections and related COVID-19 precautions.  Although federal law prohibits large gatherings and acts of proselytism on election days, authorities generally allowed religious services.  Local media reported that the municipalities of Merlo and Bahia Blanca, in Buenos Aires Province, issued prohibitions on religious gatherings for September 12, but Merlo’s authorities retracted the order after consulting with local religious leaders.

According to Jewish community leaders, there was no progress in bringing the accused perpetrators of the 1994 AMIA bombing to justice.  On July 18, the 27th anniversary of the AMIA bombing, AMIA president Eichbaum urged the government to “intensify pressure on Lebanon and the Islamic Republic of Iran to cooperate on the investigation and extradite the accused that they are currently protecting.”  On July 14, President Fernandez and Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri hosted AMIA leaders at the presidential residence to discuss the pursuit of justice and Fernandez told them he wanted to see progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the 1994 bombing.  On July 18, Fernandez tweeted his support for families of the victims, writing, “In 27 years since the AMIA attack, the families of the 85 victims stand firm in their call for truth and justice.  In memory of each one of them and in honor of those that lost their loved ones, we should stand united against impunity.”  In response to Fernandez, dozens of individuals criticized what some called the “hypocrisy” of his message because of their perception that the government was complicit in allowing the impunity to occur.

In August, the MFA denounced the Iranian government’s appointment of two suspects in the AMIA bombing to senior positions in a new Iranian government.  According to the MFA statement, the appointments of Ahmad Vahidi as Interior Minister and Mohsen Rezai as Vice President for Economic Affairs were an affront to the Argentine justice system and to the victims of the bombing, adding that both Rezai and Vahidi played key roles in the decision making and planning of the AMIA attack.  It called on the Iranian government to cooperate fully with Argentine judicial authorities and to allow the suspects to be tried by a competent court.

According to press reports, on October 7, judges dropped obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in relation to a Memorandum of Understanding signed with Iran in 2013 when she was president.  The court stated that the memorandum, “regardless of whether it is considered a political success or a failure, did not constitute a crime or an act of cover up.”  On October 25, DAIA appealed the ruling, which remained pending at year end.

On January 24, a law entered into effect legalizing abortions through the 14th week of pregnancy and in later stages if the pregnancy was the result of rape or threatened the life of the mother.  Many religious organizations, including the Catholic Church and the Christian Alliance of Evangelical Churches (ACIERA), criticized the law, and a growing number of medical professionals – especially in rural areas – refused to perform abortions on religious and ethical grounds.  Most of the 120 gynecologists in the province of Jujuy, for example, declared themselves as conscientious objectors, as permitted in the law.

On March 27, approximately 50,000 persons, according to organizers, participated in marches in 14 of the 23 provinces to express their support for overturning the abortion law.  With the encouragement of ACIERA, marchers demonstrated in Rio Negro, Tucuman, Chubut, Entre Rios, Cordoba, Buenos Aires, Chaco, Corrientes, Salta, Mendoza, Chaco, Corrientes, Santiago del Estero, and Santa Fe Provinces.

Catholic Church representatives continued to discuss measures to reduce their use of federal funding following a 2018 agreement between the government and the Argentine Episcopal Conference (CEA), representing the Catholic Church, that delineated a formal, mutually agreed plan to gradually reduce the state’s direct financial support to the Church.  Under the agreement, government funding primarily allocated for the salaries of bishops and stipends for seminarians decreased from almost 157 million pesos ($1.46 million) in 2019 to 150 million pesos ($1.39 million) in 2020.

On May 20, Juan Carlos Giordano, a representative of the lower house of congress and member of the Socialist Left Party, stated during a session of congress, “An end must be brought to the Zionist state and a unified state must be imposed across the entirety of the historical territory of the Palestine – lay, not racist, and democratic.”  DAIA denounced the statement, stating that it met the IHRA definition of antisemitism, as adopted by the lower house of congress in June 2020.  By year’s end, the lower house had not sanctioned Giordano.

On January 6, Pablo Ansaloni, a representative of the lower house of congress and a leader of the Argentine Union of Rural Workers (UATRE), told a virtual meeting of the union, “We are more united than ever, no one can break us – no one from beyond our province, because they are like the Jews, they have no homeland, they don’t know where they are or who they represent.”  Ansaloni faced criticism for his comments from several civil society actors, including DAIA and UATRE.  On January 20, UATRE dismissed Ansaloni, stating his dismissal was due to his antisemitic statements.

Numerous public and private entities adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism during the year, including the government of Santiago del Estero Province, according to a representative of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Secretary of Worship Guillermo Oliveri, Human Rights Secretary Horacio Pietragalla, and other government representatives again participated in religious freedom conferences, interreligious dialogues, Catholic services, and Rosh Hashanah observances, as well as other religious activities, including those held by Protestant and Orthodox churches.  They often did so virtually or through recorded videos, due to COVID-19 pandemic restrictions on public gatherings.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

During the year, media reported the country experienced overall increases in antisemitic incidents.  According to media and DAIA, in January, individuals forcibly stopped an Orthodox Jewish family traveling by car from to La Falda to La Cumbre in Cordoba Province and yelled “[expletive] Jews, get out of here.  Death to the Jews!”  When the father of the family left his vehicle to attempt to calm the situation, the assailants beat him and continued to shout epithets.  After his children tried to intervene, they too were beaten.  According to the report, the father and children managed to get back into the car and later filed a police report.  Authorities later arrested the suspected assailants but took no further action through year’s end.  DAIA denounced the incident.

On February 19, actor and singer Nicolas Pauls posted on Instagram a cartoon depicting a gigantic sleeved arm with a Star of David on it and a hand pressing down on dozens of persons with the caption, “To know who rules over you, simply discover whom you may not criticize.”  Martin Souto, a television host and friend of Pauls, reposted the picture.  Both faced intense criticism from social media, and both later apologized publicly.

According to vis-a-vis news portal, in March, an unidentified woman rammed her car into another car in which two Orthodox Jewish women were traveling in downtown Buenos Aires.  According to a witness, after the Orthodox Jewish women exited their car, the assailant pulled off the sheytl (wig worn by Orthodox Jewish women) of one of the women and then pushed her to the ground, shouting, “You [expletive] Jew.  I’m going to kill you; you should all have died in the Holocaust!”  Police at first ordered the female assailant to leave but later arrested her after she tried to run over the two Jewish women.

On March 2, unknown vandals damaged the sanctuary of Our Lady of Peace Cathedral in Lomas de Zamora, Buenos Aires Province, stealing crowns from statues of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus.

On May 22, journalist Hugo Ojeda published an article entitled, “Song to Palestineuschwitz,” that compared Israeli actions in Palestinian territories to Nazi concentration camps, adding that Israel’s “ethnic cleaning operations … exceeded the crimes that the genocidal Nazis of the past century inflicted on gypsies, communists, homosexuals and jews [sic].”  DAIA condemned Ojeda’s article, and the publisher Pagina 12 later deleted the article.  Ojeda made no public apology.

In June, the Israeli Ambassador remarked during a panel at the College of Law in La Plata that the country was breaching its trade obligations by restricting shipments of meat to Israel.  In response, the owner of a chain of butcher shops and former Justicialist Party politician, Alberto Samid, tweeted, “The best that could happen is that the Jews no longer buy meat from us… the world does not want to sell them anything.  They are a disaster as clients.”  Samid did not apologize for his remarks despite receiving widespread public criticism.  In April, Samid accused pharmaceutical company Insud CEO Hugo Sigman of selling COVID-19 Astra-Zeneca vaccines to the “gringos.”  Samid wrote on Twitter, “This MOISHE has no limits.  He never gets tired of stealing from us!!!!  When are we going to go to Garin [the town where Insud is located] to block his laboratory?”

On June 3, unknown individuals spray-painted an evangelical Christian church in Neuquen Province and several Catholic institutions in San Luis Province during a day of nationwide protest against gender-based violence.  The Secretariat of Worship decried the vandalism in a statement on social media, noting that it distracted from the demonstrators’ message promoting women’s rights.

On July 26, DAIA objected to the use of Anne Frank’s likeness during an episode of Showmatch, a gameshow on the private television station El Trece.  Producers projected a photograph of Anne Frank alongside a contestant singing about women “who don’t leave the house.”  This incident was reported to the public defender.  The show’s producers issued a joint communique with the Anne Frank Center in Buenos Aires calling the episode an “unintentional error” and pledging to use it as a “learning experience.”

In August, evangelical Christian groups, including ACIERA, denounced a television production for Netflix entitled El Reino (“The Kingdom”), stating it fomented stereotypes and prejudices against evangelical Christian groups.  The plot depicted a fictional evangelical Christian pastor of questionable ethics who runs for president.

On August 23, prominent lawyer Alejandro Fargosi attacked parliamentarian and human rights activist Myriam Bregman as a “militant leftist Jew.”  Fargosi’s comments were widely criticized on social media, both by political figures and Nobel Laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and President Fernandez expressed his solidarity with Bregman on Twitter.  Bregman told local media that Fargosi never apologized.

On August 27, lawyer Gregorio Dalbon made antisemitic comments during a radio interview.  Dalbon, whose clients included President Fernandez and Vice President Fernandez de Kirchner, accused the Jewish community of bribing a prosecutor in charge of the investigation of a violation of quarantine by President Fernandez, his wife, and friends.  DAIA condemned Dalbon’s comments.  On August 31, Dalbon publicly apologized, after apparently meeting with DAIA officials.  According to media, on September 2, a group of judges requested Dalbon’s suspension from the Argentine Bar Association for these and what they stated were other offensive comments.

In September, individuals were caught trying to steal 223 bronze plaques from headstones in La Tablada Jewish Cemetery in Buenos Aires.  The week before, more than 100 headstones had been smashed.  AMIA leaders implored local authorities to provide more security at the cemetery, saying it appeared to be a “free zone.”

A September 15 article from the University of Buenos Aires’ student media criticized the lack of Muslim viewpoints in local media during events in Afghanistan.  The article, noting a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, described an incident in which a Muslim student was heckled as she stepped from a bus with, “Be careful, she has a bomb!”

On September 24, unknown vandals damaged the sanctuary of the Cathedral of San Maron in the Retiro neighborhood of Buenos Aires and stole items from the church.  The CEA and Secretary of Worship Oliveri denounced the vandalism.

Interreligious groups such as the Interreligious Committee for Peace in Argentina, whose members included Catholic, Protestant, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Baha’i, as well as indigenous religious groups and CALIR, continued to work on increasing opportunities for interreligious action on common societal challenges.  CALIR issued statements denouncing acts of vandalism against religious institutions and sponsored local conferences, including a regional forum on religious freedom held on October 28-29.

In October, Jews, Christians, and Muslims jointly painted over Nazi symbols that had been placed on Jewish gravestones in the Jewish community of Santa Fe cemetery.  According to Horacio Roitman, Santa Fe’s DAIA representative, this response to the acts of hatred was “owed to the whole society.”

According to a University of San Martin study released in June, nearly 40 percent of the population believed that “Jewish businessmen” were benefiting from the COVID-19 pandemic.  Asked whether they agreed with the statement, “Behind the coronavirus pandemic, there are figures such as Soros and laboratories of Jewish businessmen who seek to profit financially,” 30 percent of respondents said they concurred “strongly.”  An additional 7 percent agreed to some extent with the statement.  Of the 43 percent of respondents who disagreed, 38 percent completely rejected the statement, and 19 percent said they either did not know or were indifferent.  The study’s main author, Ezequiel Ipar, said he was surprised by the “magnitude of antisemitic sentiment,” particularly among youth.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with government representatives, including from the MFA’s Secretariat of Worship and human rights office, to discuss ways to promote respect for religious minorities and interfaith cooperation.  In meetings with government officials, the Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials discussed tolerance and understanding among the country’s many religious groups, the country’s interfaith movement, and measures to counteract religious discrimination.

In July, the Charge d’Affaires toured a COVID-19 vaccination center hosted by the King Fahd Islamic Cultural Center in Buenos Aires and met with its leaders.  They discussed the relationship of members of the center with the government, the community, and other faith groups.

In July, embassy officials attended an online commemoration to mourn the victims of the 1994 terrorist attack on the AMIA.  The embassy and AMIA also collaborated in September for an AMIA-produced remembrance video for the victims of 9/11, and the Charge d’Affaires delivered remarks alongside AMIA president Eichbaum at an in-person memorial event.  The Charge said, “In our grief, the spirit of unity with like-minded partners like our friends at AMIA strengthens our resolve to continue to fight extremism and make the world a better, safer place for our children.”  In September, embassy officials met with DAIA, AMIA, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country and ways in which the embassy could support communities of all faiths.

Embassy outreach included virtual conversations with religious and community leaders, including those of the CEA, the Church of Jesus Christ, ACIERA, the Islamic Center of Argentina, the NGO Islam for Peace, DAIA, and AMIA.  In the meetings, embassy officials discussed the status of religious freedom and interfaith dialogue and ways to promote them.  The embassy’s social media accounts also promoted respect for religious diversity.

Bahrain

Executive Summary

The constitution declares Islam to be the official religion and sharia the principal source for legislation.  It provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, and freedom to perform religious rites.  The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine.”  The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  There is no legal prohibition against apostasy.  The penal code punishes any individual who mocks or disdains another religious group.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), media, and opposition outlets said the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics.  NGOs stated prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners.  In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison undertook a hunger strike, in part to protest religious discrimination and lack of access to medical facilities.  During the year, the government prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms.  The government investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions and convicted two of inciting religious hatred and sectarianism, and one of blasphemy.  Fifteen other cases were ongoing at year’s end.  In January, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa created two independent councils under the supervision of the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments (MOJIA) to oversee Sunni and Jaafari (Shia) endowments, with authority over endowment assets, including revenues and places of worship.  In February, exiled Shia cleric Sheikh Isa Qassim, residing in Iran, stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence.  On February 24, a high criminal court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Endowment to seven years imprisonment and a 68,000-dinar ($180,000) fine for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques.  The government continued to monitor, regulate, and provide general guidance for the content of religious sermons of both Sunni and Shia religious leaders.  While the government allowed large groups to gather in Manama and in Shia villages to observe Ashura – the most significant days of the Shia religious calendar – activists and opposition outlets, mostly based abroad, criticized the Ministry of Interior (MOI) for taking down Ashura banners in some places and summoning Shia leaders for questioning in connection with sermons they gave during the observance.  NGOs and some Shia clerics and opposition politicians stated that in August, authorities introduced several restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura commemorations, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals.  Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public venues, and media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.  According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to discriminate against Shia citizens and to give Sunni citizens preferential treatment for scholarships and positions in the MOI and military.

Anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media.  NGOs reported on the adverse economic effect of Sunni-Shia tensions and local political divisions.  Shia human rights and political activists reported persistently higher unemployment rates, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and lower socioeconomic status for that community compared with the Sunni population.  Societal pressure against conversion from Islam continued, and non-Muslim religious community leaders again reported converts were unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.  Media reported that in August, Jews held services in the newly renovated synagogue in Manama for the first time since 1947, and in October, the community held the first Jewish wedding in the country in over 50 years.

U.S. government officials, the Charge d’Affaires, and other embassy representatives met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, and national human rights monitoring institutions to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of religious leaders to speak and write freely, and to advocate for the full and equal participation of all citizens, irrespective of religious or political affiliation, in political and social activities and economic opportunities.  In both public and private settings, U.S. officials advocated for the government to pursue political reforms that would take into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious affiliation.  The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as they related to religious practice.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.5 million (midyear 2021).  The NGO World Population Review estimates the population is 1.7 million.  According to the national government, there are approximately 712,000 citizens, constituting less than half of the total population.  According to 2020 national government estimates, Muslims make up approximately 74 percent of the total population.  The Ministry of Information Affairs website states 99.8 percent of citizens are Muslims, while the remainder of citizens are Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Baha’is.  The ministry website states 70.2 percent of the total (citizen and noncitizen) population is Muslim and 29.8 percent adhere to other religions and beliefs, such as Christians (10.2 percent), Jews (0.21 percent), Hindus, Baha’is, Buddhists, and Sikhs.  According to Jewish community members, there are between 36-40 Jewish citizens (six families) in the country.

The government does not publish statistics regarding the breakdown between the Shia and Sunni Muslim populations.  Most estimates from NGOs and the Shia community state Shia Muslims represent a majority (55 to 65 percent) of the citizen population.

Most foreign residents are migrant workers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, and other Arab countries.  According to national government 2020 census data, approximately 401,500 foreign residents are Muslim; 387,800 are Hindu, Buddhist, Baha’i, Sikh, or Christian (primarily Roman Catholic, Protestant, Syrian Orthodox, and Mar Thoma Syrian from South India).  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religions Database, the population includes approximately 1.4 million Muslims, 205,000 Christians, and 109,000 Hindus.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, Islam is the official religion, and the state safeguards the country’s Islamic heritage.  The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, the inviolability of places of worship, freedom to perform religious rites, and freedom to hold religious parades and religious gatherings, “in accordance with the customs observed in the country.”  The constitution provides for the freedom to form associations as long as they do not infringe on the official religion or public order, and it prohibits discrimination based on religion or creed.  All citizens have equal rights by law.  According to the constitution, all persons are equal without discrimination on the basis of gender, origin, language, or faith.  The constitution states that sharia forms the principal basis for legislation, although civil and criminal matters are governed by a civil code.

The labor law pertaining to the private sector prohibits discrimination against workers on grounds of gender, origin, language, religion, or belief.  The labor law deems dismissal for religion to be arbitrary and illegal but does not provide an automatic right to reinstatement.  The law also prohibits wage discrimination based on religion, among other factors.  The Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) investigates claims of discrimination where there is an existing labor relationship; it can escalate violations to the Public Prosecution Office.  The MOLSD does not have the authority to receive or manage complaints of religion-based discrimination in hiring.  There is no law on discrimination in public sector employment.

The constitution guarantees the right to express and publish opinions, provided these do not infringe on the “fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine” and do not prejudice the “unity of the people” or arouse discord or sectarianism.

The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.”  The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Islamic religious groups must register with the MOJIA to operate.  Sunni religious groups register with the ministry through the Sunni Waqf (endowment), while Shia religious groups register through the Jaafari (Shia) Waqf.  MOJIA endowment boards supervise, fund the work of, and perform a variety of activities related to mosques and prayer halls.  Non-Islamic groups have the status of civil society organizations and as such must register with and receive a license from the MOLSD to operate.  To register, a group must submit an official letter requesting a license to operate; copies of minutes from the founders’ committee meeting; a detailed list of founders and board members, including names, ages, nationalities, occupations, and addresses.  It must also submit other information, such as the group’s bylaws, candidates who seek election to the organization’s governing board, a physical address, and bank account in a bank registered with the Central Bank of Bahrain.  The group must also request permission to receive funding or transfer funding.  Religious groups also may need approval from the Ministry of Education (MOE), the Ministry of Information Affairs, or MOI, depending on the nature of the group’s intended activities.  The law prohibits associations from engaging in politics.  The law prohibits activities falling outside an organization’s charter.  The penal code does not specifically address the activities of unregistered religious groups but provides for the closing of any unlicensed branch of an international organization plus imprisonment of up to six months and fines of up to 50 dinars ($130) for the individuals responsible for setting up the branch.

According to the MOLSD’s website, the following non-Islamic churches and spiritual groups were registered with the ministry:  the National Evangelical Church, Bahrain Malaylee Church of South India Parish, Word of Life International Church, St. Christopher’s Cathedral, Church of Philadelphia, St. Mary and Anba Rewis Church (St. Mary’s Indian Orthodox Cathedral), Jacobite Syrian Christian Association and St. Peter’s Prayer Group (St. Peter’s Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church), St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Sacred Heart Catholic Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Church of Christ, Greek Orthodox Church, Pentecostal Church, Baps Shri Swaminarayan Mandir Bahrain (Hindu Temple), Indian Religious and Social Group (Hindu Temple), Spiritual Sikh Cultural and Social Group, St. Thomas Evangelical Church of Bahrain, Marthoma Parish, House of Ten Commandments Synagogue, Shri Krishna Hindu Temple, and the Baha’i Social Society.

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group.

There is no explicit legal prohibition against apostasy.  The penal code punishes any individual who insults another religious sect with up to one year in prison and a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270).  It punishes an individual for desecration of religious books with up to one year in prison and a fine of 100 dinars ($270).  The law also prohibits any person from imitating in public a religious ritual or ceremony with the intention of ridiculing it.

The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, or advocating for a change of government, among other offenses.  The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman, the Prisoners’ and Detainees’ Rights Commission, and the National Institute for Human Rights address the rights of prisoners, including the right to practice their religion.

The law allows prisoners to receive “alternative non-custodial sentences” in lieu of custodial sentences, provided such a sentence would not endanger public security.  The MOI supervises individuals following their release on an alternative sentence, and the trial judge and the public prosecutor determine their eligibility and conditions for an alternative sentence.  Alternative sentences may include community service, home detention, electronic surveillance, no-contact orders, or participation in rehabilitation programs.

The MOJIA oversees the activities of both the Sunni Waqf and the Jaafari Waqf, which are appointed by the King with recommendations from the president of the government-run and funded Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs (SCIA).  The respective endowment boards supervise the activities of mosques and prayer halls, review and approve clerical appointments for religious sites under their purview, and fund expenses for the building and maintenance of religious sites.  The government allocates 2.7 million dinars ($7.16 million) annually to each endowment board.  Zakat (Islamic tithes), income from property rentals, and other private sources largely fund the remainder of the endowment boards’ operations.  The endowment boards may pay flat commissions and bonuses to preachers and other religious figures.

On January 20, the King issued a royal decree restructuring the Sunni and Jaafari Waqf directorates.  According to the decree, the Sunni and Jaafari endowments are overseen by two independent councils that fall under the direct supervision of “a minister in charge of endowments affairs.”  Each council manages its respective endowment, disburses revenues, and has full authority over endowment assets, including places of worship.  The endowments were previously under the direct supervision of the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments.

The SCIA oversees general religious activities taking place within the country as well as the publication of Islamic studies school curricula and official religious texts.  The council consists of a chair, a deputy chair, and 16 religious scholars – eight Sunni and eight Shia, most of them prominent preachers or sharia judges.  The King appoints all council members to a four-year term.  Independent of other government scholarship programs, the council offers university scholarships to low-income students for advanced Islamic studies.  The SCIA reviews all legislation proposed by parliament to ensure that draft laws comply with sharia.  The council also consults with other government entities before issuing permits to new Islamic societies or centers.  The council is responsible for reviewing the content of Islamic programs broadcast on official government media, such as the official television station and official radio programs.  The council also organizes interfaith conferences and workshops.

The King has sole legal authority to allocate public land, including for religious purposes, although he may delegate this authority to government officials.  By law, construction of Islamic places of worship requires MOJIA approval.  Non-Islamic groups must obtain MOLSD approval.  Municipal authorities provide final approval for construction.  Citizens may also offer private land to build mosques.  Permission for construction of a new mosque, whether Shia or Sunni, requires a government determination of the need for a new mosque in the area.  The government also determines the need for non-Islamic houses of worship.  The law permits non-Islamic houses of worship to display crosses or other religious symbols on the outside their premises.

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system.  The government funds public schools for grades one through 12; Islamic studies based on Sunni doctrine are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims.  Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign-funded and foreign-operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students.  Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the MOE.  Outside of school hours, Muslim students may engage in religious studies sponsored by the MOJIA, as their parents deem fit.

In coordination with the SCIA, a team of MOE-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies portion of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shia schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence.  According to the government, the SCIA provides financial assistance to the six registered hawzas (Shia seminaries); other hawzas choose to be privately funded.  The government does not permit foreign donors to contribute to privately funded hawzas.  There are no restrictions on religious studies abroad.  The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools.

Specialized MOE-run religious schools provide more thorough religious instruction – the Jaafari Institute for instruction in Shia Islam and the Religious Institute for instruction in Sunni Islam – for students from elementary through high school.  The remainder of the curriculum is consistent with the nonreligious curriculum in other public schools.

Regarding family and personal status matters, the constitution states inheritance is a guaranteed right governed by sharia.  The constitution also guarantees the duties and status of women and their equality with men, “without breaching the provisions” of sharia.  The personal status law states that either the Sunni or Shia interpretation of sharia, depending on the religious affiliation of the parties, shall govern family matters, including inheritance, child custody, marriage, and divorce.  Mixed Sunni-Shia families may choose which court system will hear their case.  The provisions of the law on personal status apply to both Shia and Sunni women, requiring a woman’s consent for marriage and permitting women to include conditions in the marriage contract.  Non-Muslims may marry in civil or religious ceremonies; however, all marriages must be registered with a civil court.  Civil courts also adjudicate matters such as divorce and child custody for non-Muslims.

The government does not designate religious affiliation on national identity documents, including birth certificates.  Applications for birth certificates and national identity documents, however, record a child’s religion (either Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or other), but not denomination.  Hospital admission forms and school registration forms may also request information on an individual’s religion.

The constitution says the state shall strive to strengthen ties with Islamic countries.  It specifies that succession to the position of king is hereditary, passing from eldest son to eldest son.  The royal family is Sunni.

The law prohibits any individual from being a member of a political society or becoming involved in political activities while serving in a clerical role at a religious institution, including on a voluntary basis.

By law, the government regulates and monitors the collection of money by religious and other organizations.  Islamic organizations wishing to collect money must first obtain authorization from the MOJIA.  Non-Islamic organizations must obtain authorization from the MOLSD.  On August 4, the MOJIA issued an amendment to a royal decree regulating fundraising that requires the Sunni and the Jaafari endowments to submit to the ministry annual reports on funds they collect for religious purposes, including for the construction or renovation of places of worship.  The endowments must also deposit collected funds in a bank accredited by the Central Bank of Bahrain and notify the MOJIA.  The amendment bans the endowments from receiving money from abroad without MOJIA approval.

The law guarantees inmates of correctional facilities the right to attend burials and receive condolences outside prison.

The country is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with reservations stating it interprets the covenant’s provisions relating to freedom of religion, family rights, and equality between men and women before the law as “not affecting in any way” the prescriptions of sharia.

Government Practices

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

According to media, on November 21, the Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of a Shia preacher and upheld a one-year suspended prison sentence against him for “insulting religious figures revered by a group of people” (i.e., Sunni Muslims) during a sermon.  Authorities also charged the preacher with organizing an illegal gathering of more than five individuals during the pandemic.

NGOs, media, and opposition outlets reported the government continued to question, detain, and arrest Shia clerics.  NGOs reported prison authorities routinely denied Shia prisoners needed medical treatment more often than Sunni prisoners.  The MOI confirmed that on April 5, Shia inmate Abbas Hassan Ali Malallah died of a heart attack in Jaw Prison.  Shia Rights Watch stated that according to fellow prisoners, Malallah requested medical treatment on April 4, complaining of chest pains, but authorities denied his request.  The National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), a quasigovernmental organization responsible for investigating human rights complaints, including complaints of abuse in prison, said it found no evidence prison guards deliberately denied Mallalah medical services.

On June 8, Hussain Barakat, who was serving a life sentence in connection with a terrorism case involving the Shia militant group “Zulfiqar Brigades,” an entity associated with armed religious groups, died in prison after being diagnosed with COVID-19.  Human rights activists reiterated their calls to release other prisoners and said prison authorities failed to properly counter the pandemic.

According to local media, on November 15, the Higher Criminal Court of Appeals upheld the prison sentences of 10 Shia individuals to prison terms ranging from three years to life in prison.  They, along with four other men, were convicted of forming a terrorist cell that was affiliated with al-Ashtar Brigades (a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization that is also known as the military arm of the al-Wafa Islamic movement) and planting bombs inside Bahrain National Bank ATMs in Naeem and Jid Hafs areas in February.  The four other men escaped after their trials and remained at large at year’s end.

According to the government, on September 16, the MOI arrested four Shia individuals and charged them with attempting to plant a bomb inside a Bahrain National Bank ATM in Muharraq.  The government said the men were suspected members of the February 14 movement, a branch of the al-Wafa Islamic movement.  Opposition sources said authorities arrested 14 individuals.

A human rights activist on Twitter stated that on July 1, Shia cleric Sheikh Abdullah Isa “Mirza” al-Mahroos, who was serving a 15-year sentence in Jaw Prison, undertook a hunger strike to protest mistreatment, lack of proper medical care, and being prevented from seeing his son, who also was incarcerated in Jaw prison.  Authorities sentenced al-Mahroos to 15 years in prison in 2011, along with 13 others identified as leaders of the 2011 antigovernment protests and hundreds of other opposition activists.  His family said he was eligible for an alternative sentence and had chronic medical issues.

Several Shia clerics arrested during the 2011 antigovernment protests remained in prison at year’s end.  They were serving prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life imprisonment on charges related to terrorist activity or inciting hatred.  Some human rights NGOs considered them to be political prisoners.  According to the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), activists commemorated the tenth-year anniversary of the protests amid what HRW described as “continuing heavy repression.”  According to sources, protests on February 13 and 14 included slogans targeting King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and pictures of exiled and jailed opposition figures.

The MOI’s Office of the Ombudsman stated the office resolved 664 grievances from inmates and detainees, constituting 94 percent of the total 691 complaints filed during the year.

In March, the Special Investigation Unit (SIU), part of the Public Prosecutor’s Office responsible for investigating complaints filed against security forces, reported receiving 33 complaints in the first quarter of 2020 and interrogating 13 MOI officers.  On March 15, the SIU referred three security officers to the criminal court for mistreating inmates in 2020, and on April 15, the court found the three officers guilty.  Two of them received prison sentences and one officer received a fine.  The SIU received 68 formal complaints alleging torture, mistreatment, and excessive force by members of the police.  It interrogated 107 MOI officers tied to the complaints and prosecuted 16 in criminal court for police misconduct.  The SIU referred at least 11 MOI officers to the forensic and psychiatric departments; it referred three others to military courts for disciplinary measures.  As of September, military courts took disciplinary action against nine other MOI officers in cases previously referred to them by the SIU.

During the year, according to government announcements, the MOI prosecuted a woman for blasphemy and defamation of Islam and other religions on social media platforms.  The government did not release additional details about the nature of the incident.  The case was ongoing at year’s end.

According to the MOI, during the year, the ministry investigated 26 individuals for defamation of religions, a charge usually stemming from statements made during sermons, and the government prosecuted six of them for inciting religious hatred and sectarianism.  Courts convicted two of the six, but authorities did not announce their sentences.  The other four cases remained ongoing at year’s end.  The government also prosecuted 11 of the 26 individuals for “despising other religions” and convicted one person of blasphemy.

The government continued to attach witchcraft and sorcery charges to some cases involving charges of theft and fraud.  In March, the director-general of the Capital Governorate Police announced authorities arrested a woman for practicing sorcery and stealing money and personal items from clients.  In October, the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Forensic Science arrested two men on a charge of practicing witchcraft and sorcery.  Authorities also accused the men of violating public morals.  The case was referred to the Public Prosecutor’s Office and remained pending at year’s end.

On May 23, the MOI Anti-Cyber Crime Directorate arrested a Sunni woman and charged her with inciting sectarian hatred.  According to the government, the woman said Shia Muslims were responsible for the spread of COVID-19.  She appeared before the criminal court on May 27.  At year’s end, there was no further information available on the disposition of her case.

Zuhair Ebrahim Jassim and Hussain Abdulla Khalil Rashid, two prisoners convicted of involvement in targeting security forces and killing one police officer in a police bus explosion in November 2017 and killing another officer in a bomb explosion in Damistan in 2014, remained on death row at year’s end.  In June 2020, the Court of Cassation upheld their appeal of the death sentence.  NGOs said their confessions were obtained through torture and that the trial proceedings were unfair.  A 2020 New York Times report identified the men as members of the Shia community who previously expressed opposition to the government.

According to media, on December 9, the MOI announced it had arrested a male citizen for blasphemy and for inciting immoral activities on social media.  The MOI referred the case to the public prosecutor, and it remained pending at year’s end.

On February 24, a court sentenced two employees of the Jaafari Waqf to seven years imprisonment and a fine of 68,000 dinars ($180,000) for embezzlement related to renovating Shia mosques.  On March 14, a Council of Representatives inquiry committee on the misuse of the Jaafari Endowment’s funds and properties submitted its final report to the committee’s office board.  The inquiry committee, established in September 2020, consisted of six Shia and three Sunni members of parliament.  The report’s findings had not been made public by year’s end.

On January 21, authorities released Shia preacher Abdul Mohsin Mulla Atiyya al-Jamri after he spent one year in prison for a 2019 sermon “defaming a [historical] figure that is revered by a religious group.”  The preacher reportedly spoke against the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Mu’awiya I, who assumed the caliphate after the assassination in 661of the Prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, who is revered by Shia Muslims.

According to the Twitter post of a supporter, on April 9, authorities released prominent Shia cleric Sayed Kamel al-Hashemi from prison under an alternative noncustodial sentence after he served more than two-and-a-half years for contempt of the King and inciting sectarian hatred based on his comments criticizing the government.

On April 2, the government released Shia citizen Abdulnabi al-Sammak from prison under an alternative sentence.  Authorities arrested al-Sammak in 2020 for publicly reciting Ziyarat Ashura, a Shia prayer deemed defamatory of religious figures that Sunnis revere.  They charged al-Sammak with publicly insulting symbols and defaming the Islamic faith.

The government announced that on April 12, King Hamad pardoned 91 prisoners at the start of Ramadan via royal decree.  On May 12, the eve of Eid al-Fitr, the King pardoned 203 prisoners.  On July 18, the eve of Eid al-Adha, he pardoned 32 individuals, including some foreigners.

The NGO Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) stated that on January 1, Shia prisoner Mohamed Abdulnabi Abdulla (also known as Mohamed Abdulnabi Juma al-Khoor) undertook an 11-day hunger strike to protest access to medical facilities.  Authorities sentenced Abdulla to life in prison with revocation of citizenship on charges related to a blast in Karranah village in August 2015 that killed one policeman and injured seven others.  According to ADHRB, his health declined in prison, and from July 2020 until he undertook the hunger strike, he requested medical treatment by a specialist.  On January 11, a prison doctor examined Abdulla and transferred him to Qala’a Hospital to see an orthopedist, who, according to ADHRB, did not order an x-ray.  Abdulla continued to state he was not receiving adequate specialized medical treatment and remained in prison at year’s end.

The government continued to monitor and provide general guidance on the content of sermons by sending circulars to mosques, and to summon for questioning clerics who spoke on unapproved topics.  The MOJIA continued to monitor clerics’ adherence to a pledge of ethics it created for individuals engaged in religious discourse.  According to the MOJIA, preachers who diverged from the pledge were subject to censure or removal by authorities on the grounds that their actions jeopardized national security.  The MOJIA reported reviewing on a weekly basis sermons preachers submitted to the government.  The MOJIA reported regularly visiting mosques on unannounced visits to ensure preacher’s sermons were “moderate,” avoided discussing controversial topics, did not incite violence, and did not use religious discourse to serve political purposes.  According to Shia community representatives, during Ashura, police again summoned some Shia chanters and preachers and required them to sign pledges that they would avoid discussing politics in their sermons.

On August 24, supporters posted on Twitter that authorities summoned Shia chanters Mohamed al-Gallaf, Salih Sahwan, Hasan Norooz, Mahdi Sahwan, and Sayed Ahmed al-Alawi for religious songs they chanted during Ashura and clerics Abdelmohsin al-Jamri, Mohamed al-Rayyash, Hani al-Banna and Aziz al-Khadhran for sermons they gave during Ashura.  The men were released shortly afterwards without charges.  Supporters posted on Twitter that on June 12, Hoora authorities summoned Shaikh Majeed al-Meshaal to the police station; they released him the same day without charges.

International and local NGOs reported that police summoned three Shia clerics in August during the days leading up to and following the commemoration of Ashura.  Authorities interrogated the men because of the content of their sermons and specifically for “inciting sectarian hatred.”  Authorities released two of the men the day after their detention.  The third cleric remained in police custody at year’s end.

Political opposition figures on social media stated police summoned clerics and community leaders during the year for the content of their sermons or for creating or distributing publications deemed anti-Islamic.  The MOI denied these reports, saying police did not summon or arrest anyone during the year for those reasons.

In January, the family of imprisoned Shia cleric Zuhair Jasim Ashoor, also known as Sheikh Zuhair Jasim Abbas, released a statement describing inhumane treatment by prison authorities.  They said Ashoor experienced extended stays in solitary confinement, beatings, sleep deprivation, limited access to water, death threats, as well as authorities confiscating Ashoor’s religious books, including texts he was writing, and prohibiting him from practicing religious rituals.  Authorities had arrested and convicted Ashoor in 2013 on terrorism charges.  Ashoor’s family stated authorities had tortured him in prison for taking part in a protest inside the prison, a charge the government denied.

According to local social media accounts, on April 20, Jaw Prison authorities allowed Shia scholar Abduljalil al-Meqdad, who was serving a life sentence, temporary release to attend his mother’s funeral.  Authorities sentenced al-Meqdad to life in prison after his arrest in March 2011 with other political figures on charges of attempting to overthrow the government.  At least five of his relatives, including his brother Habib al-Meqdad, continued serving prison sentences ranging from 10 to 15 years.

The MOI stated its community policing program enlisted individuals directly from communities to act as informal community police, with the goals of maintaining local peace and security, resolving local issues at the community level, and avoiding escalating conflicts to law enforcement authorities.  The MOI stated these informal community police monitored religious gatherings and funerals to prevent those gatherings from degenerating into protests or acts of violence.

The NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) recorded one incident of harassment, one incident of threat, and nine incidents in which authorities prevented religious practice during Ramadan, although the NGO did not provide details.  ACLED also reported authorities denied iftar meals to inmates in Jaw Prison.

According to ACLED, authorities regulated Laylat al-Qadr (Night of Power) celebrations by an ad hoc decree issued May 2 that restricted the capacity of mosques and limited attendance to men who had received the second dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

ADHRB reported that police arrested or summoned for questioning several Shia Muslims related to Ashura observances.  These included multiple summons sent to individuals who had raised black flags on the roofs of their homes during the holy day on August 18, as well as interrogations, arrests, and detentions of, and fines levied against, other members of the community throughout the country.  ADHRB stated, “The violation of fundamental freedoms and religious rites [was] not an isolated occurrence… The pandemic has offered an opportunity to authorities to continue such repression under the guise of preventing the spread of COVID-19.  This has dangerously extended the powers given to state security forces and has seen the systematic denial of religious freedom in the country.”

In August, family members and supporters posted on Twitter that inmates at Jaw Prison went on a hunger strike to protest religious discrimination and a lack of access to medical facilities, among other complaints.  Some detainees said prison officials, citing COVID-19 mitigation efforts, limited time for practicing Ashura rituals.  The NIHR said, however, authorities gave inmates additional time to practice Ashura rituals in common areas.  Officials confirmed that religious rituals were not permitted in prison cells as a matter of general policy, and that religious commemorations were only permitted in designated prison common areas.

Activists and opposition media outlets criticized the MOI for taking down Ashura banners in Ras Rumman, South Sehla, and Hamad Town.

In a study released in October, ACLED stated Ashura commemorations in the country were “rooted at the community level and bear religious, social, and political meaning” and, “What lies at the core of the dispute between the Sunni regime and Shiite citizens is Ashura’s political potential.”  According to the report, in August, authorities introduced several religious practice restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 that effectively repressed Ashura practice and expression, including limiting attendance at houses of worship to 30 vaccinated adult individuals, and banning children from attending Ashura rituals.  ACLED stated these restrictions were enforced by means of “judicial harassment” (35 incidents) and the removal of Ashura banners (31 incidents).  Authorities arrested and summoned preachers, religious singers, and maatam (a Shia prayer house, sometimes called husseiniya in other countries) directors for taking part in Ashura commemorations.  According to the study, officials denied Shia prisoners the right to celebrate Ashura and punished them if they performed rituals, including with discriminatory acts like preventing them from contacting their families.

Dissolved Shia political society Al-Wifaq issued a report on the government’s actions during the first 10 days of the month of Muharram, which culminate in the observance of Ashura, marking the death of Hussein at the battle of Karbala.  In its statement, Al-Wifaq said security forces summoned Shia scholars, preachers, officials of religious centers, and others during this period and tore down Ashura banners and flags throughout the country.  The statement also said the government used the COVID-19 pandemic to restrict religious activities.  According to Al-Wifaq, the government investigated 100 citizens and arrested three for “practicing their religious freedoms,” and there were 45 government actions that disrupted Ashura rituals, including confiscating banners or flags and other “provocative practices.”

The government stated special rooms were available to prisoners for worship and prayer regardless of religious affiliation.  On August 22, the NIHR released a statement on its findings from prearranged visits during Ashura to male and female detention centers.  The NIHR stated officials at these facilities said inmates could practice their religious rites “with ease.”  NIHR stated it spoke at random with inmates who said officials provided them with necessary facilities and services to practice their religious rites.  Independent NGOs, however, cited instances where authorities denied prisoners their right to perform religious rituals.

An overseas-based human rights group stated that in at least one case, a judge prohibited an alternative noncustodial sentencing beneficiary from participating in social, cultural, and religious activities, including visiting mosques and maatams, or attending religious commemorations while serving his sentence.

According to an August 24 report by ADHRB, the National Task Force to Combat COVID-19 (COVID-19 taskforce) announced two days before the start of Muharram that it would allow Ashura processions in the vicinity of mosques and maatams, provided participants observed social distancing and other precautionary measures, such as wearing face masks and regularly using disinfectant.  The ADHRB report stated these precautionary health measures “were supposedly in accordance with recommendations by the government’s medical team…. However, the authorities have instead utilized these measures to whitewash restrictions on religious freedoms in the country, alongside concealing the systematic violation of various other human rights.”  ADHRB also reported that King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, appeared in media joining in the Indian Onam festival, among large crowds, without employing any obvious public health measures.

Other restrictions on maatams and mosques included a ban on children’s attendance and limits on capacity (30 persons), hours of operation, and geographical boundaries for processions.  Additionally, the government prohibited leaders from moving from one maatam to another.  Some Shia religious leaders and opposition politicians stated these restrictions were stricter than those applied to other public buildings, such as shopping malls.  A video that circulated on social media of a large crowd of spectators at a basketball game caused some members of the Shia community to question whether the COVID-19 taskforce was applying more scrutiny to maatams than other establishments.  Media commentators negatively compared the MOI’s response ahead of Ashura to more permissive government preparations for Hindu and Christian holidays.

Media reported that on August 14, a group of 65 maatams issued a joint statement requesting the COVID-19 taskforce review the requirement to limit Ashura processions to certain areas, saying the requirement contributed to overcrowding and ran counter to the goals of the COVID-19 precautionary measures.

After the observance of Ashura, the King thanked the Shia community on August 19 for taking steps to limit the spread of the coronavirus during observances, saying in a statement that he “praised the awareness and national responsibility shown by everyone during Ashura commemoration towards themselves, their surroundings, and society.”

Women’s prayers halls and restrooms remained closed until the end of September, while male prayers rooms opened in April.  Media reported that on September 5, parliamentarian and head of the Services Committee Ahmed al-Ansari said the continued closure of women’s chapels and toilet facilities and the government’s directive that the Quran should not be opened as anti-COVID-19 measures were not justified when restaurants and shops were open, where groups congregated and were more vulnerable to objects being touched by multiple individuals.  On September 23, the MOJIA announced all female prayer halls and toilet facilities in mosques would reopen, with appropriate health measures in place.

Adherents of minority religious groups reported they were able to produce religious media and publications and distribute them in bookstores and churches, although the government did not permit publications it perceived as criticizing Islam.  The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses.  The MOJIA also reviewed books that discussed religion.

According to representatives from the Christian and Hindu communities, the government did not interfere with their religious observances and publicly encouraged tolerance for minority religious beliefs and traditions.

The government reported there were 598 licensed Sunni mosques and 91 Sunni Islamic centers, the same numbers as in 2020.  Authorities decreased the number of licensed Shia mosques to 763 (from 764 in 2020) and increased the number of maatams to 624 (from 618 in 2020).  During the year, the government granted permits to build three Shia mosques, three maatams, and 23 new Sunni mosques.  Authorities temporarily closed 49 Sunni mosques, five Shia mosques, and nine maatams during the year for violating COVID-19 guidelines.  MOJIA closed three older mosques for renovation.

The MOLSD reported it did not receive new requests from religious groups for land or construction permits.  There was no registered Buddhist temple; however, Buddhist groups reported they met in private facilities.

After the completion of construction, the new Catholic cathedral, Our Lady of Arabia, opened in December in Awali.  The government donated the land for the cathedral, intended to serve as the main church for the Catholic Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, which includes Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.  As of year’s end, the municipality of Awali had not granted approval for the construction of three proposed Christian churches, citing unspecified security concerns.  In 2014, the King donated land for the churches.

In December, the government allocated land for a new Christian cemetery in Salmabad, acting on the Christian community’s longstanding request since the country’s second Christian cemetery filled its last burial plot in 2014.

The government permitted both registered and unregistered non-Muslim religious communities to maintain identifiable places of worship, hold religious gatherings, and display religious symbols such as crosses outside churches.

According to a December 13 report by the Canadian-American magazine Vice, the government did not fulfill its promise to rebuild 38 Shia mosques destroyed in the 2011 uprising.  An ADHRB official told the magazine, “Every year there are instances where they [Shia worshippers] pray on the land of these destroyed mosques and they end up being summoned and forced to sign pledges they won’t do it anymore.”  Another ADHRB official said, “The mosques that have been rebuilt are mainly rebuilt by the community themselves.  A lot of them are not being maintained properly.”  In response to the article, the government said in an email to Vice, “All 30 unlicensed … structures used for religious purposes referred to in your inquiry have been regularized and rebuilt to the standards of other Muslim places of worship in Bahrain (over 1,456 mosques and 625 maatams), except for three which remain under study.”

In March, the Minister of Justice confirmed that maatams were considered places of worship and therefore exempt from paying utility bills.

In November, some commentators declared that a photograph in a 10th grade family education textbook promoting positive self-image and self-esteem deviated from Islamic values by promoting homosexuality.  The photograph showed a boy looking in the mirror surrounded by hearts.  Assistant Undersecretary for Curricula and Educational Supervision Ahlam al-Amer released a statement defending the photograph as linked to Islamic and educational values.  Members of parliament unanimously voted to start a probe into alleged homosexual content in secondary schools and suspend the family education classes until the “offensive” content was removed.

The independent but government-affiliated King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence (King Hamad Centre) reported it offered student exchanges and educational programs centered on dispelling ignorance, discrimination, and intolerance, including religious intolerance.  During the year, the center’s Cyber Peace Academy developed an online “interfaith dialogue tool” and mobile app, Growing Peace, for young persons to explore scenarios and case studies on themes of violence, discrimination, hate speech, racism, and religious rights.  The King Hamad Centre’s Board of Trustees comprised representatives of the country’s Sunni, Shia, Christian, Catholic, Baha’i, Hindu, and Buddhist communities.

The University of Bahrain continued to offer degree programs in religious studies and Islamic jurisprudence for Shia and Sunni students.

All students, regardless of religion, were eligible to participate in the Crown Prince International Scholarship Program (CPISP); the government did not provide a statistical breakdown of participants by religious affiliation.  CPISP published a list of scholarship recipients’ names, fields of study, and schools on its website.  Some Shia community leaders continued to state the MOE favored Sunni students in granting scholarships rather than distributing them based solely on student merit.

Human rights activists continued to report discrimination against Shia students in university scholarship distribution.

There were reports that the MOE refused to recognize the foreign degrees of some students, primarily those who studied in China.  Some activists said these refusals disproportionately affected Shia students, a higher proportion of whom obtained degrees in China.

The government-run television station Bahrain TV broadcast Friday sermons from the country’s official Al-Fateh Mosque and other Sunni mosques, such as Sabeeka bint Ebrahim Mosque and Sabeeka al-Nusf Mosque, but not sermons from Shia mosques or clerics.  Some Shia activists said this was discriminatory, while others said it was better not to be subject to government broadcasting restrictions.  Many Shia mosques disseminated sermons via social media.  A government-affiliated human rights monitoring organization said Shia prisoners could view Shia sermon videos on their mobile phones.

On February 6, Shia cleric and the spiritual leader of the dissolved Al-Wifaq political society, Sheikh Isa Qassim, who was stripped of his citizenship by the government in 2016 and had been living in Iran since 2018, issued a statement rejecting the restructuring of the Waqf directorates by royal decree, a move that subordinated the directorates to independent councils.  He stated the move was “illegitimate” and “hostile” to Jaafari jurisprudence.  Qassim also criticized the fact that the budget allocated to the Jaafari Waqf Directorate was dependent on the government.  He characterized both actions as the government’s “manipulation” of the Jaafari Waqf.  In April, Qassim issued a statement that said a new constitution was the only way to resolve the country’s divisions.  In May, hundreds of supporters gathered at Qassim’s home village of Diraz on the anniversary of a 2017 police raid on his home that resulted in the deaths of two protestors.

While by law Arab applicants with 15 years’ residence and non-Arab applicants with 25 years’ residence were eligible to apply for citizenship, arbitrary implementation of the law from the application stage to approval remained a common criticism of both Shia and Sunni citizens, as well as migrant rights activists.  The government stated foreign residents applying for citizenship were not required to report their religious affiliation.  Shia politicians and community activists, however, continued to state the government’s naturalization and citizenship process favored Sunni over Shia applicants.  They said the government continued to recruit Sunnis from other countries to join the security forces, granted them expedited naturalization, and provided them with public housing, while excluding Shia citizens from those forces.  According to Shia community activists, the continued recruitment and expedited naturalization of Sunnis represented an ongoing attempt to alter the demographic balance of the country’s citizens.

The government did not maintain official statistics on the religious affiliation of public sector employees, members of parliament, or ministers.  According to informal estimates, the 40-member Shura Council included 19 Shia Muslim members, one Jewish member, and one Christian member, while the remaining 19 members were Sunni Muslims.  Following parliamentary elections in 2018, of 40 seats on the elected Council of Representatives, 25 were won by members identified as Sunnis and 15 identified as Shia.  Five of the 22 cabinet members, including one of the four deputy prime ministers, were Shia.

According to Shia leaders and community activists, the government continued to give Sunni citizens preference for government positions, especially in the managerial ranks of the civil service, military, and security services.  They also said Sunnis received preference for other government-related employment, especially in the managerial ranks of state-owned businesses.  Few Shia citizens served in significant posts in the defense and internal security forces.  According to Shia community members, senior civil service recruitment and promotion processes favored Sunni candidates.

Shia community members said educational, social, and municipal services in most Shia neighborhoods remained inferior to those in Sunni communities.  The government stated it made efforts to support public schools in Shia and Sunni neighborhoods equally.  The MOLSD organized expositions, job fairs, professional guidance, and assistance to needy families in predominately Shia neighborhoods.

The MOLSD, which has a supervisory role in implementing labor law in the private sector, again said there were no reported cases of religious or sectarian discrimination during the year.  Shia community activists again responded that they lacked confidence in the effectiveness of government institutions to address discrimination and therefore did not utilize them.

NGOs reported the government continued to closely monitor the collection of funds, including charity donations, by religious organizations, with some NGOs describing this as government overreach.  NGOs said religious leaders and organizations not authorized to collect money, or whom the government believed handled the money in improper ways, were potentially subject to legal action.

On July 7, the government announced it had created a new medal for peaceful coexistence named after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to recognize leading personalities and international organizations supporting interfaith and coexistence in the country.  The Board of Trustees of the King Hamad Centre said the medal would “contribute to enhancing regional and global awareness of the importance of respecting religions and accepting others to achieve peace and harmony among different peoples and societies.”

Media reported that on August 22, King Hamad’s son, Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, participated in the celebration of the Hindu festival of Onam, where he said the observance confirmed the importance of dialogue and understanding in the country.

On September 13, Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments Shaikh Khaled bin Ali Al Khalifa, speaking during the G20 Interfaith Forum in Italy, highlighted the importance of establishing the rule of law without differentiating between persons of different beliefs.

The Baha’i World News Service and local media reported that on October 30, Hamad Centre chairman Shaikh Khalid bin Khalifa Al Khalifa and foreign diplomats attended a ceremony in Manama marking the centenary of the passing of Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith from 1892-1921.

The government said developments connected to the signing of the Abraham Accords and to the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel promoted tolerance and acceptance of Jews in Bahrain.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslim religious community leaders again reported that there was ongoing societal pressure on individuals not to convert from Islam.  Those who did so were unwilling to speak publicly or privately to family or associates about their conversions out of fear of harassment or discrimination.

Both anti-Shia and anti-Sunni commentary appeared in social media.  Anti-Shia posts described Shia opponents of the government as “traitors,” “agents of Iran,” “terrorists,” “killers,” “criminals,” plotters,” and, occasionally, “rawafid” (a derogatory term describing Shia who refused to accept the early caliphs).  Anti-Sunni posts described the royal family and its supporters as “nawasib” (a derogatory term describing Sunnis who are hostile to the family of the Prophet Muhammad).

NGOs working on civil discourse and interfaith dialogue reported Sunni-Shia tensions and historical political divisions continued to have a negative economic effect.  Shia representatives stated the persistent higher unemployment rate among members of their community, limited prospects for upward social mobility, and the lower socioeconomic status of Shia, exacerbated by ongoing private sector discrimination against them, added to the tensions between the two communities.  Because religion and political affiliation were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize these effects as being solely based on religious identity.

In February, the Jewish communities in the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia announced the formation of the region’s first communal organization, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities (AGJC), incorporated in Dubai.  The AGJC president was Ebrahim Dawood Nonoo, a citizen of Bahrain.  On August 22, Bahraini Jews held services in the newly renovated synagogue in Manama for the first time since 1947, with the participation of diplomats, members of Jewish communities throughout Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and Bahraini and Emirati Muslims.  In October, the AGJC organized the first Jewish wedding in the country in 52 years.  The event, conducted under the auspices of the Orthodox Union, which identifies itself as “the world’s largest kosher certification agency,” was the first strictly kosher wedding in the country’s history.

The government-supported NGO King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Coexistence held a conference in December entitled “Ignorance is the Enemy of Peace,” focusing on religious freedom.  The center conducted programs on combating antisemitism in the wake of the government’s normalizing relations with Israel under the 2020 Abraham Accords.

According to minority religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although not for conversion from Islam or for atheistic or secularist views.  Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books were widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features in malls, restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels.  The news media continued to print reports of non-Muslim religious holiday celebrations, including Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali and Holi.

Anti-Zionist commentary in social media peaked with announcements of government normalization efforts with Israel, alongside protests employing antinormalization slogans such as “Death to the Zionists” and “Death to Israel.”  After the normalization took place, there was negative public reaction to a Twitter post by Houda Nonoo, a former Bahraini Ambassador to the United States, inviting Jews from abroad to visit and settle in Bahrain.

The UAE research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 37 percent of Bahraini respondents said their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, slightly higher than the regionwide result of 34 percent and the result from the previous year’s survey of 32 percent.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires, other senior U.S. government officials, and embassy representatives met with senior government officials, including the Foreign Minister and the Minister of Justice, Islamic Affairs, and Endowments, and national human rights monitoring institutions to urge respect for freedom of religion and expression, including the right of clerics and other religious leaders to speak and write freely.  Embassy officials encouraged continued government efforts to counter religious extremist narratives and to ensure full inclusion of all citizens, including members of the Shia majority, in political, social, and economic opportunities.  U.S. officials publicly and in private meetings advocated for the government to pursue political reforms that took into consideration the needs of all citizens regardless of religious or prior or current political affiliation by, for example, ensuring voting districts were drawn to promote a representative elected lower house of parliament, encouraging an impartial application process for government positions, and allowing individuals previously connected to religiously based opposition political groups to run for public office.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials met regularly with religious leaders from a broad spectrum of faiths, representatives of NGOs, and political groups to discuss freedom of religion and freedom of expression as it related to religious practices.  Embassy representatives and senior U.S. officials visited various houses of worship and attended religious events during the year, including observations of Ashura, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Christmas, Hannukah, and Diwali.  At these events, they discussed issues related to religious tolerance with participants and emphasized the U.S. government’s commitment to religious freedom.

The embassy continued to encourage the participation of religious leaders in exchange programs in the United States designed to promote religious tolerance and a better understanding of the right to practice one’s faith as a fundamental human right and source of stability.  In August, the Charge d’Affaires and the chair of the King Hamad Centre met to discuss potential opportunities for cooperation under the 2020 U.S.-Bahrain memorandum of understanding on combating antisemitism.  The embassy also supported religious freedom through its online presence, regularly highlighting on social media high level engagements with religious leaders and the embassy’s participation in religious observances, for example, during Diwali and hosting a virtual event for Ramadan.

Bangladesh

Executive Summary

The constitution designates Islam as the state religion but upholds the principle of secularism.  It prohibits religious discrimination and provides for equality for all religions.  Family law, enforced in secular courts, contains separate provisions for different religious groups.  In response to widespread anti-Hindu communal violence from October 13-24 that left several persons dead, including Muslims and Hindus, the government condemned the attacks, provided aid and additional security to Hindu communities, and brought criminal charges against more than 20,000 individuals.  There were three high-profile convictions tied to religious issues during the year, with tribunals sentencing to death eight Islamic militants for killing a publisher in 2015, five men for the 2015 killing of an atheist blogger, and 14 members of a banned Islamist group for a conspiracy in 2000 to assassinate the Prime Minister.  In its stated effort to prevent militancy and to monitor mosques for “provocative” messaging, the government continued to provide guidance to imams throughout the country on the content of their sermons.  Members of religious minorities, including Hindus, Buddhists, and Christians, who were sometimes also members of ethnic minorities, continued to say the government was ineffective in preventing forced evictions and land seizures stemming from land disputes.  The government continued to deploy law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered possible targets for violence.

In response to a Facebook post on October 13 showing a copy of the Quran on the lap of a Hindu god inside a temple, crowds of Muslims attacked Hindu adherents, saying the Quran had been desecrated, and killed between four and 14 individuals, according to media, activists, and official estimates.  Crowds also attacked Hindu temples and property across the country, with violence continuing until October 24.  National Hindu leaders said Hindus, afraid of further violence, refrained from public celebrations of Diwali on November 4 in favor of private ceremonies in their temples and homes.  Worshipers covered their faces with black cloth to protest the lack of security for Hindus.  In June, according to Al-Jazeera, activists from an indigenous (non-Bengali ethnicity) minority group killed a member of their ethnic group for converting to Islam.  In May, media sources said Muslim students gravely injured four Christian students over an online video game dispute; one student later died from his injuries.  That same month, local news sources reported two Bengali men attacked and seriously injured a Buddhist indigenous monk in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT).  In February, media sources reported a group of Muslims destroyed and stole property from a Christian church in Lalmonirhat District.  In March, local news outlets reported dozens of Muslims attacked Hindu residences in Sunamanj District regarding a Facebook post critical of an Islamic cleric.  In May, actor Chanchal Chowdhury received abusive comments online after his Mother’s Day Facebook post showing his mother with Hindu markings on her forehead.  In September, news sources said Rohingya Muslims denied the burial of a Rohingya Christian refugee inside the Kutapalong refugee camp.  Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report harassment, communal threats of physical violence, and the social isolation of Christian converts from Hinduism or Islam.  The Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council (BHBCUC) said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year.

In meetings with government officials, civil society members, religious leaders, and in public statements, the U.S. Ambassador, other embassy representatives, and a senior Department of State official spoke out against acts of violence in the name of religion and urged the government to uphold the rights of minority religious groups and foster a climate of tolerance.  During the year, the Ambassador visited Christian, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist places of worship to reinforce the U.S. commitment to religious diversity and interfaith tolerance.  In fiscal year 2021, the United States provided $302 million in humanitarian assistance funding for programs in the country to assist Rohingya refugees (who are overwhelmingly Muslim) from Burma and also to assist host communities.  Embassy public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups continued during the year.  Embassy social media messaging in support of religious tolerance reached more than 2.5 million persons.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 164.1 million (midyear 2021).  According to the 2013 government census, the most recent official data available, Sunni Muslims constitute 89 percent of the population and Hindus make up 10 percent.  The remainder of the population is predominantly Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, and Theravada-Hinayana Buddhist.  The country also has small numbers of Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, animists, agnostics, and atheists.  Leaders from religious minority communities estimate their respective numbers of adherents to be between a few thousand and 100,000.

Ethnic minorities concentrated in the CHT and northern districts generally practice non-Islamic faiths.  The Garo in Mymensingh are predominantly Christian, as are some of the Santal in Gaibandha.  Most Buddhists are members of the indigenous populations of the CHT.  Bengali and ethnic minority Christians live in communities across the country, with relatively high concentrations in Barishal City and Gournadi in Barishal District, Baniarchar in Gopalganj District, Monipuripara and Christianpara in Dhaka City, and in the cities of Gazipur and Khulna.

The largest noncitizen population is Rohingya.  Human Rights Watch estimates approximately 1,500 Rohingya in the refugee settlements are Christians.  A Ministry of Foreign Affairs official said approximately 400 refugees are Hindu, while activists and leaders on the ground say the number is closer to 550-600.  According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, more than one million Rohingya refugees have fled Burma in successive waves since the early 1990s.  Since August 2017, approximately 769,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Burma have taken refuge in the country, bringing the total to more than 918,000.  Nearly all who arrived during the 2017 influx sought shelter in and around the refugee settlements of Kutupalong and Nayapara in Cox’s Bazar District.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, “The state religion of the Republic is Islam, but the State shall ensure equal status and equal rights in the practice of the Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and other religions.”  The constitution stipulates the state should not grant political status in favor of any religion and bans religiously based political parties.  It provides for the right to profess, practice, or propagate all religions “subject to law, public order, and morality” and states religious communities or denominations have the right to establish, maintain, and manage their religious institutions.  The constitution states no one attending any educational institution shall be required to receive instruction in, or participate in ceremonies or worship pertaining to, a religion to which he or she does not belong.

Under the penal code, statements or acts made with a “deliberate and malicious” intent to insult religious sentiments are subject to fines or up to two years in prison.  Although the code does not further define this prohibited intent, the courts have interpreted it to include insulting the Prophet Muhammad.  The criminal code allows the government to confiscate all copies of any newspaper, magazine, or other publication containing language that “creates enmity and hatred among the citizens or denigrates religious beliefs.”  The law applies similar restrictions to online publications.  While there is no specific blasphemy law, authorities use the penal code, as well as a section of the Information and Communication Technology Act and the Digital Security Act, to charge individuals for acts perceived to be a slight to Islam.  The Information and Communication Technology Act criminalizes several forms of online expression, including “obscene material,” “expression(s) likely to cause deterioration of law and order,” and “statements hurting religious sentiments.”  The Digital Security Act likewise criminalizes publication or broadcast of “any information that hurts religious values or sentiments,” by denying bail to detainees and increasing penalties on conviction of up to 10 years in prison.

The constitution prohibits freedom of association if an association is formed for the purpose of “destroying religious harmony,” the peaceful coexistence of religious communities, or creating discrimination on religious grounds.

Individual houses of worship are not required to register with the government.  Religious groups seeking to form associations with multiple houses of worship, however, must register as NGOs with either the NGO Affairs Bureau (NGOAB) if they receive foreign assistance for development projects or with the Ministry of Social Welfare if they do not.  The law requires the NGOAB to approve and monitor all foreign-funded projects.  The NGOAB Director General has the authority to impose sanctions on NGOs for violating the law, including fines of up to three times the amount of the foreign donation, or closure of the NGO.  NGOs are also subject to penalties for “derogatory” comments about the constitution or constitutional institutions (i.e., the government).  Expatriate staff must receive a security clearance from the National Security Intelligence, Special Branch of Police, and Directorate General of Forces Intelligence; the standards for these clearances are not specified.

Registration requirements and procedures for religious groups are the same as for secular associations.  Registration requirements with the Ministry of Social Welfare include certifying that the name being registered is not already taken, and providing the bylaws/constitution of the organization; confirmation of security clearances for leaders of the organization from the National Security Intelligence; minutes of the meeting appointing the executive committee; a list of all executive committee and general members and photographs of principal officers; a work plan; a copy of the deed or lease of the organization’s office and a list of property owned; a budget; and a recommendation by a local government representative.

Requirements to register with the NGOAB are similar.

Family law concerning marriage, divorce, and adoption contains separate provisions for Muslims, Hindus, and Christians.  These laws are enforced in the same secular courts.  A separate civil family law applies to mixed-faith families or those of other faiths or no faith.  The family law of the religion of the two parties concerned governs their marriage rituals and proceedings.  A Muslim man may have as many as four wives, although he must obtain the written consent of his existing wife or wives before marrying again.  A Christian man may marry only one woman.

Hindu men may have multiple wives.  Officially, Hindus have no options for divorce, although informal divorces do occur.  Hindu women may not inherit property under family law.  Buddhists are subject to the same laws as Hindus.  Divorced Hindus and Buddhists may not legally remarry.  Divorced men and women of other religions and widowed individuals of any religion may remarry.  Marriage between members of different religious groups occurs only under civil law.  To be legally recognized, Muslim marriages must be registered with the state by either the couple or the cleric performing the marriage; however, some Muslim marriages are not registered.  Registration of marriages for Hindus and Christians is optional, and other faiths may determine their own guidelines.

Under the Muslim family ordinance, a Muslim man may marry women of any Abrahamic faith; however, a Muslim woman may not marry a non-Muslim.  Under the ordinance, a widow receives one-eighth of her husband’s estate if she is his only wife, and the remainder is divided among the children; each female child receives half the share of each male child.  Wives have fewer divorce rights than husbands.  Civil courts must approve divorces.  The law requires a Muslim man to pay a former wife three months of alimony, but these protections generally apply only to registered marriages; unregistered marriages are by definition undocumented and difficult to substantiate.  Authorities do not always enforce the alimony requirement even in cases involving registered marriages.

Alternative dispute resolution is available to all citizens, including Muslims, for settling out of court family arguments and other civil matters not related to land ownership.  With the consent of both parties, lawyers may be identified to facilitate the arbitration, the results of which may be used in court.

Fatwas may be issued only by Muslim religious scholars, and not by local religious leaders, to settle matters of religious practice.  Fatwas may not be invoked to justify meting out punishment, nor may they supersede existing secular law.

Religious studies are compulsory and are part of the curriculum for grades three through ten in all public government-accredited schools.  Private schools do not have this requirement.  Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian students are supposed to receive instruction in their own religious beliefs, although the teachers are not always adherents of the students’ faith.

The code regulating prisons allows for observance of religious commemorations by prisoners, including access to extra food on feast days or permission to fast for religious reasons.  The law does not guarantee prisoners regular access to clergy or regular religious services, but prison authorities may arrange special religious programs for them.  Prison authorities are required to provide prisoners facing the death penalty access to a religious figure from a faith of their choice before execution.

The Restoration of Vested Property Act allows the government to return property confiscated from individuals, mostly Hindus, whom it formerly declared enemies of the state.  In the past, authorities used the act to seize property abandoned by minority religious groups that fled the country, particularly following the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965.

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

Government Practices

In response to the violence and destruction that occurred in October following a Facebook post that spurred attacks against Hindus, government officials at the highest levels, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, condemned the attacks and called the violence and destruction of Hindu temples and property un-Islamic.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs donated building supplies and food packages to Hindu families, and the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society, in conjunction with the government, provided tents to displaced victims.  To stop the further spread of violence, the government took action to remove postings from social media that it considered provocative, such as fake pictures that triggered attacks on Hindus.  Some human rights organizations, however, said the government’s actions to arrest and charge thousands of individuals were overbroad and, in some cases, deliberately targeted political rivals.  By October 26, police arrested 583 suspects for their roles in the violence and brought 102 criminal charges against 20,619 individuals, including the local man who first publicized the supposed desecration on Facebook.  Authorities charged a Hindu youth under the Digital Security Act for alleged anti-Islamic speech he posted online October 17, which they said angered Muslims and led to anti-Hindu reprisals in the northwestern city of Rangpur.  On October 20, the government announced formation of a National Human Rights Commission panel to investigate October 17 attacks on Hindu establishments in the Peergang area of the northwestern district of Rangpur.  The government stationed border guard forces and Rapid Action Battalion units around the country to prevent violence and successfully maintained peace during the subsequent Hindu holiday, Diwali, on November 4.

Some Hindu community leaders said the actions the government took in response to the communal violence helped calm the situation.  Other Hindu organizations disagreed, saying the government took insufficient measures to quell the violence and stated the government’s failure to punish perpetrators of previous periods of religious violence contributed to October’s events.  When the Foreign Minister stated four Muslims and two Hindus died during the violence but neither Hindu died due to communal attacks and no temples were destroyed, Hindu organizations strongly protested, noting this contradicted other official government statements.  The Bangladesh Hindu Law Reform Council said the Foreign Minister’s statement was an attempt to cover up anti-Hindu attacks, and some human rights activists said the Foreign Minister’s statement enabled further violence.  One international Hindu organization said police stood by in many locations rather than protecting Hindus from mob violence, and that the government arrested several Hindu individuals, which the organization called “prisoners of conscience,” for sharing information about the ongoing violence on social media.

On February 10, a judge of the Anti-Terrorism Special Tribunal in Dhaka sentenced to death eight Islamic militants for killing a publisher in 2015.  Two of the eight sentenced men remained at large at year’s end.  The tribunal convicted the men, members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Islam, of hacking to death Faisal Abedin Deepan, a publisher of books on secularism and atheism.

On February 16, a court sentenced five men to death and one to life in prison for the 2015 killing of atheist blogger Avijit Roy.  The trial began in the Anti-Terrorism Tribunal in April 2019 and was delayed several times due to COVID-19.

A special tribunal in Dhaka sentenced to death 14 members of the banned Harkak-ul-Jihad-al-Islami Islamist group on March 23 in a case involving a conspiracy to assassinate Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in 2000.  Prosecutors alleged the defendants, members of a group that was banned in 2005, planted a bomb at a political rally where Hasina was scheduled to address supporters the following day.  Of the 14 sentenced, five remained fugitives at the end of the year.

On November 23, the Supreme Court upheld the death penalty of Salauddin Salehin, a member of Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), who was convicted in the 2004 killing of Goni Gomez, a Christian convert from Islam, in Jamalpur.  The Dhaka Speedy Trial Tribunal initially sentenced Salauddin to death in 2006.

On November 1, a tribunal in Rajshahi that handles cybercrimes sentenced three individuals to 10 years in prison under the Information and Communication Technology Act for sharing a satirical cartoon and comments the tribunal deemed obscene about the Prophet Muhammad in 2013 from a Facebook account.  According to the prosecution, two of the convicted defendants allegedly shared a distorted picture of the Prophet on a Facebook account in the name of a Hindu man who had nothing to do with the posting.  The third defendant then printed and sold copies of the cartoon to Muslim villagers.  In response, local Muslims set on fire the home of the Hindu man.  In addition to the three individuals sentenced to prison, authorities charged seven others in the wake of the incident, but the court acquitted them.

In April, police arrested more than 300 members of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam over deadly protests around the March visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.  Accusing Modi of stoking religious discrimination against Muslims in India, the group led violent protests across several districts during Modi’s two-day visit.

On February 25, Forest Department officials tore down a Sathirampara Seventh-day Adventist church in Bandarban District.  The congregation was replacing the bamboo hut they had been using for many years with a more permanent brick building.  A Forest Department official said the community did not have a permit to build on the land, and that in the village “there are only three or four Christian families; there is no need for a church.”

In October, the Bangladesh Cyber Tribunal formally charged Baul folk singer Rita Dewan with blasphemy stemming from a February 2020 incident when a lawyer accused her of making derogatory comments against Allah during a musical competition, for which she issued an apology afterward.  Criminal charges were brought against Dewan that same month under the penal code and Digital Security Act, and a court issued a warrant for her arrest in December 2020.  Dewan surrendered to authorities and was granted bail in January.

Human rights organizations reported an increase, compared with 2020, in the use of extrajudicial fatwas by village community leaders and local religious leaders to punish individuals for perceived “moral transgressions.”  The incidence rose from eight cases in calendar year 2020, to 12 cases from January to November.  One organization which closely tracked the issuance of these fatwas attributed the rise to a deterioration of law and order and unrest due to COVID-19.

Thousands of mosques, including Baitul Mukarram National Mosque in Dhaka, operated under the direct authority of the Islamic Foundation; imams and employees of those mosques were funded by the government.  Mosques not overseen by the Islamic Foundation still operated with oversight from a governing committee that was dominated by local ruling party politicians and administration.  Islamic leaders said the government continued to influence the appointment and removal of imams and to provide guidance on the content of sermons to imams throughout the country.  This included issuing written instructions highlighting certain Quranic verses and quotations of the Prophet Muhammad.  The government also instructed imams to denounce extremism.  Religious community leaders said imams in all mosques usually continued the practice of avoiding sermons that contradicted government policy.

The BHBCUC said property-restitution cases were on hold, as tribunals and appellate tribunals were not in session from March 2020 to October 2021.  According to the Ministry of Land’s 2018-2019 report, the most recent figures available, as of 2018, authorities had adjudicated 26,791 of 114,749 property-restitution cases filed under the Restoration of Vested Property Act.  Of these judgments, the owners, primarily Hindus, won 12,190 of the cases, recovering 10,255 acres of land, while the government won the remaining 14,791 cases.  Media reports and rights activists attributed the slow return of land seized under relevant legislation from Hindus who had left for India to judicial inefficiency and general government indifference.

Freedom House’s 2021 report assessed religious minorities remained underrepresented in politics and state agencies, and that members of ethnic and religious minority groups faced some discrimination under the law, as well as harassment and violations of their rights in practice.

Religious minorities continued to state that religious minority students sometimes were unable to enroll in religion classes because of an insufficient number of teachers for mandatory religious education classes for students of non-Islamic faiths.  In these cases, school officials generally allowed local religious institutions, parents, or others to hold religious studies classes for such students outside school hours and sometimes exempted students from the religious education requirement.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs had a budget of 22.4 billion taka ($260.47 million) for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which covers July 2021-June 2022.  The budget included 19.35 billion taka ($225.0 million) allocated for development through autonomous religious bodies.  The government provided the Islamic Foundation, administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, 17.58 billion taka ($204.42 million).  The Hindu Welfare Trust received 1.724 billion taka ($20.05 million), and the Buddhist Welfare Trust received 32 million taka ($372,000) from the allocation.  While the Christian Welfare Trust did not receive development funding from the budget, it received 10.3 million taka ($120,000) to run its office.  For comparison, in 2020, the ministry had a budget of 16.93 billion taka ($196.86 million), including 14.25 billion taka ($165.70 million) allocated for development through autonomous religious bodies.  The government provided 8.12 billion taka ($94.42 million) for the Islamic Foundation, 1.435 billion taka ($16.69 million) for the Hindu Welfare Trust, 46.8 million taka ($544,000) for the Buddhist Welfare Trust, and seven million taka ($81,400) for the Christian Welfare Trust.

Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, and members of other minority religious communities, who are also sometimes members of ethnic minority groups, continued to report property and land ownership disputes and forced evictions, including some involving the government, that remained unresolved at year’s end.  Some human rights activists said it was often difficult to determine whether these disputes and evictions were a result of deliberate government discrimination against religious minorities or of government inefficiency.  The government continued construction projects on land traditionally owned by indigenous communities in the Moulvibazar and Modhupur forest areas.  In January, more than 1,000 ethnic Garo and Koch individuals, mostly Christians, rallied at a bus stop in Tangail to protest a notice from the Forest Department ordering them to vacate their ancestral lands in the Modhupur forest.  According to minority religious associations, land disputes occurred in areas near new roads or industrial development zones, where land prices had increased.  They also stated local police, civil authorities, and political leaders enabled property appropriations for financial gain or shielded politically influential property appropriators from prosecution.  Some human rights groups attributed the lack of resolution of some of these disputes to ineffective judicial and land registry systems and the targeted communities’ insufficient political and financial clout, rather than to government policy disfavoring religious or ethnic minorities.  Indigenous groups in the CHT, in particular, have large communities of Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians.  Some of these communities speak tribal languages and do not speak Bangla, making it difficult for them to access government services and further marginalizing these groups.

The government continued to place law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considered potential targets for violence, including during Diwali, Christmas, Easter, and the Buddhist festival of Buddha Purnima.

Due to COVID-19, President Abdul Hamid did not host his usual annual receptions to commemorate principal Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian holidays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Freedom House in September assessed that members of religious minorities – including Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Shia and Ahmadi Muslims – faced harassment and violence, including mob violence against their houses of worship.  According to the BHBCUC and the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), communal attacks against ethnic and religious minorities occurred throughout the year.

From October 13-24, during and after the Hindu festival of Durga Puja, national and local media reported that mobs attacked and destroyed Hindu homes and temples after a local man publicized a post on Facebook that showed the Quran on the lap of the deity Hanuman inside a Hindu temple in the city of Cumila.  The post went viral and sparked violent reactions across the country.  According to the World Hindu Federation (WHF) and the HAF, mobs vandalized more than 340 Hindu temples and Buddhist monasteries, vandalized or burned nearly 1,650 Hindu owned houses, and looted Hindu-owned shops and businesses.  Reporting about the numbers of deceased varied:  The Guardian reported seven persons died but the WHF said more than 14 Hindus died in the violence.  According to media and official estimates, at least four Muslims were also killed through clashes with police.  The UN attributed four deaths to the anti-Hindu violence but said others died due to subsequent law enforcement measures to quell the violence.  The BHBCUC said communal violence against minorities continued throughout the year, stating mobs destroyed 70 temples and 100 homes and businesses.  Ain o Salish Kendra, a domestic human rights organization, estimated that 3,769 attacks had taken place against Hindus since 2013, including those in the October violence.  In response to the violence, there were several interfaith demonstrations throughout the country that denounced the attacks.  Hindus refrained from public celebrations of Diwali on November 4 in favor of private ceremonies in their temples and homes.  Hindu worshipers covered their faces with black cloth to protest the lack of security for Hindus.

According to Al-Jazeera, on June 19 in Bandarban in CHT, activists from an indigenous minority group killed an indigenous man because he converted to Islam.

Asia News reported the attack and death of Joy Haldar, a Christian student at St. Joseph’s High School and College.  Eleven Muslim students sent Haldar death threats by phone before later attacking him and three other Christian students on May 16.  Haldar sustained blows to the head and eventually died after 22 days in the hospital.  The students attacked Haldar in a dispute over Pubg, an online video game.  After Haldar’s brother filed a police complaint, the accused were detained and released on bail.  “As Christians, we are a long way from enjoying security and justice,” the brother said.

On May 31, according to various media reports, two men with machetes attacked and left for dead Augra Jyoti Mahasthabir, a Buddhist monk from an indigenous community, at a monastery in Khagrachari in the CHT.  The attackers, two Bengali construction workers who worked at the monastery, also looted money from the temple.  The officer-in-charge of the Panchhari police station said police opened an investigation for attempted murder in the case.

On February 10, a group of Muslims destroyed the church sign of Emmanuel Church in Lalmonirhat District in the northern part of the country, cut down trees, vandalized the entrance to the church, and stole chairs and carpets.  The local pastor said Muslims in the area were angry with Christians because new members had joined their faith community as converts from Islam.  Media reported the destruction was spurred by anti-Christian propaganda at a local Islamic meeting place where Muslim religious leaders engaged in hate speech.  The Bangladesh Christian Association condemned both incidents of violence.

According to media reports, on March 17, a crowd of Muslims vandalized dozens of Hindu residences and temples in Noagaon village in Sunamganj District after a Hindu man criticized Hefazat-e-Islam joint secretary general Mamunul Haque on Facebook.  The media reported police arrested 113 persons, including a Jubo League (the ruling Awami League’s youth wing) party leader, following the attacks, and many of were released on bail.  On March 25, police filed a Digital Security Act case against the man whose Facebook post sparked the attacks.  The court granted his release on bail in September.

In September, Freedom House assessed recent violent incidents were “part of a pattern in recent years in which violence against religious or other minorities appears to have been deliberately provoked through social media.”   Human rights organizations and religious leaders echoed this assessment, saying social media contributed to religious polarization and an increase in attacks on religious minorities.

On May 8, numerous individuals sent abusive comments to actor Chanchal Chowdhury’s Facebook account after he posted a photo with his mother to celebrate Mother’s Day.  In the photo, his mother is wearing a vermilion bindi mark on her forehead.  Numerous followers expressed surprise at Chowdhury’s religion, and some made abusive comments about his mother being Hindu.  Some individuals also made negative personal comments about Chowdhury, and the comment thread was characterized by negative back and forth postings between Muslims and Hindus.  In response, Chowdhury said, “What do you stand to gain or lose if I am a Hindu or Muslim?  The biggest identity of everyone is that we are human beings.  May these vulgar questions and embarrassing discussions stop everywhere.  Come and let’s become human beings.”

Human rights activists expressed concerns regarding the wellbeing of Hindu and Christian groups, including the Rohingya Christian Assembly, in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.  They said the Hindu community was segregated from the rest of the camp in response to an increase in violence against the community.  Hindu leaders said they struggled to hold festivals, as these were prohibited without special permission, which was rarely given.  Hindu leaders said there was inadequate access to the established temple, as access was only allowed for a maximum of 24 persons.  Government officials, however, said limits on gatherings or building new permanent structures were a result of overall restrictions in the refugee camps.  Authorities rarely granted permission to any group in the camps to gather during the year due to COVID-19 restrictions.  Camp authorities did not allow any permanent structures, such as shelters, houses of worship, or learning centers, regardless of religious affiliation.

On September 29, unknown assailants killed prominent Rohingya leader Mohammed Mohib Ullah in Cox’s Bazar.  Although authorities did not ascribe a motive for his killing, Mohib Ullah was known for being an active Rohingya community defender and rights advocate, including for religious freedom.  The media reported police arrested up to a dozen suspects in October and November.

In November, the New York Times reported Rohingya Christian refugee families relocated to the island of Bhasan Char in the Bay of Bengal due to what they reported was persecution and violence against them in the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.  Members of the Christian minority in the camps stated the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, a militant Rohingya group present in the camps, had temporarily abducted and tortured some Christian refugees.

Media reported that in September, Rohingya Muslims protested the burial of Mohi Uddin, a Christian Rohingya refugee, in the Kutapalong refugee camp, preventing the burial from taking place for 30 hours.  According to the pastor of the Baptist church in Chattogram where Uddin was eventually interred, the burial of individuals of different faiths in the same place had not been an issue of contention at the camp in the past, but despite the intervention of the camp manager and UN staff, on this occasion Muslim Rohingya refugees formed a barrier to protest Uddin’s burial.

According to media, large protests took place before and during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Bangladesh on March 26.  On March 19, 500 Muslims protested in the street outside the Baitul Mokarram Mosque in Dhaka and 200 student activists marched through the streets on Dhaka University’s campus.  The protestors said Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party were oppressing Muslims in India.

Media reported that on June 9, Christians and other religious minorities continued their annual observation of “Black Day” protests against the 1988 constitutional amendments establishing Islam as the state religion in the country.

According to local human rights organizations, a growing group of Hindu activists inside the country campaigned to reform Hindu family law to allow for greater rights for Hindu women, including female inheritance of property and provisions for divorce.  According to media reports, Hindu groups they characterized as conservative protested in August the submission of a set of reform proposals to the Law Commission by the NGO Manusher Jonno Foundation (Foundation for Human Beings).  The Bangladesh National Hindu Grand Alliance urged the government to take legal action against The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam and his wife Shaheen Anam, executive director of Manusher Jonno Foundation, who advocated changes in the law, for hurting religious sentiments of the Hindu community and creating chaos in Hindu families.  These tensions among different elements within the local Hindu community continued through the end of the year, without changes to the family law.

Human rights NGOs continued to report harassment and social isolation of, and physical violence against, converts to Christianity from Islam and Hinduism.  The NGOs said individuals commonly associated a person’s faith with his or her surname.  Despite constitutional guarantees protecting an individual’s right to change faiths, the NGOs stated that when someone’s professed faith deviated from the faith tradition commonly linked with his or her surname, harassment, threats, and social isolation could ensue.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy representatives regularly met with officials from the Office of the Prime Minister, Ministry of Religious Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Social Welfare, and local government representatives to underscore the importance of religious freedom and tolerance.  They discussed the importance of integrating religious freedom and other human rights into security policy and stressed the importance of respecting religious minorities’ viewpoints, minority religious inclusion within society, and protecting religious minorities from attacks.

Following communal anti-Hindu violence in October, the Ambassador visited several places of worship to meet with leaders of major religious communities to support interfaith harmony.  He visited a Catholic church on October 26, Dhaka’s Star Mosque and madrassah on November 1, and the Hindu Dhakeshwari Temple on November 2.  After his visit to the Shakyamuni Buddhist Temple on November 10, the Ambassador tweeted “The United States stands with everyone, everywhere, supporting interfaith harmony and the fundamental right of freedom of religion.”  On November 17, a senior Department of State official met with interfaith community leaders for a discussion in which she emphasized that the United States deeply values religious tolerance and stands with Bangladeshis of all beliefs who were promoting diversity, unity, and mutual respect.

The United States provided $302 million in fiscal year 2021 for humanitarian assistance funding for programs in the country to assist Rohingya refugees and their host communities, emphasizing U.S. support for protecting vulnerable religious minority groups.  In September, at the meeting of the UN General Assembly, the U.S. government announced nearly $180 million in additional funding.  With this new funding, the U.S. response to the Rohingya crisis has reached more than $16 billion since August 2017.

As part of U.S.-funded training for community policing, the embassy continued to encourage law enforcement officials to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Throughout the year, the embassy continued public outreach programs encouraging interfaith tolerance among religious groups.  On October 29, Department of State officials participated in a virtual meeting with Hindus and Christians, including the Bangladeshi diaspora community in the United States, to discuss communal attacks, possible causal factors, and appropriate response measures.  Embassy officials attended religious festivals celebrated by the Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim communities and emphasized in these events the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities.

Throughout the year, the embassy published messages highlighting the U.S. government’s commitment to advancing religious freedom, including amplifying the Department of State’s Twitter messaging on International Religious Freedom Day.  Embassy social media messages on religious tolerance reached more than 2.5 million individuals.  The embassy released a statement on October 19 sending condolences to the families of victims of anti-Hindu violence and supporting freedom of religion.

Embassy and other U.S. government officials expressed support for the rights of religious minorities and emphasized the importance of their protection.  Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with a wide range of religious organizations and representatives, including the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, BHBCUC, HAF, Bangladesh Christian Association, Buddhist Religious Welfare Trust, Christian Religious Welfare Trust, World Buddhist Association Bangladesh, Bangladesh Buddhist Federation, Christian Freedom International, International Buddhist Monastery of Dhaka, and the Aga Khan Foundation.  In these meetings, embassy officials, other U.S. government representatives, and representatives from the groups, discussed the state of religious freedom in the country, underscored the importance of religious tolerance, and identified challenges religious minorities encountered.

Bhutan

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage,” provides for freedom of religion, and bans discrimination based on religious belief.  The constitution states religious institutions and personalities shall remain “above politics.”  The law restricts religious speech and written communication promoting enmity among religious groups and requires religious groups to obtain licenses to hold public religious gatherings.  International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction, although the country’s religious minority groups reported no such sanction or pressure during the year.  The government’s Commission for Religious Organizations (CRO) did not approve any new religious groups during the year.  Unregistered religious groups, including Christians, reported being able to worship in private, although unregistered groups were not permitted to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature.  In its report for 2022 (which covered events in 2021) the international Christian NGO Open Doors alleged discrimination against Christians, stating that Christians often faced difficulty obtaining “nonobjection certificates” from local authorities; these were required for loan and employment applications, property registration and renewing identification cards.  One local organization said this was not the case, except when the applicant had a criminal record.  Members of the Hindu Dharmic Samudaya, one of eight religious organizations on the CRO’s board, continued to cite strong official support for Hindu religious practice.

Some converts reported continued societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices.  Open Doors said converts to Christianity faced intense pressure to return to their former religion, especially from their relatives, who viewed their conversions as bringing shame to their entire family.

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan; the U.S. embassy in New Delhi oversees unofficial bilateral relations.  During the year, the U.S. embassy engaged government officials on religious freedom issues and met virtually with community and religious leaders.

 

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 857,000 (midyear 2021).  According to a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, approximately 75 percent of the population follows Buddhism and 23 percent are Hindu.  Hindus reside mostly in southern areas adjacent to India.  The 2020 report by the World Christian Database estimated that Buddhists comprised 83 percent of the population and Hindus 11 percent in 2019.

The 2012 Pew Research Center report estimates of the size of the Christian community ranges from 0.5 to 3.6 percent of the total population.  The Open Doors report covering 2021 estimates the Christian population at 30,000 (approximately 3.5 percent).  Most Christians are concentrated in towns in the south.  According to scholars, although individuals often combine Bon (an indigenous Tibetan religious tradition) practices with Buddhist practices, very few citizens adhere exclusively to this religious tradition.  The Sharchop ethnic group, which makes up the majority of the population in the east, practices elements of Tibetan Buddhism combined with elements of the Bon tradition and Hinduism, according to scholars.

Most of the country’s foreign workers come from India.  In 2019 (most recent data available), India’s Ministry of External Affairs estimated that 60,000 Indian nationals lived in the country and 8,000 to 10,000 additional temporary workers entered the country daily.  Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, some Indian residents left the country and the government limited entry of most foreign workers.  While there is no data on their religious affiliation, most foreign workers are likely Hindu and, in fewer numbers, Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution recognizes Buddhism as the state’s “spiritual heritage” and stipulates it is “the responsibility of all religious institutions and personalities to promote the spiritual heritage of the country.”  The constitution provides for freedom of thought, conscience, and religion and bans discrimination based on faith.  The constitution says the King must be Buddhist and requires the King to be the “protector of all religions.”

The constitution also states, “No person shall be compelled to belong to another faith by means of coercion or inducement.”  The Religious Organizations Act states that “no religious organization shall compel any person to belong to another faith by providing reward or inducement for a person to belong to another faith.”  The penal code criminalizes “coercion or inducement to convert” as a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment.  Neither “coercion” nor “inducement to convert” is defined in law or regulation.

The law prohibits oral and written communication “promoting enmity among religious groups” and provides for sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment for violations.

The penal code states individuals found guilty of promoting civil unrest by advocating “religious abhorrence,” disturbing public tranquility, or committing an act “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony” among religious groups shall be subject to punishment of five to nine years’ imprisonment.

The law requires religious groups to register with the CRO.  To register, a religious group must submit an application demonstrating its leaders are citizens of the country and disclosing their educational backgrounds and financial assets.  The law also specifies the organizational structure, bylaws, and procedural rules for registered religious organizations.  It prohibits religious organizations from “violating the spiritual heritage” of the country and requires them to protect and promote it.  The law also states no religious organization shall do anything to impair the sovereignty, security, unity, or territorial integrity of the country.  It mandates that the CRO certify that religious groups applying for registration meet the specified requirements.

Registered religious groups may raise funds for religious activities and are exempt from taxes.  Registered groups require approval from local government authorities to hold public meetings outside of their registered facilities and must seek approval from the Ministry of Home and Cultural Affairs to invite foreign speakers or receive foreign funds.

Unregistered religious groups may not organize public religious services, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature.  Penalties for unregistered organizations performing these activities range from fines to prison terms, depending on the offense.  The law states it is an offense for a religious group to provide false or misleading information in its religious teachings, to misuse investments, or to raise funds illegally.  The CRO has the authority to determine whether the content of a group’s religious teachings is false or misleading and whether it has raised funds illegally.  Sanctions include fines and potential revocation of registration.

The law states that the CRO shall consist of an eight-member board responsible for overseeing the structure of religious institutions, enforcing the constitutional separation between the government and religious organizations, and monitoring religious fundraising activities.  The chairperson of the board is a cabinet minister appointed by the Prime Minister.  A senior official from the Ministry of Finance and one of the King’s appointees to the National Council also sit on the board.  The director of culture in the Ministry of Home Affairs serves ex officio as secretary.  Heads of Buddhist religious organizations and the Hindu Dharma Samudaya, a registered Hindu organization, occupy the remaining seats.  The law requires the CRO to “ensure that religious institutions and personalities promote the spiritual heritage of the country” by developing a society “rooted in Buddhist ethos.”

The constitution states the King shall appoint the chief abbot of the country’s Central Monastic Body, on the advice of the five masters of the Buddhist monastic body.  Those individuals and a civil servant administrative secretary make up the Commission for Monastic Affairs, which manages issues related to Buddhist doctrine.  The constitution says the state will provide funds and “facilities” to the central monastic body.

The law permits the government to “avoid breaches of the peace” by requiring licenses for public assembly, prohibiting assembly in designated areas, and imposing curfews.  The government may apply these measures to groups and organizations of all kinds, including religious groups.

Government approval is required to construct religious buildings.  By law, all buildings, including religious structures, must adhere to traditional architectural standards.  The CRO determines conformity with these standards.

The constitution states that religious institutions and personalities have the responsibility to ensure that “religion remains separate from politics in Bhutan.”  It also states, “Religious institutions and personalities shall remain above politics.”The law also prohibits religious organizations from involvement in political activity.  Ordained members of the clergy of any religion may not engage in political activities, including running for office and voting.

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

Government Practices

International NGOs continued to report that the lack of clarity in the law addressing “inducements” to conversion placed the activities of minority religious groups at risk of legal sanction, although the country’s religious minority groups reported no such sanction or pressure during the year.

There were no applications to register religious organizations during the year, compared with 14 in 2020.  There was no information available regarding the composition of the 14 groups.  There were 139 religious organizations registered with the government as of December:  137 Buddhist and two Hindu.  The CRO took no action on any pending church registration requests.  The government did not offer any official explanation to applicants.

Unregistered religious groups, including Christians, reported being able to worship in private, although unregistered groups were not permitted to organize publicly, own property, raise funds, conduct outreach activities, or import literature.

Christian groups said they continued to be unable to acquire burial plots and there was no clear governmental process to do so.  Some groups instead buried their dead in undeveloped areas away from settlements.  One group said there was no official directive requiring cremation of the dead, but that government contacts informally urged cremation.  The group said cremation remained the clear national preference, given the broad influence of Buddhist practice and tradition, and that as a minority religious group, Christians had little influence on this issue.

Some Christian groups said that Christians had fewer officially endorsed public celebrations than the Hindu community.

The Open Doors report covering 2021 said Christians often faced difficulty obtaining “nonobjection certificates” from local authorities; these were required for loan and employment applications, property registration and renewing identification cards.  One local organization said it was not difficult to obtain a certificate, except when the applicant had a criminal record.

The government continued its financial assistance for the construction of Buddhist temples and shrines as well as funding for Buddhist monks and monasteries.  According to the NGO Minority Rights Group International, authorities gave Buddhist temples priority over Hindu temples in the licensing process.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government imposed strict safety protocols and prohibited religious gatherings and associated activities during the nationwide lockdown from January to February 13.

Some courts and other government institutions remained housed within or adjacent to Buddhist monasteries.  Some religious groups stated that government ceremonies continued to involve mandatory Buddhist prayer rituals.

Members of the Hindu Dharmic Samudaya continued to cite strong official support for Hindu religious practice.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some converts reported continued societal pressure on individuals to participate in Buddhist traditions and practices.  The Open Doors 2021 report said converts to Christianity faced intense pressure to return to their former religion, especially from relatives who viewed the conversions as bringing shame to their entire family.  The NGO characterized persecution of Christians in the country as “very high.”  The NGO report said that anyone who left Buddhism was viewed with suspicion by neighbors and friends, and family members went to great lengths to bring converts back to their original faith.  One local organization said persecution varied in different regions of the country, with pressure to return to Buddhism likely to be higher in rural areas.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan; the U.S. embassy in New Delhi oversees unofficial bilateral relations.  During the year, the embassy engaged government officials on religious freedom issues and met virtually with community and religious leaders.

Brunei

Executive Summary

The constitution states that while the official religion is the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, all other religions may be practiced “in peace and harmony.”  The government enforces the Sharia Penal Code (SPC), which states offenses such as apostasy and blasphemy are punishable by corporal and capital punishment, including stoning to death, amputation of hands or feet, or caning.  Apart from caning, however, no capital or corporal punishments have been handed down or enforced since 1957.  A 2019 de facto moratorium on the death penalty remained in place.  The SPC, in force in parallel with the common law-based secular penal code, applies to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, with non-Muslims exempted from certain sections.  Under the SPC, the Royal Brunei Police Force (RBPF) and Religious Enforcement Division officers under the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MORA) cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both secular law and sharia.  The government permitted members of non-Muslim religious minorities to practice their faiths but continued its official ban of religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  All places of worship were closed in August due to a COVID-19 outbreak, but MORA and Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) did not officially inform non-Islamic places of worship of the closure.  The government did not ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture (UNCAT), but the Foreign Minister reported the ratification process was ongoing.  Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minorities again reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019 but noted that the law continued to impose restrictions on the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize.  Custom and Excise officers confiscated a Bible mailed to a foreign worker by his wife for personal use in October.  Custom officials reported the worker could reclaim the Bible because it was for personal use, but the process required a claimant to seek written approval from RBPF, the Internal Security Department, and MORA’s Islamic Learning Center before it could be returned.

Non-Muslims and Muslims continued to face social pressure to conform to Islamic guidelines regarding behavior.  Following the death in May of Cardinal Cornelius Sim, the country’s first Roman Catholic cardinal, many individuals from various faith backgrounds used online forums to praise the Cardinal’s work.   Legislative council member Khairunnisa binti Haji Ash-ari faced social media criticism after she reintroduced a 2012 proposal for MOHA to open village head positions to women in the March annual parliamentary sessions.  Many social media users stated women should be ineligible for these positions due to Islamic responsibilities mixed in with the village head’s otherwise administrative role.  Social media users expressed anger concerning the acquittal of a religion teacher on sexual abuse charges, saying the government gave him preferential treatment due to his association with MORA.  Reports indicated that some individuals who wished to convert to another religion feared ostracism by friends, family, and their community.

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officers engaged throughout the year with senior government officials regarding the effects of the SPC on religious freedom, the ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority religious rights.  The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities.  U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC.  Embassy officials visited places of worship and spoke with leaders of various religious groups to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC for non-Muslims and the limitations placed on the open practice of religions other than Islam.  Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 471,000 (midyear 2021).  According to the 2011 census (the most recent), 78.8 percent of the population is Muslim, 8.7 percent Christian, and 7.8 percent Buddhist, while the remaining 4.7 percent consists of other religions, including indigenous beliefs.

There is significant variation in religious identification among ethnic groups.  According to 2019 official statistics (the most recent), ethnic Malay citizens comprise 66 percent of the population and are defined by law as Muslims from birth.  The ethnic Chinese population, which is approximately 10 percent of the total population and includes both citizens and stateless permanent residents, is 65 percent Buddhist and 20 percent Christian.  Indigenous tribes, such as the Dusun, Bisaya, Murut, and Iban, make up approximately 4 percent of the population and are estimated to be 50 percent Muslim, 15 percent Christian, and the remainder followers of other religious groups, including adherents of traditional practices.  The remaining 18 percent of the population includes foreign-born workers, primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries.  According to official statistics, approximately half of these temporary and permanent residents are Muslim, more than one-quarter Christian, and 15 percent Buddhist.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states the religion of the country shall be the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam but allows all other religions to be practiced “in peace and harmony” by the persons professing them.

The legal system is divided between secular law and sharia, which have parallel systems of both criminal and civil/family law and operate separate courts under a single judiciary department.  The civil courts are based on common law.  The sharia courts follow the Shafi’i school of Islamic jurisprudence, in which there is no concept of legal precedent and judges are not bound by the decisions of a higher court.  Sharia courts have jurisdiction over both criminal law and civil/family matters involving Muslims and hear cases brought under longstanding sharia legislation as well as under the SPC.

The SPC spells out provisions for corporal and capital punishment for murder, theft, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, blasphemy, and other acts deemed crimes under sharia.  Depending on the type and specifics of the offense, these punishments include fines, imprisonment, whipping, caning, amputation of hands or feet, or death (including by stoning).  The SPC identifies murder, adultery, rape, sodomy, apostasy, and blasphemy as capital offenses, although the law requires either a confession or the testimony of multiple pious Muslim male eyewitnesses to support a death sentence.  Apart from caning, however, no capital or corporal punishments have been handed down or enforced since 1957.  A de facto moratorium on the death penalty, announced by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah in 2019, remained in effect during the year.

Most SPC sections apply to both Muslims and non-Muslims, including foreigners, and they also are applicable to offenses committed outside the country by citizens or permanent residents.  Non-Muslims are exempt from certain sections, such as requirements for men to join Friday prayers and pay zakat (obligatory annual almsgiving).  The SPC states that Muslims will be identified for purposes of the law by “general reputation,” but without further definition.

The SPC incorporates longstanding Sharia-based domestic laws that prohibit drinking alcohol, propagating religions other than Islam, eating in public during the fasting hours of Ramadan, cross-dressing, and close physical proximity between unmarried persons of the opposite sex.  It prohibits “indecent behavior,” including pregnancies out of wedlock, and criminalizes any act that “tends to tarnish the image of Islam, deprave a person, bring bad influence, or cause anger to the person who is likely to have seen the act.”

Punishments included under the SPC have different standards of proof from the common law-based penal code, such as requiring four pious men to witness personally an act of fornication to support a sentence of stoning.  Stoning sentences, however, may be supported by a confession in lieu of witness testimony at the discretion of a sharia judge.  If neither qualifying testimony nor a confession is available, the possible sentences are limited to caning, imprisonment, or fines.

The government describes its official national philosophy as Melayu Islam Beraja (MIB), or Malay Islamic Monarchy, which it defines as “a system that encompasses strong Malay cultural influences, stressing the importance of Islam in daily life and governance, and respect for the monarchy as represented by His Majesty the Sultan.”  The government has said this system is essential to the country’s way of life and is its main defense against “extremism.”  The government-run MIB Supreme Council seeks to spread and strengthen MIB philosophy and ensure MIB is enshrined in the nation’s laws and policies.  MIB is a compulsory subject for students in both public and private schools, including at the university level.

MORA’s Religious Enforcement Division leads investigations of crimes that exist only in the SPC and other sharia legislation, such as male Muslims failing to pray on Fridays.  The RBPF investigates cases involving crimes not covered by sharia legislation, such as human trafficking.  RBPF and Religious Enforcement Division officers cooperate on investigations of crimes covered by both the secular and sharia laws.  In such cases, an “assessment committee” composed of secular and sharia prosecutors and secular and sharia law enforcement officers decides which court system will try the case.  The deliberations of the assessment committee to determine whether specific cases will proceed through secular or sharia court are not public, and the government does not make public the committee’s bases for its decisions.

The government bans religious groups it considers “deviant,” including the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, al-Arqam, Abdul Razak Mohammad, al-Ma’unah, Saihoni Tasipan, Tariqat Mufarridiyyah, Silat Lintau, Qadiyaniah, the Baha’i Faith, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.  The list is based on fatwas proclaimed by the state mufti or the Islamic Religious Council – a government body and the sultan’s highest authority on matters on Islam – and is available on MORA’s website.  The SPC also bans most non-Sunni forms of Islam and any practice or display of “black magic.”

The SPC includes a list of words and expressions, including the word “Allah,” reserved for use by only Muslims or in relation to Islam.  MORA officials state that the use of certain words such as “Allah” by non-Muslims does not constitute an SPC offense when used in a nonreligious context or social activity.

Under the SPC, Muslims are not permitted to renounce or change their religion.  Non-Muslims must be at least 14 years and seven months old to convert or renounce their religion.  If either parent converts to Islam, their children younger than 14 years and seven months automatically become Muslim.

The law requires all organizations, including religious groups, to register and provide the names of their members.  Applicants are subject to background checks of leaders and board members, and proposed organizations are subject to naming requirements.  Registered organizations must furnish information on leadership, election of officers, members, assets, activities, and any other information the registrar requests.  Benefits of registration include the ability to operate, reserve space in public buildings, and apply for permission to raise funds.  The Registrar of Societies, under MOHA, oversees the application process, exercises discretion over applications, and is authorized to refuse approval for any reason.  Organizations are prohibited from affiliation with any organization outside the country without written approval by the registrar.  Unregistered organizations may face charges of unlawful assembly and may be subject to fines.  Individuals who participate in or influence others to join unregistered organizations may be fined, arrested, and imprisoned.  The penalty for violating laws on the registration and activity of organizations is a fine of up to 10,000 Brunei dollars (BND) ($7,400), imprisonment for up to three years, or both.

The law states that any public assembly of five or more persons requires official approval in advance.  Under longstanding emergency powers, this applies to all forms of public assembly, including religious assembly.  In practice, however, places of worship are viewed as private places in which gatherings do not require approval.

The law forbids the teaching or promotion of any religion other than Islam to Muslims or to persons of no faith.  Under the SPC, the penalty for propagating religions other than Islam is up to five years in prison, a fine of up to 20,000 BND ($14,800), or both.  The SPC includes a provision that makes it illegal to criticize Islam as well as the SPC itself.

Laws and regulations limit access to religious literature.  The law states it is an offense for a person to import any publication deemed objectionable, which is defined in part as describing, depicting, or expressing matters of race or religion in a manner likely to cause “feelings of enmity, hatred, ill will, or hostility between different racial or religious groups.”  The law also bans distributing materials relating to religions other than Islam to Muslims or persons of no faith.  All religious texts are listed as restricted items for import and require a government import permit before shipment.

The law establishes two sets of schools:  those offering the national or international curriculum that are administered by the Ministry of Education, and those offering supplemental religious education (ugama) that are administered by MORA.

Ministry of Education schools teach a course on Islamic religious knowledge that is required for all Muslim children between the ages of seven and 15 who reside in the country and who have at least one parent who is a citizen or permanent resident.  Non-Muslims are exempted from all religious study requirements and receive teaching on moral behavior.  Non-Muslim students are still required to take MIB classes.

Ugama instruction in MORA schools is a seven-to-eight-year course that teaches the day-to-day practice of Sunni Islam according to the Shafi’i school.  Under a 2012 government order, ugama instruction is mandatory for Muslim students between the age of seven and 14 who hold citizenship or permanent residency; many students attend ugama schools in the afternoon after Ministry of Education schools have adjourned.  Parents may be fined up to 5,000 BND ($3,700), imprisoned for a term not exceeding one year, or both, for failure to comply with the order.  The law does not make accommodations for Muslims who have non-Shafi’i beliefs.  MORA also administers a set of schools taught in Arabic that offer the national curriculum combined with ugama religious education.

Public and private schools, including private schools run by churches, are prohibited from providing religious instruction on beliefs other than the Shafi’i school of Islam.  Under the SPC, schools may be fined or school officials imprisoned for teaching non-Islamic religious subjects.  The SPC criminalizes exposing Muslim children or the children of parents who have no religious affiliation to the beliefs and practices of any religion other than Islam.  The law requires that any person wishing to teach on matters relating to Islam must obtain official permission.  Churches and religious schools are permitted to offer private religious education in private settings, such as someone’s home.

All parental rights are awarded to the Muslim parent if a child is born to one Muslim and one non-Muslim parent.  The non-Muslim parent is not recognized in any official document, including the child’s birth certificate, unless that parent has converted to Islam.  The law bans any Muslim from surrendering custody of a minor or dependent in his or her guardianship to a non-Muslim.

Under the SPC, non-Muslims may be arrested for zina (fornication or adultery) or khalwat (close physical proximity between two unmarried individuals of opposite sexes), provided that the other accused party is Muslim.  Foreigners are also subject to these laws.

A regulation requires businesses that produce, supply, and serve food and beverages to obtain a halal certificate or apply for an exemption if serving non-Muslims.

MORA has declared circumcision for Muslim girls (sunat) a religious rite obligatory under Islam and describes it as the removal of the hood of the clitoris (Type I per World Health Organization classification).  The government has stated it does not consider this practice to be female genital mutilation/cutting (FGM/C) and has expressed support for the World Health Organization’s call for the elimination of FGM/C.  In his 2017 fatwas, the State Mufti declared that both male and female circumcision are required and specified that female circumcision involves a “small cut above the vagina.”

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

Government Practices

In response to a COVID-19 outbreak, the Minister of Religious Affairs announced all mosques and other places of worship would close on August 7 until at least 70 percent of the population was fully vaccinated.  As a result, many religious services moved online.  Unlike for the closures mandated in 2020, MOHA and MORA did not inform members of minority religious groups about the rules for closing and reopening of churches and places of worship, and instead, they had to rely on press conferences and news articles for details.

By year’s end the government still had not ratified the UNCAT, which it signed in 2015 following widespread condemnation of the government’s implementation of the first phase of the SPC order in 2014.  Foreign Minister Dato Erywan stated, however, that the government was in the ratification process.

Legal sources reported that sharia courts continued to prosecute criminal, divorce and probate cases until August 7, when the country locked down to contain a second wave of COVID-19.  Prior to the COVID outbreak, local media outlets reported on cases heard in the sharia and civil courts, but coverage of sharia court hearings ceased during the lockdown while reporting on civil court proceedings continued.

The government did not issue official or public condolences or acknowledge the death in May of the country’s first Catholic cardinal, Cornelius Sim.  Cardinal Sim had led interfaith dialogues and gatherings of interdenominational faith leaders from churches throughout the country and frequently acted as the Christian community’s liaison with the government.

Non-Muslims and members of Muslim minority groups reported no significant changes with respect to the practice of minority religions since the full implementation of the SPC in 2019, but they said the law continued to prohibit the ability of non-Muslims to proselytize Muslims or other non-Muslims.  MORA announced 414 residents had converted to Islam in 2020, 94 of whom belonged to the Iban indigenous community who inhabit rural areas, areas where the sultan had called on MORA to do more to increase the spread of Islam.  One non-Muslim said that some Muslims viewed COVID-19 as a curse from God which led to an increase in efforts to convert Christians to Islam, but also said that members of the Christian community in general believed they were under less scrutiny and pressure compared to when the SPC was introduced in 2019.  The said the SPC’s blasphemy provisions could be used to constrain non-Muslim groups’ activities but expressed more concern about subtle government pressure than about the possibility of harsh punishments under the SPC.

The government continued to periodically warn the population about the preaching of non-Shafi’i versions of Islam, including both “liberal” practices and those associated with jihadism, Wahhabism, or Salafism.

MORA awarded contracts worth more than 13.5million BND ($9.99 million) to local companies to build three new mosques in a virtual signing ceremony in October, adding to more than 99 registered mosques according to 2015 government data.  Under the contracts, construction of the mosques would take two years and were projected to serve more than 6,000 congregants.  The mosque construction fund was partially financed by monthly salary deductions from Muslim government workers, except those who took the necessary steps to opt out of automatic salary deductions.

MORA continued to provide all mosques with approved sermons for Friday services.  The government required that registered imams deliver the sermons and forbade deviance from the approved text.

There was no legal requirement for women to wear head coverings in public; however, religious authorities continued to reinforce social customs to encourage Muslim women to wear a head covering (known locally as a tudong), and many women did so.  When applying for passports, drivers’ licenses, and national identity cards, Muslim females were required to wear a tudong.  Muslim women employed by the government were expected to wear a tudong to work, although some chose not to with no reports of official repercussions.  In government schools and institutions of higher learning, Muslim female students were required to wear a uniform that includes a head covering.  Male students were expected to wear the songkok (a traditional hat), although this was not required in all schools.  Women who were incarcerated, including non-Muslims, were required to wear a uniform that included a tudong.

As in past years, the government limited traditional Lunar New Year lion dance performances to a three-day period and restricted them to the country’s sole Chinese Buddhist temple, Chinese school halls, and private residencies of Chinese Association members (comprised of the members of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and several other Chinese business associations).  Members of the royal family publicly attended Lunar New Year celebrations and lion dance performances during the allowed period, with extensive coverage in state-influenced media.

The government continued to enforce strict customs controls on importing non-Islamic religious texts such as Bibles, as well as on Islamic instructional materials or scriptures intended for sale or distribution.  Authorities generally continued to ban the import of non-Islamic religious texts, and the censorship board continued to review Islamic texts to ensure they did not contain text that deviated from the Shafi’i school of Islam.  Customs officials continued to check personal packages entering the country to ensure they did not contain anything of a non-Shafi’i Islamic or perceived sexual nature, such as magazines showing women in swimsuits.

Custom and Excise officers confiscated a Bible mailed to a foreign worker by his wife for personal use in October.  Custom officials reported the worker could reclaim the Bible because it was for personal use, but the process required the claimant to obtain prior written approval from the RBPF, the Internal Security Department, and MORA’s Islamic Learning Center.

Christian leaders continued to state that a longstanding fatwa discouraging Muslims from supporting non-Islamic faiths inhibited the expansion, renovation, or construction of new non-Islamic facilities; in accordance with the fatwa, government officials slowed or did not process building plans and permits for churches.  Christian religious groups said that authorities generally only permitted churches and associated schools to repair and renovate buildings on their sites if required for safety.  The process for obtaining approval to renovate church buildings and associated school buildings remained lengthy and difficult, and there were continuing reports of the government stalling new construction projects for not meeting the complicated requirements.  With only six approved churches in the country, the last built in the 1960s before the country gained independence, facilities were often too small to accommodate their congregations without significant overflow seating outdoors.  Several sources reported that schools associated with Christian churches had to pay government business taxes despite being nonprofit organizations.  They said this measure was not applied to other nonprofit private schools with no religious affiliation.  The Chinese temple was also subject to the same fatwa.  Christian worshippers continued to report difficulty accessing churches on many Sundays because of road closures by the government for official events, with some services being rescheduled.

The government reported that many non-Muslim children elected to take courses on Islam.  Reportedly, those applying for government-funded scholarships believed having such courses on their transcripts could be advantageous.  Most school textbooks were illustrated to portray Islam as the norm, and women and girls were shown wearing the tudong.  There were no depictions of the practices of other religious groups in textbooks.

Authorities continued to prohibit non-Muslims and non-Shafi’i Muslims from receiving non-Shafi’i religious education in schools.  All church-associated schools were recognized by the Ministry of Education and remained open to students of any religion, although they were not permitted to offer religious instruction other than for Shafi’i Islam.

The Minister of Religious Affairs reported the ministry was researching and evaluating school schedules for religious schools in response to public online criticism regarding difficulties Muslim parents faced in sending children to MORA religious schools.  Parents said children were forced to change school uniforms and eat lunch in the car while traveling from nonreligious schools in the morning to attend religious classes in the evening.  Parents also reported they were often late to work after lunch due to religious school schedules.

Throughout the year, the government continued to enforce restrictions requiring all businesses to close for the two hours of Friday prayers.

Religious authorities again allowed nonhalal restaurants and nonhalal sections in supermarkets to operate without interference, but they continued to hold public outreach sessions to encourage restaurants to become halal.

The government continued to offer incentives to prospective converts to Islam and the Shafi’i school, especially those from indigenous communities in rural areas, including help with housing and welfare assistance.  The government allocated travel funding so that those who could not participate in the Hajj due to COVID-19 travel restrictions during the year could do so in the future.  The government gave presentations on the benefits of converting to Islam that received extensive press coverage in state-influenced media.  According to government statistics, 414 individuals converted to Islam during the year, compared with 293 in 2020.  Converts included citizens and permanent residents as well as foreigners.  Government policy supported Islam through the national MIB philosophy as well as through government pledges to make the country a zikir nation (one that remembers and obeys Allah).

In a January roundtable meeting with members of LGBTQ community, participants discussed what they stated were societal pressures stemming from the country’s deep-seated Islamic culture and discussed MORA’s “raid” of a private party during which members of their community were targeted.

Despite the absence of a legal prohibition of Muslims marrying non-Muslims, all Islamic weddings continued to require sharia court approval, and officiants, who were required to be imams approved by the government, also required the non-Muslim party to convert prior to the marriage.

Most government meetings and ceremonies commenced with an Islamic prayer, which the government continued to state was not a legal requirement but a matter of custom.

The government continued to require residents to carry identity cards that stated the bearer’s ethnicity and were used in part to determine whether he or she were Muslim; for example, all ethnic Malays, including those traveling in the country, were assumed to be Muslim.  Malays were required to follow certain Islamic religious practices or potentially face fines, arrest, and imprisonment.  Visitors to the country were asked to identify their religion on their visa applications.

Social media users criticized MORA’s December 22 instructions requiring shops to remove Christmas images and products one month after many stores had already started Christmas promotions.  California-based Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf was among establishments the MORA official visited, prompting some social media users to call for greater religious tolerance.  Although December 25 remained an official holiday on which government offices closed, including MORA, according to the social media accounts MORA officials stated the enforcement measures were needed to “control the act of celebrating Christmas excessively and openly, which could damage the faith of the Muslim community.”  The government allowed Christmas decorations in private residences.

MORA faced online criticism after it punished a local nonhalal restaurant catering to non-Muslim customers for violating laws prohibiting dine-in service during Ramadan fasting hours.  While similar incidents and the ensuing online criticism had occurred in previous years, comments were more numerous and personal during the year in the wake of the MORA Minister’s son receiving a five-year prison sentence for embezzlement and corruption.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Non-Muslims and Muslims face social pressure to conform to Islamic behavioral guidelines.  Some male Muslims reportedly felt pressure from family and friends to attend Friday prayers even though they did not hold strong religious beliefs.  Members of the LGBTQ community expressed fears about openly expressing their sexual or gender identity, saying they believed it would bring shame on their families for violating religious mores.

Following the death of Cardinal Sim in May, individuals from a variety of faith backgrounds made numerous comments in online forums praising the Cardinal for his efforts to serve the people of the country, according to local press.

Legislative council member Khairunnisa binti Haji Ash-ari faced social media backlash when she reintroduced a 2012 proposal for MOHA to open village head positions to women in the March annual parliamentary sessions.  In her speech she pointed out that women held positions of significant leadership in the government and private sector, and there should be no issue in electing a village head regardless of gender.  Many social media users did not agree, using Instagram to state women should be ineligible due to the Islamic responsibilities mixed in with the village head’s otherwise administrative role.  The Minister of Home Affairs said the matter would be taken into consideration but by year’s end had taken no action.  One local online newspaper, The Scoop, turned off comments due to “abusive and derogatory” language and remarks containing misogyny, racism, and prejudice.

Social media users expressed anger after a court acquitted a religious teacher charged with sexual abuse.  Comments on Reddit, Borneo Bulletin’s Instagram, and Media Permata’s Instagram drew comparisons and contrasts with another sexual assault case reported on the same day in which a court handed down a lengthy sentence to the defendant.  Many commentators said the justice system in the country was flawed because it accorded leniency to the rich and powerful, and stated the court gave the acquitted teacher preferential treatment due to his association with MORA.  They also questioned the need for six witnesses in prosecuting the religious teacher’s case, while this was not required in the other case.

There were again reports that some individuals who wished to convert to another religion continued to fear social retribution, such as ostracism by friends, family, and their community.  If parents converted to Islam, there was often family and official pressure for the children to do the same if they were not young enough to have been automatically converted with their parents.  Some non-Muslims said they continued to feel pressured in the workplace or in social groups to convert to Islam.  While the SPC outlined harsh punishments for Muslims converting to another religion, there were no known cases during the year of the government having applied those penalties.  Non-Muslims reported, however, that government officials monitored their religious services and events to ensure that no Muslims attended and that there was no anti-Islamic content.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires and other embassy officials raised U.S. concerns regarding the effects of the SPC, the importance of ratification of UNCAT, and the protection of minority religious group rights with government officials, including from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Attorney General’s Chambers, and the Chief Justice of Brunei.  The Charge d’Affaires also encouraged MORA to support religious freedom by resuming interfaith dialogues with religious minorities.  U.S. officials continued to coordinate with other governments, including Australia, France, and the United Kingdom, regarding shared concerns about the SPC.

Embassy officials visited places of worship and met with religious leaders to discuss the concerns of religious minorities regarding the implications of the SPC for the non-Muslim community and the limitations placed on the open practice of other religions.  Embassy officials emphasized U.S. support for religious freedom and encouraged religious minority groups to maintain communication with the embassy.

Cambodia

Executive Summary

The constitution states Buddhism is the state religion, which is promoted by the government through holiday observances, religious training, Buddhist instruction in public schools, and financial support to Buddhist institutions.  The law provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, provided such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security.  The law does not allow non-Buddhist denominations to proselytize publicly.  In December, the government issued a directive restricting monks from participating in political protests and requiring they be politically neutral.  The Ministry of Cults and Religions (MCR), in consultation with religious leaders of several faiths, prepared a draft law criminalizing “religious people” who participate in political acts, including “organized activity against any political party.”  Shortly after a March government order that all COVID-19 victims’ remains should be cremated, Prime Minister Hun Sen met with Muslim groups to discuss their concerns about the requirement.  Responding to public appeals to allow for religious burial rites, in early April, the Prime Minister dedicated land in Kampong Speu Province for the burial of Muslim COVID-19 victims.  Land issues affected some indigenous communities’ spiritual practices.  The government continued to deny an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) request to accept permanently a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status.

Indigenous rights groups accused individuals they characterized as “wealthy and powerful” of illegally clearing forests that were religious sites for some indigenous peoples in order to profit from logging or to convert the land to commercial purposes.

The Ambassador and other embassy officials met with government officials to promote religious freedom and to discourage the use of the COVID-19 pandemic as a basis for discrimination against certain religious groups.  The Ambassador also used his social media platforms to promote tolerance for different religious practices in the country.  During the year, the Ambassador met with Muslim leaders and members of the ethnic Cham minority on several provincial outreach trips.  The embassy conducted outreach to minority religious groups – including Muslims, indigenous peoples practicing animist religions, and the country’s Christian community – to obtain first-hand views on the government’s and society’s tolerance of and support for these groups’ religious practices.  Some embassy programs focused on the preservation of religious cultural sites.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 16.5 million (midyear 2021).  According to the MCR, approximately 93 percent of the population is Buddhist, 95 percent of whom practice Theravada Buddhism, with an estimated 4,400 monastic temples throughout the country.  The remaining 7 percent of the population includes Christians, Muslims, animists, Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents.  Most ethnic Vietnamese traditionally practice Mahayana Buddhism, although others have adopted Theravada Buddhism and Roman Catholicism, representing most Catholics in the country.  Catholics constitute 0.4 percent of the population.  Nongovernmental estimates of the Protestant population, including evangelical Christians, vary, but are less than 2 percent of the total population.

According to government and NGO estimates, between 2 and 5 percent of the population is Muslim and is predominantly ethnic Cham, although not all Cham are Muslim.  The Cham typically live in towns and rural fishing villages along the banks of Tonle Sap Lake and the Mekong River, as well as in Kampot Province.  Nearly 90 percent of Muslims are adherents of Sunni Islam, subscribing to the Shafi’i school of Islamic law.  The remaining minority practice Salafist, Wahhabist Sunni doctrines; there are also Ahmadi Muslims.  A portion of the Cham community also subscribes to the indigenous Iman-San sect of Islam, combining traditional ancestral practices with Sunni Islam.

According to government estimates, 0.28 percent of the population is ethnic Bunong, the majority of whom follow animistic religious practices.  An additional estimated 0.25 percent of the population includes Baha’is, Jews, and Cao Dai adherents.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of belief and religious worship, as long as such freedom neither interferes with others’ beliefs and religions nor violates public order and security.  The constitution establishes Buddhism as the state religion and provides for government support of Buddhist education; it also prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The law requires that religious groups refrain from openly criticizing other religious groups, but it does not elaborate the legal consequences for these types of violations.  The law also forbids religious organizations from organizing events, rallies, meetings, and training sessions that are politically focused.

The law requires all religious groups, including Buddhist groups, to register with the MCR.  The law mandates that religious organizations inform the government of their goals; describe activities; provide biographical information for all religious leaders; note funding sources; submit annual reports detailing all activities; and refrain from insulting other religious groups, fomenting disputes, or undermining national security.  Registration requires approval from numerous local, provincial, and national government offices, a process that can take up to 90 days.  There are no penalties for failing to register, but unregistered religious groups cannot receive an income tax exemption from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.

The law bans non-Buddhist groups from proselytizing publicly and stipulates that non-Buddhist literature may be distributed only inside religious institutions.  The law also prohibits offers of money or materials to convince persons to convert.  The law prohibits and penalizes acts that constitute “infringement on state religion,” including unauthorized wearing of Buddhist monks’ robes in public, damaging Buddhist religious premises or sacred objects, and “insult” towards a Buddhist monk or a nun.

The law requires separate registration of all places of worship and religious schools.  Authorities may temporarily shut down unregistered places of worship and religious schools until they are registered.  The law also makes a legal distinction between “places of worship” and “offices of prayer.”  The establishment of a place of worship requires that the founders own both the structure and the land on which it is located.  The facility must have a minimum capacity of 200 persons, and the permit application requires the support of at least 100 congregants.  An office of prayer may be located in a rented property and has no minimum capacity requirement.  The permit application for an office of prayer requires the support of at least 25 congregants.  Places of worship must be located at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) from each other and may not be used for political purposes or to house criminals or fugitives.  The distance requirement applies only to the construction of new places of worship and not to offices of religious organizations or offices of prayer.

Schools that focus on religious studies must be registered with the MCR and the Ministry of Education, Youth, and Sport (MOEYS).  MOEYS advises religious schools to follow the ministry’s core curriculum, which does not include a religious component.  Non-Buddhist religious schools are permitted and may be either public or private.  Secular public schools may choose to have supplemental Buddhist lessons, but they are required to coordinate with MOEYS when doing so.  Not all secular public schools offer supplemental Buddhist lessons, and non-Buddhist students may opt out of such instruction.  The law forbids non-Buddhist supplemental religious instruction in secular public schools.

The law does not provide authorization for a religious entity to own land, compelling some religious leaders to register land in their personal capacity rather than that of their organization.  There is no visa category specifically applicable to religious workers.

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

Government Practices

In December, the government issued a directive restricting monks from participating in political protests and requiring them to be politically neutral.  The directive came after authorities arrested a monk for being active on social and environmental issues.  The MCR, in consultation with religious leaders of several faiths, prepared a draft law criminalizing “religious people” who participate in political acts, including “organized activity against any political party.”  Experts who reviewed the draft legislation said the term “religious people” is commonly used to refer to monks and is not further defined in the draft law, making it unclear if the proposed rule would apply to non-Buddhists.  Criminal penalties could include up to 15 years in prison.

The government took steps regarding religious practices related to COVID-19 deaths.  Prime Minister Hun Sen met with Muslim groups to discuss their concerns shortly after a March government order that all COVID-19 victims’ remains must be cremated.  Responding to public appeals to allow for religious burial rites, in April, the Prime Minister dedicated land in Kampong Speu Province for the burial of Muslim COVID-19 victims.  The Prime Minister publicly called on followers of non-Islamic religions to support this exemption.  The Highest Council for Islamic Religious Affairs subsequently issued instructions to local Muslim councils to facilitate faith-appropriate burials for COVID-19 victims.

The government required all public hospitals to install Islamic prayer halls and formalized the right of women to wear Muslim headscarves at public schools, responding to concerns raised during an iftar attended by the Prime Minister and Muslim leaders in 2019.  Three medical facilities opened new prayer rooms in 2021:  the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, the Ang Duong Hospital, and the School of Medical Care.  Wearing head coverings indoors is often considered a sign of disrespect in the country, and schools had previously discouraged them in classrooms.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, though the MCR, exercised control over appointments to leadership positions in the country’s primary Buddhist and Muslim groups.  Senior Buddhist leadership positions were approved by the Prime Minister and the King.  In June, the government announced that a top Buddhist leader, Supreme Patriarch Bour Kry, had appointed an online lotion vendor and a fortune teller as personal advisors, a decision which drew strong public criticism on social media, given the advisors’ perceived lack of education and religious training.

In January, government officials and local Muslim leaders serving on the Cambodian Halal Steering Committee formalized a new Department of Halal Affairs under the Ministry of Commerce’s General Department of Consumer Protection, Competition, and Fraud Prevention.  The Department oversaw the production and proper labeling of halal products, a move intended in part to help increase Muslim tourism to the country in the wake of the pandemic.

A Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts official stated that the ministry was actively working to register land for indigenous communities based on the land’s importance to religious worship in response to previous complaints about sluggish land registration and deforestation affecting spiritual practices and economic livelihoods.

The government continued to reject a UNHCR request to accept permanently a group of Christian Montagnards from Vietnam who came to the country to claim refugee status.  Of the original estimated 200 Christian Montagnards who fled Vietnam and were in Cambodia in 2017, 12 remained in the country after two traveled illegally to Thailand and 13 returned to Vietnam voluntarily in 2020.  The government continued to require them to live in a specific area of Phnom Penh.  The adults were not permitted to work, and the children were not permitted to attend school.  These 12 decided to stay in the country until they receive permission to leave for a third country.

The government continued to promote Buddhist holidays by grants of official status and declarations of government holidays.  The government also provided Buddhist training and education to monks and laypersons in pagodas and gave financial support to an institute that performed research and published materials on Khmer culture and Buddhist traditions.  The government did not grant similar treatment to other religious groups, including by declaring government holidays.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In April, a report by the Cambodian Youth Network found that more than 3,200 acres of a 7,400-acre protected forest in Kratie Province had been illegally cleared, while another 1,140 acres were under threat.  The forest is a religious site for the indigenous Bunong people.  A network official accused “wealthy and powerful individuals” of illegally clearing the forests for profit from logging or converting the land to other commercial purposes.  Indigenous community leaders reported that individuals and companies who purchased sacred indigenous land commonly hid their intention to clear the land of forest cover, a fact that, if known, would have caused local residents and religious leaders to object to the sale of the land.  Sources stated that it was difficult for local communities to prevent the clearing of forest after a sale was completed and payments made.

Observers and religious leaders reported improved public acceptance of persons practicing non-Buddhist religions, although some biases and prejudice remained.  Leaders in the minority Muslim Cham community stated that the Cham had equal employment and educational opportunities.

After meeting with Tep Vong, the Supreme Patriarch of Mohanikaya Buddhism, Roman Catholic Bishop Olivier Schmitthaeusler, head of the Apostolic Vicariate of Phnom Penh, reported that there was “reciprocal religious respect” among religious groups in the country and that government policies and social tolerance were instrumental in improving interreligious relationships.

In June, the Roman Catholic Church donated 20,000 masks to the High Council for Islamic Religious Affairs to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.  A Council representative expressed gratitude to the Church for demonstrating solidarity with Cambodian Muslims.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador raised the issue of the Christian Montagnards from Vietnam on several occasions with government ministers and other representatives and encouraged the government to allow their permanent resettlement to proceed.  The Ambassador and other officers highlighted to government officials the vulnerabilities that religious minority groups faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic and stressed the importance of actively ensuring these groups are not discriminated against and receive all public services to which they are entitled.  Embassy officials regularly raised with government representatives the importance of fully integrating religious minorities into Cambodian society and highlighted the benefits of supporting religious pluralism.  The Ambassador called for tolerance for differing religious viewpoints on social media and encouraged the government to continue protecting the rights of every person to practice his or her faith without interference.

Embassy officers underscored with leaders of Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim groups the importance of accepting religious diversity, emphasizing the importance of interfaith tolerance in a democratic society.  The Ambassador met with Muslim leaders from the minority Cham community to discuss religious freedom and challenges facing their community during a provincial outreach trip in June.  He also met with minority Cham community members and graduates of a U.S.-funded English education program in a separate provincial outreach trip in September.

Embassy officers met with ethnic Cham and other Muslim community members, indigenous leaders, and representatives of the country’s small Christian community to understand their perspectives on religious tolerance, respect for minority culture, equal economic opportunity, and integration of ethnic minorities into the wider culture, and to express the embassy’s support for religious freedom.  In order to document religious persecution by the Khmer Rouge regime, the embassy also funded transitional justice programs that engaged the Cham Muslim community.

Some embassy programs focused on supporting the preservation of religious cultural sites, such as the Phnom Bakheng Temple in Siem Reap Province.

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

Read A Section: China

Tibet | Xinjiang | Hong Kong | Macau

Executive Summary

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.”  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, although other groups reported meeting unofficially.  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 precluding minors’ participation in religious activities.  The government continued to assert control over religion and to 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.  NGOs and media continued to report deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, disappeared, detained, sentenced to prison, subjected to forced labor and forced indoctrination in CCP ideology, and harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.  The NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers estimated the government imprisoned 2,987 individuals for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of December 7.  According to Minghui, a Falun Gong-affiliated publication, 101 Falun Gong practitioners died during the year as a result of persecution of their faith, compared with 107 in 2020, and both Minghui and the Falun Dafa Infocenter reported police arrested more than 5,000 practitioners and harassed more than 9,000 others.  According to the annual report of The Church of Almighty God (CAG), authorities arrested more than 11,156 of its members and subjected them to physical abuse, including beatings, sleep deprivation, and being forced into stress positions, resulting in the death of at least nine individuals.  There were reports the government pressured individuals to renounce their religious beliefs.  The government continued its multiyear campaign of “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, which included requiring clergy of all faiths to attend political indoctrination sessions and suggesting content for sermons that emphasized loyalty to the CCP and the state.  The State Administration of Religious Affairs (SARA) issued regulations, effective May 1, entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” requires all clergy to pledge allegiance to the CCP and socialism and created a database of “religious personnel” to track their performance.  Authorities did not issue a “clergy card” to individuals not belonging to one of the five officially recognized patriotic religious associations, including pastors of Protestant house churches, Catholic clergy who rejected the government’s 2018 provisional agreement with the Holy See and refused to join the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), teachers and clergy at independent mosques and Buddhist and Taoist temples, rabbis, and religious personnel of new religious movements.  The SARA issued new regulations on September 1 that require all religious schools to teach Xi Jinping Thought and adhere to the “Sinicization of religion.”  The government prohibited private tutors, including those based abroad, from using textbooks “propagating religious teachings” and closed several informal, religiously affiliated schools.

During the year, 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-19 restrictions.  The government intensified its campaign against religious groups it characterized as “cults,” including the CAG, maintained a ban on other groups, such as Falun Gong, and conducted propaganda campaigns against xie jiao (literally “heterodox teachings”) aimed at school-age children.  Authorities limited online worship.  Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, the Quran, and other religious literature, and penalized businesses that copied and published religious materials.  The government removed religious apps from app stores and censored religious content from the popular messaging service WeChat.  Authorities censored online posts referencing Jesus or the Bible and there were continued reports that authorities destroyed public displays of religious symbols throughout the country.  The government continued to remove architectural features that identified some churches and mosques as religious sites and removed crosses from private property.  The SARA’s “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy” made no provision for the Holy See to have a role in the selection of Catholic bishops, despite the 2018 provisional agreement between the Vatican and the government concerning the appointment of bishops.  At a national conference on religious affairs in December, President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping called on religious personnel and government officials to “uphold and develop a religious theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Christians, Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Falun Gong practitioners reported severe societal discrimination in employment, housing, and business opportunities.  International media reported growing anti-Muslim sentiment in society as a result of the government’s Sinicization campaign.

The Charge d’Affaires 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 Charge 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 and advocacy directly to Chinese citizens through outreach programs and social media.  The U.S. Secretary of State, Charge, and other State Department and embassy officials issued public statements, including via social media, supporting religious freedom and condemning the PRC’s violations of the rights of religious minorities.  The U.S. Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom in China, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.  On January 19, the then Secretary of State determined that since at least March 2017, the PRC has committed genocide and crimes against humanity against Uyghurs, who are predominantly Muslim, and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.  On January 13, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a Withhold Release Order that prohibited the import of all cotton and tomato products produced in Xinjiang.  On March 22, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned two officials under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act.  On May 12, the Secretary of State announced visa restrictions against a PRC government official for his involvement in gross violations of human rights against Falun Gong practitioners.  On June 24, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Department of Commerce, and U.S. Department of Labor took action against companies in the polysilicon industry using forced labor of religious and ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.  On July 9, the U.S. Commerce Department added to the Entities List 14 Chinese electronics and technology firms and other businesses for helping enable “Beijing’s campaign of repression, mass detention, and high-technology surveillance” against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.  On July 13, the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, and Labor, and the U.S. Trade Representative issued an updated Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory that highlighted for businesses with potential supply chain and investment links to Xinjiang the risk of complicity with forced labor and human rights abuses.  On December 6, the Presidential press secretary announced the United States would not send diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic or Paralympic Games because of human rights abuses in China.  On December 10, the U.S. Department of State imposed visa restrictions on four current and former PRC officials for complicity with human rights violations in Xinjiang, and the U.S. Department of Treasury also sanctioned two officials and one company.  On December 23, the President signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act.

Since 1999, China has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, 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 2021).  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 1 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 Buddhists, 60 to 80 million Protestants, 21 to 23 million Muslims, seven to 20 million Falun Gong practitioners, 12 million Roman Catholics, six to eight million Tibetan Buddhists, and hundreds of millions who follow various folk traditions.  According to Boston University’s 2020 World Religion Database, there are 499 million folk and ethnic religionists (34 percent), 474 million agnostics (33 percent), 228 million Buddhists (16 percent), 106 million Christians (7.4 percent), 100 million atheists (7 percent), 23.7 million Muslims (1.7 percent), and other religions adherents who together constitute less than 1 percent of the population, including 5.9 million Taoists, 1.8 million Confucians, 20,500 Sikhs, and 2,900 Jews.  According to the Christian advocacy NGO Open Doors USA’s World Watch List 2022 report, there are 96.7 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.  A June report on the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang) issued by the Department of Population and Employment Statistics of the PRC’s National Bureau of Statistics estimates the total population in Xinjiang is 26 million.  The report states Uyghurs, along with ethnic Kazakh, Hui, Kyrgyz, and members of other predominantly Muslim ethnic minority groups, number approximately 15 million residents, or 58 percent of the total population there.

While there is no reliable government breakdown of the Buddhist population by school, the vast majority of Buddhists are adherents of Mahayana Buddhism, according to the Pew Research Center.  Most ethnic Tibetans practice Tibetan Buddhism, although a sizeable minority practices Bon, a pre-Buddhist indigenous religion.

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 a 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 states 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 individuals or groups to take legal action 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 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 United Front Work Department (UFWD), are the Buddhist Association of China, the Chinese Taoist Association, the Islamic Association of China, the TSPM, and the CCPA.  Other religious groups, such as Protestant groups unaffiliated with the official TSPM or Catholics professing loyalty to the Holy See but not affiliated with the CCPA, 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.

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

On January 18, the SARA issued new regulations, effective May 1, entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy.”  The regulations require all clergy to pledge allegiance to the CCP and socialism and to create a database of “religious personnel” to track their performance.  Article 3 of the regulations states religious clergy “should love the motherland, support the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, support the socialist system, abide by the constitution, laws, regulations, and rules, practice the core values of socialism, adhere to the principle of independent and self-administered religion in China, adhere to the direction of the Sinicization of religion in China, and operate to maintain national unity, religious harmony, and social stability.”  Article 6 states, in part, clergy should “resist illegal religious activities and religious extremist ideology, and resist infiltration by foreign forces using religion.”  The regulations also provide that “entrance to religious places of worship should be regulated through strict gatekeeping, verification of identity, and registration.”  The regulations also stipulate that authorities will hold religious organizations and institutions responsible for the behavior of individual religious clergy.  Article 7 stipulates religious staff should “focus on improving their own quality, improving their cultural and moral literacy, studying the contents of doctrines and regulations that are conducive to social harmony, progress of the times, and health and civilization, and integrate them into preaching, and play a role in promoting the Sinicization of religion in our country.”

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

Authorities require CCP members and members of the armed forces to be atheists and forbid them from engaging in religious practices.  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 [xie jiao, literally ‘heterodox teachings’] 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 considers Falun Gong an “illegal organization.”  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 also characterizes a number of Christian groups as “cult organizations,” including the Shouters, 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, Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), Family of Love, and South China Church.

According to regulations, in order to register, 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 required only 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 2020, 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 formalize 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.

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 the SARA, and the Ministry of Civil Affairs provide policy guidance and supervision on the implementation of these regulations.

Revisions to the Regulations on Religious Affairs in 2018 increased restrictions on unregistered religious groups.  Individuals who participate in unsanctioned religious activities are subject to criminal and administrative penalties.  The regulations stipulate that any form of income from illegal activities or illegal properties shall be confiscated and a fine imposed of between one to three times the value of the illegal income or properties.  If the illegal income or properties cannot be identified, officials impose a fine of less than 50,000 renminbi (RMB) ($7,800).  Authorities may penalize property owners renting space to unregistered religious groups by confiscating properties and illegal incomes and levying fines between RMB 20,000 and 200,000 ($3,100-$31,400).

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.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs require 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-$31,400).  Illegally obtained income connected to such 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 clerical housing, may be transferred, mortgaged, or utilized as an investment.  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 charities 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 state that any donations exceeding RMB 100,000 ($15,700) 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.”  Measures to safeguard national unity and respond to “religious extremism” include monitoring groups, individuals, and institutions.  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.

By law, prison inmates have the right to believe in a religion and maintain their religious faith while in custody, but not a right to exercise their faith, such as by accessing prayer facilities or meeting with 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, as well as 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.  Publication of religious material must also conform to guidelines determined by the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee.  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.

In December, the government published new regulations to limit online religious content.  The Measures for the Administration of Internet Religious Information Services, set to go into effect on March 1, 2022, would prohibit overseas organizations and individuals from operating online religious information services in the country.

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 the 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.  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 SARA also issued new regulations on September 1 entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Schools” that stipulate religious schools should ensure CCP ideological training is included in all religious education, including required classes on Xi Jinping Thought, ideological and political theory, and socialism.

The Regulations on Religious Affairs of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region 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.”  Individuals, including parents, who violate these regulations may be criminally liable.  Implementation of these rules, however, varies greatly across and within regions.

On September 1, the Ministry of Education published the “Administrative Measures for Off-campus Training Materials for Primary and Secondary School Students.”  “Off-campus training” refers to private tutoring services designed to help students prepare for entrance exams.  The regulations prohibit private tutors, including those based abroad, from using textbooks “propagating religious teachings, doctrines, canons, or xie jiao, or feudal superstitions, etc.”

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

In 2020, 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

Authorities 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.  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.

NGOs, religious groups, and media sources continued to report deaths in custody, enforced disappearances (often through “residential surveillance at a designated location” – a form of black-site detention utilized by authorities against individuals accused of endangering state security), and organ harvesting in prison of individuals whom authorities targeted based on their religious beliefs or affiliation.  NGOs and media reported authorities used violence during arrests and tortured detainees, including by forcing them to maintain stress positions, beating them, and depriving them of food, water, and sleep.  NGOs reported that some previously detained individuals were denied freedom of movement even after their release.

The NGO Human Rights Without Frontiers estimated that the government imprisoned 2,987 individuals for exercising their right to freedom of religion or belief as of December 7.

The Political Prisoner Database of the human rights NGO Dui Hua Foundation counted 3,793 individuals imprisoned as of September 30 for “unorthodox” religious beliefs, including 2,751 Falun Gong practitioners, 578 CAG members, and 147 members of other Protestant groups.

Minghui reported 101 Falun Gong practitioners died as a result of persecution suffered because of their faith, compared with 107 in 2020.  It also reported that authorities arrested 5,045 (8,160 in 2020) and harassed 9,245 (10,973 in 2020) Falun Gong practitioners during the year.  The Falun Dafa Infocenter reported police arrested more than 5,000 practitioners and harassed more than 9,000 others during the year.

Minghui stated police often used violence during arrests of Falun Gong practitioners and that individuals were tortured in custody.  Police in Anyang City, Henan Province, arrested shopkeeper Li Xianxi on May 11 for talking about Falun Gong in a market.  When he performed Falun Gong exercises at the local detention center following his arrest, authorities handcuffed and shackled him.  On June 13, authorities informed his family that Li had died on June 12.  According to those who saw his body, he was emaciated, his head was swollen, and there were injuries to his back and knees.

Bitter Winter, an online publication that tracks religious liberty and human rights abuses in the country, reported that on April 12, authorities informed the family of Colonel Gong Piqi, a Falun Gong practitioner and former deputy chief of staff of the Shandong Provincial Reserve Artillery Division, that Gong had died in prison.  He had been forced to retire when authorities discovered he was a practitioner.  Authorities arrested Gong in 2017 and sentenced him in 2018 to seven and a half years and a fine of RMB 20,000 ($3,100) for being active in a banned religious group.  According to authorities, Gong experienced a “sudden cerebral hemorrhage” and died despite receiving medical treatment.  His family and friends reported seeing signs of torture on his body, causing them to doubt he died of natural causes.

Minghui reported that Hubei Province resident Hu Hanjiao died in prison while serving a four-year sentence for practicing Falun Gong.  Authorities arrested Hu on March 15 for talking to people about Falun Gong and the Xiaochang County Court sentenced her in late June.  During the seven months authorities held her at the Hanchuan City Detention Center, Hu staged a hunger strike in protest and was force fed.  Thirteen days after she was transferred to the Hubei Province Women’s Prison, prison authorities called Hu’s husband to inform him she had died.  They refused to release her body to her family.

In June, Bitter Winter reported that government and police officers confirmed that, in the context of the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, the government ordered increased arrests for members of all dissident groups, particularly CAG members.  One document issued by the Office of State Security in Shanxi Province ordered officials to “put real efforts to strengthen surveillance over key personnel and carry out a severe crackdown on The Church of Almighty God.”  According to Bitter Winter, authorities throughout the country arrested more than 1,000 CAG members in the first half of the year.  From May 19 to 25, Guangdong Province police arrested approximately 160 CAG members in Foshan, Guangzhou, Zhuhai, and other cities.  Authorities also arrested 403 CAG members in Shanxi Province from the beginning of the year through June, and at least 265 CAG members in Henan Province from mid-April to mid-June.  In April, the government in Anhui Province arrested at least 116 CAG members after a long-term surveillance and tracking operation and confiscated at least RMB 750,000 ($118,000) of church and personal assets.

During the year, Bitter Winter reported on several cases of authorities imprisoning CAG members, pressuring them to sign statements renouncing their faith, and subjecting them to psychological and physical abuse, including beatings and stress positions, when they refused.  One CAG member from the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region said during his imprisonment, a guard tightly wrapped a copper wire as thick as a little finger around his body five times, cutting off his circulation.  After authorities forced him to stand for four hours, the man’s legs became swollen, his hands were numb and trembling, and his abdomen became numb to the touch.  One CAG member from Anhui Province said authorities forced her into a stress position eight hours a day for five consecutive days during which she had to squat while keeping her torso upright, her hands raised above her head, and her body unmoving.  Another CAG member reported being deprived of sleep for five nights.  Two CAG members said when they refused to sign a statement renouncing their faith, guards encouraged fellow inmates to beat them, resulting in bruises and broken teeth.  Another CAG member described fellow prisoners, at the guards’ instigation, smearing feces on his body.

In April, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported authorities in Sichuan Province detained members of Christian house churches in unofficial detention facilities where they pressured individuals to renounce their faith.  One Protestant individual said authorities held him in a windowless basement for eight or nine months, during which time they physically and mentally abused him.  He said, “You can’t see the sun, so you lose all concept of time,” and that suicidal thoughts and self-harm among detainees were commonplace.  Secret police attempted to coerce inmates into signing confessions of guilt and held those who refused in solitary confinement for prolonged periods.  Another Christian told RFA that similar facilities were being used to abuse members of the underground Catholic Church and Falun Gong practitioners.

According to the annual report released by the CAG, during the year, at least 68,456 Church members were directly persecuted by authorities, compared with at least 42,807 in 2020.  The report stated that authorities harassed at least 57,300 Church members (at least 35,752 in 2020), arrested 11,156 (7,055 in 2020), detained 3,636 (4,045 in 2020), tortured or subjected to forced indoctrination 6,125 (5,587 in 2020), sentenced 1,452 (1,098 in 2020), and seized at least RMB 250 million ($39.23 million) in Church and personal assets.  At least nine Church members died as a result of being physically abused during detention (at least 21 in 2020).

The NGO ChinaAid reported that on May 23, police in Guiyang, Guizhou Province, arrested Pastor Yang Hua of the Guiyang Living Stone Church for conducting religious activities.  At the station, leaders of the Guiyang Yunyan District Party Committee reportedly struck Yang, causing injuries that required medical attention.

Media reported authorities used measures ostensibly intended to prevent 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.

Bitter Winter reported that on June 7, the Qinnan District People’s Court in Qinzhou City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, sentenced 21 members of the Blood and Water of Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit Full Gospel Evangelistic Group to prison for being active in a cult.  They were part of a group of Church members detained by the Qinnan Branch of the Qinzhou Public Security Bureau in August 2020.  Police also seized 113 books, 989 loose “propaganda materials,” 183 CDs, 3 calendars, 2 diaries, and 48 signs, among other items.  The movement was founded in Taiwan and the government declared it a cult in 1995.

According to Minghui, police arrested and harassed Falun Gong practitioners throughout the country.  Harassment spiked in April and May, around the “sensitive dates” of April 25, the anniversary of 10,000 Falun Gong practitioners’ appealing in 1999 outside the central government compound for the right to practice their beliefs, and May 13, the 29th anniversary of Falun Gong’s introduction to the public.  According to Minghui, harassment was also driven by the “stability maintenance” campaign prior to the CCP’s centennial anniversary.  From July to August, Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shandong, Jilin, Sichuan, Shanxi, and Liaoning were the provinces where the highest number of practitioners were targeted.  Those arrested included teachers, restauranteurs, librarians, construction workers, factory workers, academics, nurses, engineers, farmers, shop owners, and many retirees.

On September 12, Minghui reported multiple examples of police harassment and arrests of practitioners of Falun Gong.  On March 10, police in Fushun City, Liaoning Province, arrested Yang Xiaozhi for distributing Falun Gong materials.  She reported that detention officers shocked her with electric batons before releasing her on bail on March 15.  On May 14, police in Jilin City, Jilin Province, arrested 98-year-old Cai Xiufang for talking to people about Falun Gong.  They held her in a metal cage at the police station for several hours and ransacked her home before releasing her on bail.  Authorities arrested Gong Ruiping, a former elementary school teacher in Beijing, on July 20 in connection with practicing Falun Gong.  Guards force fed her when she attempted a hunger strike.  On July 23, authorities arrested Li Lihong, a middle school teacher in Ningxiang City, Hunan Province, for talking to people about Falun Gong.  Minghui reported that Baimaqiao police station head Zhang Jie threatened to shoot and kill her.  On August 15, a plainclothes police officer in Handan City, Hebei Province, beat Wang Shuqin for talking to him about Falun Gong.  Wang suffered two broken ribs and was taken to the hospital.

ChinaAid reported that in January in Hengyang City, Hunan Province, officials detained Chen Wensheng for 25 days for preaching Christian teachings on the streets.  Following his release from detention on January 29, local authorities came to his home to persuade him to stop “street evangelism.”

On June 14, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a statement from a group of 11 UN-affiliated independent human rights experts, including UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed, who were “alarmed by reports of alleged organ harvesting targeting minorities including Falun Gong practitioners, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Muslims, and Christians, in detention in China.”  The independent experts reported receiving credible information from NGOs and activists stating that authorities “may have forcibly subjected… detainees from ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities” to blood tests and organ examinations such as ultrasounds and x-rays without their informed consent, while other prisoners were not required to undergo such examinations.  The results of the examinations were reportedly registered in a database of living organ sources that facilitated organ allocation.  The independent experts stated, “According to the allegations received, the most common organs removed from the prisoners are reportedly hearts, kidneys, livers, corneas and, less commonly, parts of livers.  This form of trafficking with a medical nature allegedly involves health sector professionals, including surgeons, anaesthetists and other medical specialists.”  The experts said that despite the gradual development of a voluntary organ donation system, “[I]nformation continues to emerge regarding serious human rights violations in the procurement of organs for transplants in China,” and concern remained at the lack of independent oversight as to whether consent to donation and organ allocation was effectively given by prisoners or detainees.  The experts noted that authorities reportedly prevented families of deceased detainees and prisoners from claiming their bodies.

On August 9, the government responded to the High Commissioner, asserting the experts’ report was “based on false information and makes groundless accusations against China” and was “filled with malice and prejudice.”  The government said witnesses were “‘actors’ who repeatedly engage in slander and rumour-mongering on the issue of human rights in China[.]”  The government stated that regulations required medical examinations for persons entering detention facilities “for the purpose of determining the detainee’s physical condition at the time of admittance to the facility and providing prompt treatment in the event of illness.”  It stated that, by law, organ donation was “voluntary and nonremunerative” and that organ trading and involuntary organ harvesting had been criminalized.

In July, Minghui reported authorities collected DNA, blood samples, and other biometrics from Falun Gong practitioners against their will.  During the first half of the year, this reportedly occurred in 18 provinces and municipalities – Beijing, Shanghai, Shandong, Heilongjiang, Jilin, Zhejiang, Liaoning, Gansu, Jiangxi, Jiangsu, Guizhou, Hebei, Hubei, Henan, Shanxi, Sichuan, Guangdong, and Shaanxi.  Between April 26 and 29, four practitioners in Shanghai reported police broke into their homes and forcibly collected blood samples.  Practitioners reported police also collected handwriting samples, fingerprints, height information, photographs, and phone numbers.  According to Minghui, some practitioners suspected authorities were collecting these biometrics and blood samples to establish a DNA and organ matching database, as well as to enhance the surveillance of practitioners.

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

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) reported local Catholic sources said authorities abducted Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin of Yongjia (Wenzhou) Diocese in Zhejiang Province on October 25 and held him incommunicado for two weeks before releasing him.  Shao was ordained a bishop in 2011 with Vatican approval, but his appointment was not approved by the two state-sanctioned church bodies – the Bishops’ Conference of the Catholic Church in China (BCCCC) and the CCPA – and he was not among the Vatican-approved bishops recognized by the CCPA as a result of the 2018 Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.  According to UCA News, this was the seventh time since 2016 that authorities detained Shao, and his prior arrests stemmed from his refusal to join the CCPA.

Media reported the status of Catholic Bishop Taddeo Ma Daqin, whom authorities placed under house arrest in Shanghai following his resignation from the CCPA in 2012, remained unchanged at as of April.

RFA reported that on April 21, police in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, raided the Early Rain Covenant Church (ERCC) during a study session and detained 19 Church members, including 12 children.  At the local police station, officers questioned the children without their parents present, in contravention of the law regarding detention of minors.  According to a Church member, police released 16 of the 19 persons after detaining them for 11 hours and continued to hold three individuals without giving a reason to their families.

International Christian Concern reported that on August 22, police in Chengdu City entered the home of an ERCC member during a Sunday worship service and arrested 28 individuals, including 10 children.  During the arrests, police injured Pastor Dai Zhichao on his arm and confiscated his mobile phone.  An ERCC member said police beat many individuals in detention and when the children became unruly, officers threatened to hit them on their heads.  Police held Dai and the homeowner, He Shan, in detention for 14 days and fined He RMB 1,000 ($160) for holding an illegal religious gathering.

Bitter Winter reported that in May the Beijing Municipal Court sentenced Lin Xianzan, a member of the Shouters, to three years in prison for being active in a banned religious group.

There were reports that authorities continued to crack down on qigong movements that it classified as cults or equivalent to cults.  Bitter Winter reported that on April 27, the Zhaouyan City People’s Court in Shandong Province sentenced Sun Xuhui to two years in prison after she confessed to leading a branch of Zhonggong, a qigong movement, and “brainwashing” followers.  According to Bitter Winter, the Ministry of Public Security set up a special task force with anti-Zhonggong divisions in Beijing and Tianjin municipalities, and Yunnan, Hebei, Liaonin, and Shandong Provinces.  In May, police in Luoyang, Henan Province, arrested several followers of the Buddhist master Tian Ruisheng (also known as Shijakai), and accused them of spreading the teachings of the banned movement Xiang Gong, originally known as Buddhist Qigong.

ChinaAid reported that on March 7, authorities in Chengdu City, Sichuan Province, raided the Fountain of Life house church during a Sunday service and took Pastor Zha Changping, his wife, and three other church members to the local police station for questioning.  Authorities released them after several hours.

According to Bitter Winter, authorities arrested 181 Association of Disciples members in a large operation carried out in late 2020 and early 2021 in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.  They charged the members with being active in a cult.  Authorities told local media the arrests were the result of the program implemented in 2018 to grant rewards up to RMB 50,000 ($7,800) to those who denounced their neighbors or acquaintances as cult members; the program included a tip line for doing so.

On May 5, RFA reported that authorities arrested two elders of Zion Church in Beijing, as well as elder Zhang Chunlei of the Renai Reformed Church in Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, on suspicion of fraud.  Zhang’s defense attorney said the fraud accusations were related to his receiving his living allowance from member donations and said, “This [practice] happens in all religions, and it doesn’t constitute fraud.”

Bitter Winter reported that authorities arrested 10 teachers at a Christian school in Wuhu City, Anhui Province, on May 27.  Authorities claimed the school was an illegal operation because it was not affiliated with the TSPM.  According to Bitter Winter, local Christians viewed the raid as part of a larger crackdown on all forms of education not directly controlled by the CCP.

On May 27, a ChinaAid source reported the arrests and imprisonment of numerous Christians affiliated with the Local Assembly, a house church, in Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province, Nanning City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, and Beijing, accusing them of “using a cult to undermine the enforcement of law.”

ChinaAid reported that on November 16, the Xi’an Municipal Intermediate Court in Shaanxi Province upheld a lower court’s sentencing of Chang Yuchun and Li Chenhui to seven years’ imprisonment and a RMB 250,000 ($39,200) fine for an “illegal business operation.”  Chang and Li printed and sold Christian books from 2015 to 2020, when local police shut down their business, confiscated more than 210,000 books, and forcibly disappeared them into “residential surveillance at a designated location.”

On August 7, RFA reported that police in Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province, detained nine Golden Lamppost Church leaders and members who refused to join the TSPM, including Pastor Wang Xiaoguang and preacher Yang Rongli.  According to sources, the group was carrying out a house church baptism when police arrested them.  Shortly afterwards, local authorities used dynamite to demolish a Golden Lamppost church in Taiyuan City.  On September 27, police arrested seven Church members.  On December 27, authorities charged them with fraud.  RFA said the detentions and demolition came amid a series of raids on unofficial Protestant house churches in Linfen County, Shanxi Province.

Bitter Winter reported on that on August 14, a court in Kaili City, Qiandongnan Miao and Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou Province, convicted four Seventh-day Adventist Church clergy of fraud for collecting offerings outside of the purview of the TSPM.  The court sentenced one member to 12 years in prison, and the others to three to six years.

In November, Minghui reported that on October 14, nine officials came to Yi Shuying’s home and ordered her to sign a letter renouncing Falun Gong.  They threatened officials would deny her granddaughter, a junior high school student, admission to college in the future if Yi did not renounce Falun Gong.  Yi refused to comply.

In June, ChinaAid reported that ERCC Pastor Wang Yi, whom authorities sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2019, was “being treated very badly in prison,” held in solitary confinement in Chengdu Province’s Jintang Prison under constant supervision, and malnourished.  ChinaAid stated prison officials continued to prevent family members and lawyers from visiting him and withheld medical treatment.  According to the NGO International Christian Concern, since his arrest, Wang’s wife and child were living in an unknown location, under surveillance.

On April 20, RFA reported the police department of Yulin City, Shaanxi Province, confirmed to his wife that it was still detaining Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer taken into custody in September 2017.  Previously, Gao’s family had not known his whereabouts or whether he was alive.  Gao had previously defended on-trial members of Christian groups, Falun Gong practitioners, and other minority groups.

On July 20, ChinaAid reported that the Xiamen City religious affairs bureau fined Pastor Yang Xibo of Xingguang Church, an unregistered church in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, and his wife RMB 200,000 ($31,400) for organizing an “illegal religious activity.”  According to RFA, several dozen state security police and officials from the local religious affairs bureau raided worship services at the church in April and May 2020.  Yang told RFA the congregation was targeted for refusing to join the state-sanctioned TSPM.

During the year, authorities continued to detain 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.  Authorities took Cui into custody in January 2020 and accused him of “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

On April 9, Bitter Winter published an article in which it described several CAG members being forced to perform labor during their imprisonment.  One CAG member said she had to produce 250 artificial flowers per day, and if she failed to reach her quota, authorities forced her to stand four to six hours per night.  The article stated that the plastic used in the artificial flowers contained chemicals and heavy metal elements harmful to the human body, such as vinyl chloride, formaldehyde, and lead, leading to endocrine disorders, decreased immunity, aplastic anemia, leukemia, and other blood diseases.  The report also stated that exposure to the chemicals disrupted women’s menstrual cycles.  Another female CAG member who was sentenced to three years in a women’s prison described working on 550 dresses per day in a dressmaking shop while standing for 13 hours.  After her release, she was diagnosed with a herniated disc, which caused her pain if she sat for more than 10 minutes.

AsiaNews reported that the new SARA regulations entitled “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy,” which took effect on May 1, placed additional ideological controls over the training, selection, and monitoring of clergy, including emphasizing allegiance to the CCP and socialism.  The new regulations also stipulated the government would hold religious organizations and institutions responsible for the behavior of clergy and created a new centralized database to record information about clergy, as well as to track their behavior and “misdeeds.”  Local governments were instructed to update the database with information on “rewards and punishments” of clergy.  On February 11, Bitter Winter published an English-language translation and analysis of the new regulations.  According to Bitter Winter, registration in the government database was “complicated.”  Individuals who were not listed in it but claimed to be clergy would be committing a crime.  Individuals unable to obtain a “clergy card” would include anyone not belonging to one of the five officially recognized patriotic religious associations, such as pastors of Protestant house churches, Catholics who rejected the government’s 2018 provisional agreement with the Holy See and refused to join the CCPA, teachers and clergy at independent mosques and Buddhist and Taoist temples, rabbis, and religious personnel of new religious movements.  According to AsiaNews, “living buddhas,” under the regulations, “will not be able to exercise any ministry, nor will they be considered true reincarnations without the permission of the [CCP].”  According to Bitter Winter, individuals had to prove they “support[ed] the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and support[ed] the socialist system.”  Bitter Winter stated the regulations created “an Orwellian system of surveillance, and strengthen[ed] the already strict control on all clergy.”

The SARA continued to maintain publicly available statistics on some, but not all, registered religious groups.  According to the SARA, there were 42,439 Buddhist temples and 8,349 Taoist temples registered in the country as of year’s end.  The SARA did not publish the number of registered Islamic mosques, Catholic churches, and Protestant churches.  According to 2014 SARA statistics (the latest available), more than 5.7 million Catholics worshipped in sites registered to the CCPA.  The SCIO’s April 2018 white paper stated approximately 144,000 places of worship were registered to conduct religious activities in the country, among which were 33,500 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 SCIO white paper 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 Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and other groups.  At times, authorities said they shuttered a group because the group or its activities were unregistered; 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.

International media and NGOs reported the government continued to carry out its 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 Groups, promulgated in 2020, further formalized the administrative procedures for Sinicizing all religions.  Commenting on the administrative measures, one Catholic Priest told AsiaNews, “In practice, your religion no longer matters, if you are Buddhist, or Taoist, or Muslim or Christian; the only religion allowed is faith in the Chinese Communist Party.”

The five-year plan to promote the Sinicization of Christianity, issued in 2018, 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.”  On its website in 2018, the TSPM pledged to “cultivate and practice core socialist values,” “carry out patriotic education,” and incorporate Sinicization into Christian theology, TSPM rules and regulations, theological education, and believers’ faith practice via symposiums, seminars, essay contests, and commemorative activities such as art exhibitions.  During the year, the TSPM celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP and sponsored activities to “cultivate a Christian charity culture with Chinese characteristics.”  The TSPM website stated that in 2022, it planned to examine experiences of Sinicization in various regions, determine best practices from the 2018-2022 five-year plan, and formulate a 2023-2027 work plan for further promoting the Sinicization of Christianity.

On March 31, the Economist reported that the government targeted all religions for Sinicization and instructed Christian preachers to promote “core socialist values.”  The Economist stated that government policy dictated “[i]nterpretations of the Bible should become more Sinified – meaning, presumably, that they should help to bolster belief in socialism.”  Authorities required state-approved churches to display national flags and portraits of President Xi, a move some TSPM pastors resisted, and encouraged them “to use Chinese architecture and Chinese tunes for hymns, as well as Chinese-style painting, calligraphy and other ‘popular cultural forms.’”  According to the Economist, despite increased pressure on house churches, authorities faced difficulties imposing Sinification on these unofficial, unregulated religious communities.

UCA News reported that according to the state-controlled BCCCC and the CCPA, on September 24, Catholics from two churches in Zibo City, Shandong Province, attended an event organized by the BCCCC called “One Hundred Sermons” that sought to explain President Xi’s instructions on religious activities and the promotion of Sinicization in the Catholic Church and how to adapt Catholicism to the socialist society.  On September 27-29, 18 key members of the CCPA from various provinces and cities met in Xibaipo village, Hebei Province, for an educational program based on the theme, “Take the Red Footprints and Inherit the Red Spirit,” intended to cultivate positive feelings toward the CCP, patriotism, and socialism.

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.  Bitter Winter reported that on October 26, authorities in Shangqiu City, Henan Province, held a “Sinicization Seminar and Exchange Conference” for TSPM pastors and teachers.  During the conference, participants raised the national flag and sang patriotic songs.  Authorities told participants Christian social teaching should be Sinicized and that they would establish a “Research Office of Sinicization of Christianity” in Shangqiu.  They said sermons should be preached on socialist themes.

Bitter Winter reported that at the national conference of the TSPM and the China Christian Council on July 8, state-appointed heads of the TSPM and the council ordered pastors to study and preach about President Xi’s July 1 speech on the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding.  During the conference, religious authorities told pastors to make President Xi’s speech a principal topic of sermons and Bible study groups.  TSPM chairman Xu Xiaohong offered pastors a model sermon based on nine points in the speech that glorified the nation, the CCP, and President Xi.  He said pastors should instruct Christians to say, “Long live the great, glorious, and correct Chinese Communist Party.  Long live the great, glorious, and heroic Chinese people.”  Wu Wei, chairman of the China Christian Council, said pastors should direct Christians in “thanking God for putting us in this great era” and “continuing to learn the spirit of General Secretary Xi’s speech.”

Bitter Winter reported that on October 29 in Tianjin Municipality, Huasheng Temple authorities required Buddhist monks to watch a film entitled, “The Battle at Lake Changjin.”  On its WeChat account, the temple stated the activity was “to carry out in-depth education on Party history and promote the spirit of patriotism.”  The film depicted the “story of Chinese soldiers defeating American troops, despite great odds” at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War.  One monk told Bitter Winter, “Party classes are supposed to be an activity that only Communist Party members need to attend.  Compelling monks to take a Party movie class is something incestuous, making the temple look like a branch of the Communist Party.”

According to the UFWD, from May 20-24, the Nanhai Buddhist Academy held a training session for more than 50 Buddhist deacons in Hainan Province.  The training, themed “Love the Party, Love the Country, Love Socialism,” included studying President Xi’s speeches and PRC religious laws and regulations and viewing patriotic documentary films.  Deputy minister of the provincial UFWD Liu Geng praised the Party, urged attendees to learn its history, promoted the Sinicization of religion, and advocated for socialist values in religious settings.  He urged the deacons to be “politically reliable, religiously accomplished, and morally convincing.”

According to the religious affairs bureau of Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, on August 11, the Guangdong Taoist Association hosted an interfaith conference on the theme “Love the Party, the Country, and Socialism” to study Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding, and to view “patriotic” films and exhibits.  The chairmen, vice chairmen, and secretaries general of the Guangdong Buddhist Association, Islamic Association, Catholic Association, and Christian Association attended.  Participants vowed to promote Sinicization in their respective religious teachings.

According to the Haixia Buddhist Network website, on February 26, monks and employees of Guangdong Buddhist Association and Guangxiao Temple in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP by watching a video lecture on CCP history presented by the Central Party School.  According to the network’s website, monks in attendance said the CCP’s history was “a history of seeking happiness for the people” and that “the Chinese people have become prosperous and strong under the leadership of the CCP.”  Master Mingsheng, president of the Guangdong Buddhist Association, called on Buddhists to adhere to the Sinicization of Buddhism and to “guide Buddhism to be compatible with Socialism.”

According to a TSPM news outlet, the Guangdong Provincial Two Christian Councils held a ceremony at the Guangdong Union Theological Seminary on March 5 to launch a series of programs celebrating the CCP’s 100th anniversary.  Pastoral personnel and approximately 200 teachers and students participated.  The programs included lectures on Party history and a knowledge contest on the themes of “knowing the Party’s history, feeling the Party’s favor, listening to the Party, and following the Party.”  There was also a seminar on the Sinicization of Christianity.  Pastor Fan Hongen told participants the Guangdong Provincial Two Christian Councils was actively adapting to socialist society and strengthening the mission of Sinicizing Christianity.

According to ChinaAid, on June 25, the TSPM-affiliated Shandong Theological Seminary in Shandong Province held a theatrical performance with the theme of “Sing a Praise to the Party” to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the CCP’s founding.

According to the UFWD of Guangdong Province, from March 22 to 28, the Guangdong Islamic Association organized imam training classes at the Guangdong Provincial Institute of Socialism.  Thirty-six imams from nine cities in the province attended the one-week training session, at which they studied the history of the CCP, socialism, and how to “adhere to the direction of the Sinicization of Guangdong Islam.”  Imams attending the training said they would “unswervingly” listen to the Party.

According to the CCPA website, the Guangdong Catholic Association celebrated the 100th anniversary of the CCP by organizing a CCP training session in Guangxi Province from April 12 to 16 for 40 priests from 21 different cities.  The participants toured several CCP “red education” sites, learned the “heroic deeds of revolutionary martyrs,” and were encouraged to “love the party.”

In May, the Minnan Buddhist Institute, located in Nanputuo Buddhist Temple, Xiamen City, Fujian Province, held a public speaking contest on the theme of “studying the history of the Party, thanking the Party, and following the Party.”  Approximately 700 faculty members and students attended the contest to praise the Party’s “brilliant history and great accomplishments,” according to the Nanputuo Buddhist Temple’s website.  RFA reported that a Shandong monk criticized the contest, saying that the Buddhist Institute coerced monks into participating.  He stated that the institute would prohibit students who did not participate from studying there.

Media reported that throughout the year, crackdowns on some churches with foreign ties intensified significantly throughout the country.  Many religious groups, including groups connected to the five “patriotic religious associations,” faced comprehensive investigations that included checking their background, organizational setting, membership, online evangelism, and finances.  On April 3, International Christian Concern reported that the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) planned to intensify efforts to shut down social organizations, private nonenterprise units, and foundations that were not registered with relevant authorities.  Organizations that had their registration revoked but nevertheless continued with their activities would also be targeted, the ministry said.  According to RFA, “The MCA’s latest campaign has already begun in some provinces, such as Sichuan.  The Department of Civil Affairs in Sichuan published a list of 84 ‘Illegal Social Organizations’ on March 25 which contain[ed] several Buddhist and Christian groups, including the heavily persecuted house church Early Rain Covenant Church.”

ChinaAid reported that authorities continued to harass members of the Trinity Gospel Harvest Church in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, during the year.  On March 1, security officials warned members against gathering to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Church’s founding.  On April 25, police and religious affairs officers raided Church services and detained pastors Mao Zhibin and Cao Yuan and eight members for questioning, without explanation.  On July 11, authorities again raided Sunday worship services.  The government formally banned the Church at the end of April.  According to ChinaAid, in May, authorities closed a beach where baptisms of new members were to take place in order to prevent the baptisms, causing the group to move to another beach.  In September, under instructions from the local police, a Shenzhen hotel refused service to Church members and refunded fees they paid to stay there.

Bitter Winter reported authorities cracked down on religious groups that organized prayer meetings in hotel rooms.  On March 16 in Guiyang City, Guizhou Province, the Renai Reformed Church organized a prayer meeting in the Wenzhou Hotel complex.  Police raided the room and arrested several congregants.  When Church elder Zhang Chunlei went to the station to negotiate the release of the Church members, police arrested him as well and held him in detention for 15 days.  They raided the houses of followers and confiscated computers and religious materials.  Reporting on the same March 16 raid, RFA said officials stated they detained the individuals because gatherings were restricted to family members due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In October, ChinaAid reported that the local government of Jiake village, Yunnan Province, the TSPM, and the Chinese Christian Council banned Kai Yiduo from taking part in religious activities in what ChinaAid said was retribution for his dispute with the local government.  Yiduo said the government had not compensated him after demolishing his home.

In November, the Jerusalem Post reported that authorities again did not permit Jews in Kaifeng City, Henan Province, to celebrate Hanukkah.  Sources reported that on November 28, the Jewish community in Shanghai was able to hold a Hannukah commemoration.

In September, Bitter Winter reported the China Christian Council instructed all churches and congregations to “organize worship activities” to commemorate the 76th anniversary of China’s victory over Japan in World War II and to “further promote the fine tradition of patriotism and love of religion and to demonstrate the good image of peace-loving Christianity in China.”  The directive stated, “Churches are requested to submit evidence of the relevant activities (text, video and photo materials) to the Media Ministry Department of the China Christian Council by September 10.”  A photograph accompanying the Bitter Winter article showed students at Fujian Theological Seminary in Fujian Province praying for Red Army “martyrs.”

Throughout the year, the government closed venues throughout the country, including religious venues, and prohibited mass gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Media reported authorities tried to stop many religious groups from congregating or holding services online during the COVID-19 lockdown.  According to media, in some localities, government officials used COVID-19 precautions as a pretext to prevent religious organizations from recommencing their activities long after restrictions had been lifted in analogous nonreligious contexts.  According to the National Catholic Reporter, authorities prevented Catholics from celebrating the Feast of Mary on May 24 at the Sheshan Shrine in Shanghai, the country’s most famous Marian shrine and traditionally a pilgrimage site.  Authorities cited the COVID-19 pandemic, but critics noted the government permitted amusement parks and a golf club in the area to remain open during the same period.  There was at least one case, however, where authorities relaxed restrictions:  when monks at the Shenyang Ci’en Buddhist Temple in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province, declared, “Monks and believers love the Party and will continue to follow the party to accomplish Sinicization,” government officials authorized them to resume large-scale services.

One source said the government used COVID-19 prevention as a pretext to close Islamic venues, particularly in Qinghai and Gansu Provinces and Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, where Hui Muslims are concentrated, while allowing Buddhist temples to remain open.

RFA reported that on April 30, officials in Yunnan Province shut down the Bulai Protestant Church in Lao Muden village, Fugong County, ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19, despite the church’s having been allowed to meet previously throughout the pandemic.  China Christian Daily reported that on August 1, an unregistered church in Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province, was forced to interrupt its on-site Sunday service when local officials, citing “reducing crowds for epidemic prevention and control,” cut off the electricity and pasted seals on the doors.  Authorities also suspended services at other local churches in Suzhou, China Christian Daily reported.

According to the Economist, many house churches held services online and there were numerous Bible study groups and church forums on WeChat.  Some unauthorized seminaries and missionary training schools moved online.  One pastor said some online congregations were 50 percent larger than in-person meetings.  However, in March, Open Doors USA reported officials monitored online activities and “even officially registered churches were ordered to stop online services.”

In December, Bitter Winter reported that authorities, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, took measures to stop Christians from gathering for Christmas celebrations, although they allowed some musical and cultural events to take place in what Bitter Winter described as “cosmetic” activities designed to give the appearance of religious tolerance.  Bitter Winter reported that authorities in Rong’an County, Liuzhou City, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region ordered elementary and kindergarten teachers and students not to celebrate Christmas at school or at home, calling the holiday a “Western celebration.”  The directive included the name and contact number for a tip line for people to report individuals “doing any event” for Christmas.

Media and human rights organizations reported SARA regulations stating that only the Islamic Association of China was permitted to organize Muslim pilgrimage trips, issued in 2020, remained in effect.  The regulations stated that those who applied to join the Hajj must be “patriotic, law-abiding, and have good conduct,” must have never before participated in the Hajj, and be in sound physical and mental health.  They also had to be able to pay all costs associated with Hajj travel and to oppose religious extremism.  According to a notice issued by the Islamic Association of China on June 15, citing the risk of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government suspended all Hajj activities during the year.

The government continued to label several religious groups, including the CAG, Shouters, Association of Disciples, All-Sphere Church, and many others, as cults or xie jiao organizations.  The government also continued to ban groups, such as Falun Gong, that it classified as illegal organizations.

Bitter Winter reported that on July 26, the Supreme People’s Court published its “Opinion on Providing Judicial Services and Protection for Accelerating the Modernization of Agriculture and Rural Areas.”  The “opinion” included provisions to “intensify the punishment of illegal religious activities and overseas infiltration activities” in rural areas, “crack down on organizing and using xie jiao organizations to commit crimes,” and “stop the use of religion and xie jiao from interfering in rural public affairs.”

Bitter Winter reported that on October 23, approximately 100 children from preschools of the district of Jiaocheng in Ningde City, Fujian Province, underwent a program of “preventive education.”  The children, ages three to six, received picture booklets, viewed a panel exhibition, and watched cartoons warning against “xie jiao and illegal religion.”  One film presented the CAG as a cult, and others admonished against “superstition” and “illegal religion” in general.

Bitter Winter reported provincial governments shut down local branches of the Good News Mission, a Protestant religious group with ties to South Korea.  On March 30, the Civil Affairs Bureau of Shaoxing City, Zhejiang Province, banned the group and raided local communities.  On April 30, the government in Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture, Jilin Province, announced prefecture authorities had banned the Good News Mission and shut down its churches.  According to Bitter Winter, the Good News Mission was “not in the list of xie jiao, but it is now a common strategy to ban a religious movement in one region and province after the other, leading to a de facto national ban.”

Bitter Winter reported authorities continued to link xie jiao to criminal activities and other social ills.  In November, border police and “legal education” officers carried out a surveillance and propaganda operation in Ningming County, Guangxi Province, and Honghe Hani and Yi Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, both on the border with Vietnam, prompted by what Bitter Winter said were fears that illegal religious groups might enter the country via Vietnam.  The campaign against drug smuggling and HIV/AIDS included indoctrinating residents against “illegal religion” and xie jiao.  It targeted 600,000 Hani, who hold predominantly shamanistic beliefs, and 900,000 Yi, who practice both Christianity and shamanistic religions.

Bitter Winter reported that on National Security Education Day on April 15, authorities mounted exhibitions as part of an anti-xie jiao campaign, and students across the country signed pledges to renounce illegal religious activities by groups labeled cults.  Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court, called cults “a cancer” and stated the CCP had three main targets:  Falun Gong, CAG, and the Association of Disciples.  He also said cults colluded with Western anti-China forces, and he accused the Association of Disciples of manipulating some local elections.  The article included a photograph from the social media site Weibo showing students from Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications in Chongqing Province signing a large billboard pledging to renounce xie jiao.

State-run media reported that on September 10, Qiongshan District in Haikou City, Hainan Province, organized a series of anti-illicit drugs and anticult propaganda activities in middle schools.  Government officials distributed brochures, hung propaganda banners, and gave lectures to teachers and students on how to recognize a cult and “consciously resist it.”

Media reported that in June in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province, volunteers conducted large-scale COVID-19 testing at multiple locations, where they distributed educational literature warning against xie jiao alongside personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer.  The volunteers reportedly posted signs publicizing an “anti-xie jiao” app, and digital billboards warned residents about the harmful influence of xie jiao and advised them to “be wary of cult organizations taking advantage of the epidemic to spread rumors and create chaos.”

According to Bitter Winter, in October, prefecture-level city authorities in Hui’an County and nearby Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, launched an anti-xie jiao program as part of their celebration of the CCP’s centennial anniversary.  Teachers organized lessons in all elementary and middle schools and distributed propaganda material against xie jiao and “illegal religion.”  Individuals played a WeChat game in which they proved they had read the propaganda material by answering questions.  Those who answered the most questions correctly won prizes.  According to Bitter Winter, the names of those who scored low were sent to the local CCP secretaries.  Local CCP officials said the initiative was needed because during the COVID-19 pandemic, “illegal religion” and xie jiao had increased in Fujian.

According to media, authorities maintained a near ubiquitous surveillance system through the development and widespread deployment of advanced technology such as artificial intelligence, CCTVs, and social media applications.  In October, an academic who studies the subject told the Diplomat that domestic police departments in ethnic minority areas in Ningxia, Sichuan, and Yunnan Provinces and elsewhere purchased digital forensics tools to scan mobile phone hard drives for “more than 50,000 markers or patterns of illegal activity.”  More than 500 cities and municipalities across the country developed “smart city systems” that used forms of biometric surveillance that could surveil ethnic and religious minorities.

According to ChinaAid, on March 19, the Siming District Religious Affairs Bureau in Xiamen City, Fujian Province, released a circular that instructed police officers to patrol office buildings and hotels in the district on Saturday evenings and Sundays to prevent a resurgence of house church gatherings that were suppressed in past months and years.  The circular identified several buildings and streets for priority patrol.

CBN News reported in August that the government encouraged citizens to report anyone distributing printed religious material or holding worship gatherings.  Authorities offered informants RMB 1,000 ($160).  One Hui Muslim source said officials instructed children to report on their parents’ and family’s religious and cultural practices.  ChinaAid reported that in early January, authorities in Shijiazhuang, Baoding, Xingtai, and other areas in Hebei Province encouraged the public to report house churches.  Authorities in Xingtai issued a “Notice on Rewards for Reporting Religious Activities during the Epidemic,” promising whistleblowers a reward of more than RMB 500 ($78).  In early August, authorities in Meilisi Daur District, Qiqihar City, Heilongjiang Province, announced a “Reward System for Reporting Illegal Religious Activities and Crimes,” under which individuals could make reports by phone, email, or letter, and receive RMB 1,000 ($160).  According to ChinaAid, reportable violations included “unqualified religious personnel, unauthorized cross-regional activities, preaching and distribution of printed religious works, audiovisual products outside of worship venues, unauthorized donations, and private family gatherings.”

In January, the Christian rights advocacy NGO World Watch Monitor reported authorities in Henan and Jiangxi Provinces placed surveillance cameras in all state-approved religious venues.  Many of the cameras were reportedly installed next to standard CCTV cameras but were linked to the Public Security Bureau, meaning artificial intelligence could instantly connect with other government databases.

The New York Times reported in February that authorities in Sanya City, Hainan Province, continued to take measures against the 10,000-member, predominantly Muslim Utsul ethnic minority, including efforts to ban girls from wearing traditional dress, including hijabs and long skirts, in school.  Signs on shops and homes that read “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) in Arabic were covered with foot-wide stickers with the words “China Dream,” a nationalistic official slogan.  Restaurants removed the Chinese characters for halal from signs and menus.  Authorities closed two Islamic schools.  Local mosque leaders said authorities told them to remove loudspeakers that broadcast the call to prayer from the tops of minarets, place them on the ground, and turn down the volume.  Authorities halted construction of a new mosque because of its supposedly “Arab” architectural elements.  According to residents, the city barred children younger than 18 from studying Arabic.  The restrictions followed a 2019 government-issued “Working Document Regarding the Strengthening of Overall Governance over Huixin and Huihui,” which referred to the only two predominantly Utsul neighborhoods in the island province.  One academic, commenting on the measures, told the New York Times, “This is about trying to strengthen state control.  It’s purely anti-Islam.”

According to a National Review article published in July, the government continued to require churches to display banners with CCP slogans, perform the national anthem before singing Christian hymns, and “demonstrate their loyalty to the CCP above all, and only secondarily to the church.”  According to the National Review, “Consistent indoctrination and blatant submission to communist standards [was] spreading across all religious groups.”

According to Open Doors USA, in Shanxi, Henan, and Jiangxi Provinces, authorities threatened Christians with the removal of social welfare benefits and pensions if they refused to replace Christian imagery, such as crosses, with pictures of Xi Jinping.  One Christian on welfare assistance reported officials told him that since he believed in God, he should ask God for food instead of living off the CCP.

In April, UCA News reported that authorities in Zhaoxian City, Hebei Province, closed the House of the Dawn orphanage operated by Catholic nuns from the Sisters of the Child Jesus congregation, accusing the nuns of “illegal adoption practices.”  Local sources stated authorities actually closed the orphanage as part of a crackdown on church facilities operated by the unregistered Catholic Church.  The orphanage served more than 100 children, many with special needs.  According to UCA News, authorities accused Christian-run organizations of proselytizing and converting children through their social and charitable work.

According to ChinaAid, on September 4 in Harbin City, Heilongjiang Province, more than 30 CCP officials, including SWAT officers, police, religious affairs bureau officials, and local school district administrators, raided the Maizi Christian Music High School and arrested all staff members and several students.  They seized school assets, including pianos, computers, and documents.  Prior to the raid, police took the school’s principal into custody.  The students were released after 24 hours, but authorities held staff for questioning for several days.  According to AsiaNews, there were reports authorities would charge the school principal with proselytizing.

Authorities continued to restrict the printing and distribution of the Bible, the Quran, and other religious texts.  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” emanating from unofficial distribution channels.

ChinaAid reported in July that the Bao’an District Court in Shenzhen City, Guangdong Province, found four Christian employees of the Shenzhen Life Tree Technology Development Company guilty of “illegal business” and gave them sentences ranging from fifteen months to up to six years in prison, with fines of up to RMB 200,000 ($31,400).  Authorities arrested the individuals in 2020 for illegally selling audio Bible players and confiscated their electronics and other belongings.

Local authorities throughout the country continued to ban the sale and display of religious couplets (banners with poetry) traditionally displayed during Lunar New Year.  Local authorities threatened to fine or imprison anyone caught selling them.  According to ChinaAid, officials in Pingdingshan, Henan Province, went house to house tearing couplets off the doors of Christian families that displayed faith-related messages.

In October, the BBC reported that Apple, at the request of the government, removed from its store the app Quran Majeed, which allows users to download the Quran.  The media outlet stated, “The BBC understands that the app was removed for hosting illegal religious texts.”  Apple declined to comment to the BBC.

Christian organizations seeking to use social media and smartphone apps to distribute Christian materials reported the government increased censorship of these materials.  According to International Christian Concern, authorities removed Bible-related apps from app stores.  Catholic News Agency reported in October that a digital Bible company removed its app from the Apple app store after Apple stated the company must demonstrate it had authorization from the government to distribute an app with book or magazine content in mainland China.

In May, International Christian Concern reported that according to a tweet by Father Francis Liu from the Chinese Christian Fellowship of Righteousness, the home pages of some Christian WeChat accounts, such as “Gospel League” and “Life Quarterly,” no longer showed any content.  Instead, visitors saw a message reading, “[We] received a report that [this account] violates the ‘Internet User Public Account Information Services Management Provisions’ and its account has been blocked and suspended.”

China Christian Daily reported the government blocked many registered churches’ WeChat accounts during a crackdown on online Christian content.  The banned accounts were managed by TSPM-approved churches in Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Guangdong, Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Yunnan Provinces.  The Shanghai Pure Heart Church, Huai’an Church of Jiangsu Province, and Nanjing Holy Word Church of Jiangsu Province were among the churches whose official WeChat accounts that authorities blocked.  “Today’s Nanjing Union Life,” the WeChat page of Nanjing Union Theological Seminary, the only national Protestant seminary in the country, was inaccessible from May to the end of the year.  China Christian Daily further reported that WeChat censored the words “Christ,” “gospel,” and “fellowship.”  ChinaAid also reported that authorities blocked key words related to Christianity from search engines.

International Christian Concern stated Bibles in hard copy were not available for sale online and said TSPM-owned bookstores were increasingly selling books promoting Xi Jinping Thought and CCP ideology.  According to International Christian Concern, “Even their WeChat accounts are turning into propaganda channels for CCP.”

ChinaAid reported that at the end of the year, a court upheld the initial verdict in the second trial of Chen Yu (also known as Zhang Xiaomai).  Chen owned and operated the Xiaomai Bookstore in Linhai, Zhejiang Province, which sold Christian books online and in-store.  In September 2019, the government arrested Chen for selling online “illegal religious overseas publications” and sentenced him to seven years in prison and a fine of RMB 200,000 ($31,400).  Authorities also confiscated 12,864 books and investigated more than 10,000 individuals who bought from Chen.  Nationwide, authorities confiscated all copies Chen sold of ERCC Pastor Wang Yi’s Transformation of the Gospel.

ChinaAid reported that the Propaganda Department of the CCP Central Committee censored information related to Christianity in school textbooks.  In one textbook containing a picture of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, authorities changed the word in the description from “God” to “Old Man,” and in the description of a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, they changed “Holy Mother and Holy Son” to “mother and son.”

A Hui Muslim source told international media the government was attempting to remove characteristics of Hui religion and culture to make Hui citizens indistinguishable from Han citizens, with whom they share physical characteristics and language.  Authorities took down minarets and domes and consolidated mosques.  He said authorities trained clergy in Party doctrine and instructed them to pass those teachings on to their religious communities.  The government targeted Hui cultural and business elites to remove Hui texts and art and cut off independent financial support to the community.  The source called this a kind of “cultural genocide.”

On October 24, National Public Radio (NPR) reported that the government had removed domes and minarets from thousands of mosques across the country, saying these were evidence of “foreign religious influence,” and to replace them with more traditionally Chinese architectural features.  Authorities removed the dome and minarets from the Dongguan Mosque in Xining City, Qinghai Province.  According to one local resident, “The government says they want us to ‘Sinicize’ our mosques so that they look more like Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.”  NPR stated the campaign coincided with rising anti-Muslim sentiment in the country and growing religious restrictions.

According to ChinaAid, on February 1, authorities for the second time removed a 100-year-old cross from Shuixin Church in Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province, against the wishes of the congregation.  They first cut the building’s electricity and then took the church’s night watch staff into custody.  According to one Christian observer, several security guards held one church member in a headlock and confiscated his mobile phone.  They warned him, “Do not fight back.  We are enforcing orders from higher officials.”  Authorities had removed the cross in June 2014, but the church later reinstalled it.

ChinaAid reported that on July 28, authorities in Zhoushan City, Zhejiang Province, forced several fishermen to remove crosses from their privately owned fishing vessels.  Authorities also erased “Emmanuel” slogans painted on boats and threatened that if the fishermen refused to cooperate, authorities would not grant them fishing permits or allow them to purchase gasoline for their boats.  The authorities did not present any legal documents supporting their actions.  The fishermen wrote on social media, “The government is completely unreasonable.  Fishing boats are our personal property.  We have the right to put crosses on our boats.  Religious freedom is written in the constitution.  However, it is just empty talk.  The government never enforces the constitution.”

According to Bitter Winter, in January authorities sentenced Pastor Li Juncai of the Yuan Yang County House Church in Xinxiang City, Henan Province, to five and a half years in prison.  In early 2019, Li had resisted government orders to remove the cross from his building and change the Church motto from “Love God and Love Others” to “Love the Country and Love Religion.”  He also objected to constructing a stand within the church where a national flag would be placed.  Authorities arrested Li in February 2019, and the Yuan Yang County prosecutor’s office charged him with “misappropriation of office, obstruction of official duties, and destruction of accounts.”  He remained in jail until his trial.  The court found him guilty on all three counts.

According to the SARA data, at year’s end, religious groups ran 87 schools in the country, including 37 Buddhist, 10 Taoist, 10 Islamic, nine Catholic, and 21 Protestant.  Authorities barred students younger than 18 from receiving religious instruction, but enforcement and implementation of the prohibition varied widely across and within regions.  According to the SARA, there were six national-level religious colleges.  Although there were two CCPA seminaries in Beijing, civil society sources said one of these institutions was primarily used as CCPA propaganda for international visitors.

In March, Open Doors USA reported authorities using CCTV observed a woman in Shandong Province taking her child to a state-affiliated church.  Officials reprimanded her for violating the ban on children participating in religious activities, such as attending church.

In May, Bitter Winter reported that police came to the home of Zhao Weikai, a worker at Taiyuan Reformed Church in Taiyuan City, Shanxi Province, with an arrest warrant for “religious fraud.”  Police arrested Zhao and confiscated his mobile phone and other items.  They reportedly told Zhao to stop homeschooling minors, which is prohibited by law.  Individuals present questioned the summons’ validity, saying that court officials had neither signed nor stamped it.

In November, ChinaAid reported that during the year, the government shut down several informal Christian schools.  On May 27, authorities raided the Xuan De learning center, affiliated with the Wuhu Jiamishan Christian Church in Anhui Province.  They confiscated books, computers, and mobile phones, and detained the school’s headmaster and teachers.  On May 28, the Wuhu civil affairs bureau labeled the center an “illegal social organization,” and in July, the Wuhu local government deemed the Church an “illegal gathering.”  On October 12, police arrested five educators from the Abeka Academy, a U.S.-based Christian homeschool education program in Zhenjiang City, Jiangsu Province, and detained children, parents, and teachers.

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 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.

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.  Media stated the SARA’s “Administrative Measures for Religious Clergy” made no provision for the Vatican to have a role in the selection of Catholic bishops, despite the 2018 Sino-Vatican provisional agreement reportedly involving both Chinese authorities and the Holy See in the process of appointing bishops.  AsiaNews stated the regulations undermined the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.  The news outlet said, “Even Catholic bishops, although ‘approved and ordained’ by the Council of Chinese Bishops, can only exercise their ministry after registering with the SARA.  In this way, the state and not the Church retains management of the pastoral ministry of bishops.”  According to AsiaNews, the provisions reenforced the distinction between official and unofficial priests and bishops, “thus endorsing and supporting the division imposed by the regime.”  Some senior Chinese sources, however, told the Catholic news outlet The Pillar that the new rules would not invalidate the agreement.  One Catholic cleric said provisions on financial management were aimed not at Catholic churches but rather at Buddhist temples, while those pertaining to “foreign domination” were aimed primarily at underground Protestant house churches.  He said the government had omitted the Vatican from the regulations because the CCP would not want to publicly identify a foreign power in any way, despite coordinating on the selection of bishops.

Media reported that on May 20, authorities detained seven priests and an unspecified number of seminarians in Xinxiang City, Henan Province, for using an abandoned factory as a seminary to train priests.  On May 21, they arrested Vatican-approved Bishop Joseph Zhang Weizhu.  All were accused of violating the SARA’s May 1 regulation outlawing religious activities, including worship, in places not registered with the state.  The CCPA does not recognize Xinxiang as a diocese, although it was created by the Vatican in 1936.  Zhang was ordained by the Vatican as a bishop in 1991, but his appointment was not approved by the two state-sanctioned church bodies – the BCCCC and CCPA – and he was not among the Vatican-approved bishops recognized as a result of the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.

Media reported in April that authorities in Cangnan County, Wenzhou City, Zhejiang Province, fined Catholic Huang Ruixun RMB 200,000 ($31,400) for offering his private chapel to Bishop Peter Shao Zhumin and approximately 20 worshippers to conduct services.  They charged that the event was an illegal religious activity.  Shao was ordained by the Vatican as Bishop of Yongjia/Wenzhou Diocese in 2016, but he was not among the Vatican-approved bishops recognized as a result of the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement.

On September 8, Franciscan Father Francis Cui Qingqi was ordained Bishop of Hankou/Wuhan Diocese, with the approval of the state and the Catholic Church, making him the sixth bishop ordained since the Sino-Vatican provisional agreement of 2018, and the fourth since it was extended in 2020.  The Vatican press office director told journalists that Pope Francis appointed Cui on June 23, 2020.  Media stated the state-sanctioned BCCCC had elected him “democratically” on September 27, 2020.

A number of Catholic clergy, including some bishops appointed by the Pope, remained unable or unwilling to register with the CCPA.

The South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that during an August 27-28 conference on ethnic affairs attended by CCP leaders, legislators, and the political advisory body, including all seven Politburo Standing Committee members, President Xi told attendees to “continue to eradicate poisonous thoughts of ethnic separatism and religious extremism.”  SCMP reported that Xi’s statements were an apparent attempt to “rebuff international allegations of human rights abuses.”

According to the State Council website, the government convened a national conference on religious affairs on December 3-4, the first since 2016, that called on clergy, the CCP, and government officials to ensure religious doctrine followed the CCP.  At the conference, President Xi said religions in the country had made progress in “enhancing their recognition” of the Chinese nation and culture, along with the CCP and socialism.  Xi emphasized the need to “uphold and develop a religious theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics, work in line with the Party’s basic policy on religious affairs, and uphold the principle that religions in China must be Chinese in orientation.”  Xi urged “full and strict governance of religions.”  He told CCP and government officials to train individuals who were “adept at the Marxist view on religion, familiar with religious affairs, and competent to engage in work related to religious believers.”  According to media reports, Xi further emphasized strengthening “the management of online religious affairs,” which critics said implied that religious practitioners would be disciplined for inappropriate online commentary.

The Associated Press reported that on May 18, the host of a program on CGTN, the overseas channel of state broadcaster CCTV, used antisemitic tropes.  Speaking in English, Zheng Junfeng said, “Some people believe that U.S. pro-Israeli policy is traceable to the influence of wealthy Jews in the U.S. and the Jewish lobby on U.S. foreign policy makers… Jews dominate finance and internet sectors.”  Responding on Twitter, the Israeli embassy in China stated, “We have hoped that the times of the ‘Jews controlling the world’ conspiracy theories were over, unfortunately antisemitism has shown its ugly face again.  We are appalled to see blatant antisemitism expressed in an official Chinese media outlet.”

In a June SCIO white paper entitled, “The Communist Party of China and Human Rights Protection – A 100-Year Quest,” the government stated that it protects “normal religious activities” and “does not interfere in the internal affairs of religions.”

On August 13, the outlet Algemeiner described as antisemitic a caricature of the U.S. Secretary of State that the state-owned Xinhua news agency published alongside Xinhua’s article on the Secretary’s July meeting with World Health Organization head Tendros Ghebreyesus.  The cartoon depicted the Secretary as a devil with red skin, horns, and a large, elongated nose, holding a report entitled “COVID-19 Origins Tracing.”  The American Jewish Committee denounced the cartoon on Twitter, calling it “despicable.”

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.

In 2020, the Economist reported employment discrimination against ethnic minorities was pervasive, citing a study that found that Hui job seekers had to send twice as many applications as Han applicants and that Uyghurs had on average to send nearly four times as many applications just to hear back from potential employers.  The study found the gap was greater for highly educated workers, with Uyghur candidates who were in the top 1 percent academically having to send six times as many applications as their Han counterparts.  According to the Economist, the application gap was “similar in both smaller cities and in the provincial-level regions of Guangdong, Beijing and Shanghai.  State-owned enterprises, which have an official mandate to hire more minority workers, appeared at least as biased as other firms.”

Discrimination against potential or current tenants based on their religious beliefs reportedly 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 in finding landlords who would rent them apartments.  Sources stated government enforcement of this law continued to move the country further away from informal discriminatory practices by individual landlords towards a more formalized enforcement of codified discriminatory legislation.

In June, the Diplomat reported growing anti-Muslim sentiment in society as a result of the government’s Sinicization campaign, which the Diplomat said could lead to violence.  Sources said government propaganda portraying Uyghurs as radicals, extremists, and terrorists had created societal hostility toward that group.  Anti-Muslim speech in social media reportedly remained widespread.

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

In January, media reported messages on social media blamed local Catholics from Shijiazhuang City and “several priests from Europe and the United States” for the spread of COVID-19 in Hebei Province that resulted in a lockdown on January 6.  Local priests denounced the posts, saying there had been no religious activities, masses, or meetings since December 24, 2020.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, and other senior State Department officials and embassy and consulate general representatives repeatedly and publicly expressed concerns about abuses of religious freedom in the country, including in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang.  In July, the Secretary of State met virtually with Uyghur family members, Xinjiang internment camp survivors, and advocates to express the U.S. commitment to calling for the government to end atrocities in Xinjiang.  In July, the Deputy Secretary of State met with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and raised concerns about human rights abuses in the country, including in Hong Kong and Tibet, and the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity occurring in Xinjiang.  During the Secretary of State’s October meeting with Foreign Minister Wang, the Secretary’s spokesperson said the Secretary “raised concerns about a range of actions that undermine the international rules-based order and that run counter to our values and interests and those of our allies and partners, including actions related to human rights, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, the East and South China Seas, and Taiwan.”

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 Charge 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 Charge 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.

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.

The Charge, Consuls General in 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.  Embassy and consulate general officials hosted events around religious holidays and conducted roundtable discussions with religious leaders to convey the importance of religious pluralism in society and learn about issues facing religious communities.

The embassy 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 nearly 50 messages promoting religious freedom, including videos, statements, images, and infographics.  The embassy highlighted the Secretary’s participation in the civil society-led International Religious Freedom Summit in July and his visit to the Vatican in June to emphasize U.S. support for religious freedom.  It posted or retweeted posts concerning the state of religious freedom in Xinjiang and Tibet.  For example, on International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, the embassy reposted 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.  On December 10, the embassy issued a Human Rights Day statement from the Charge on its website and through its international and Chinese social media accounts.  The statement highlighted the breadth of gross violations of human rights occurring in the PRC, including restrictions on religious freedom.  The embassy also shared greetings from the President and Secretary of State on special religious days for Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Tibetan Buddhists; these were viewed by millions of social media users.  In total, embassy posts on social media garnered almost 10 million views and approximately 240,000 engagements.

On January 13, CBP issued a Withhold Release Order that prohibited the import of all cotton and tomato products produced in Xinjiang “based on information that reasonably indicates the use of detainee or prison labor and situations of forced labor.”

On January 19, the then Secretary of State determined that since at least March 2017, the PRC’s repressive actions against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other religious minority groups in Xinjiang constituted genocide and crimes against humanity.

On March 22, the U.S. Department of the Treasury imposed sanctions on Wang Junzheng, Secretary of the Party Committee of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), and Chen Mingguo, Director of the Xinjiang Public Security Bureau (XPSB), pursuant to Executive Order (E.O.) 13818, which builds upon and implements the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, for their connection to serious human rights abuses against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang.  The U.S. coordinated the timing of the sanctions with the European Union, United Kingdom, and Canada, which levied their own sanctions against Chinese individuals and entities on the same day.  In response, on March 27, the Chinese government sanctioned two officials on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a move the Secretary condemned as “baseless.”

On May 12, the Secretary of State announced visa sanctions against Yu Hui, former office director of the Central Leading Group Preventing and Dealing with Heretical Religions in Chengdu, for his involvement in gross violations of human rights against Falun Gong practitioners.

Also on May 12, the United States cohosted a high-level virtual event on Xinjiang with 17 other countries and six NGOs.  Speaking at the event, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations described Uyghurs’ wish “to practice basic freedoms of religion, belief, expression, and movement…”  In other multilateral action, the United States joined a group of 44 countries on June 22 in issuing a Canada-led joint statement expressing grave concern about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, as well as deep concern about the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.  On October 21, it joined a group of 43 countries delivering a joint statement on the human rights situation in Xinjiang at the UN General Assembly Third Committee.

On May 27, the Secretary condemned the PRC’s sanctioning of a former USCIRF commissioner.  The Secretary stated, “Beijing’s attempts to intimidate and silence those speaking out for human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of religion or belief, only draw additional international attention and scrutiny to its egregious abuses.  This includes the ongoing crimes against humanity and genocide in Xinjiang, as well as its repression of religious and spiritual adherents, including Tibetan Buddhists, Christians, and Falun Gong practitioners.”

Addressing the use of forced labor of ethnic and religious minorities in the polysilicon industry in Xinjiang, on June 24, the CBP issued a Withhold Release Order against Hoshine Silicone Industry Co., Ltd, a company headquartered in Xinjiang.  The U.S. Department of Commerce added related Xinjiang-based companies to its list of entities subject to specific license requirements for export, reexport, and/or transfer in-country of specific items (the “Entity List”); the U.S. Department of Labor updated its List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor with related products; and the White House issued a fact sheet on forced labor in Xinjiang.

On July 9, the Bureau of Industry and Security of the U.S. Department of Commerce announced it would add 14 entities to the Entity List for being complicit in China’s campaign of repression, mass detention, and high technology surveillance against Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.  The penalties prohibit U.S. companies from selling equipment or other goods to these firms.

n July 13, the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, Commerce, Homeland Security, Labor, and the U.S. Trade Representative issued an updated Xinjiang Supply Chain Business Advisory that highlighted for businesses with potential supply chain and investment links to Xinjiang the risk of complicity with forced labor and human rights abuses.

On December 6, the Presidential press secretary announced the U.S. would not send diplomatic or official representation to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympics Games “given the PRC’s ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang and other human rights abuses.”

On December 10, the U.S. Department of State imposed visa restrictions on four current and former PRC officials – Shohrat Zakir, Erken Tuniyaz, Hu Lianhe, and Chen Mingguo – for their involvement in gross violations of human rights, specifically arbitrary detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic and religious minorities in Xinjiang.  The U.S. Department of the Treasury also designated Shohrat Zakir and Erken Tuniyaz under the Global Magnitsky sanctions program in connection with serious human rights abuse.  The Department of the Treasury also imposed financial sanctions on the company SenseTime Group Limited for its involvement in developing facial recognition programs aimed at identifying ethnic Uyghurs.  On December 21, in reaction to the December 10 U.S. sanctions, the PRC announced sanctions against four USCIRF officials.

On December 23, the President signed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act “to ensure that goods made with forced labor in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the [PRC] do not enter the United States market.”  The legislation banned imports of goods made using forced labor of “Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tibetans, and members of other persecuted groups,” including goods mined, produced, or manufactured wholly or in part.  The act directed the CBP to presume imports from Xinjiang were produced with forced labor unless the importer proved otherwise to CBP and imposed sanctions on foreign individuals responsible for forced labor in the region.

Since 1999, China has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 15, 2021, 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

Comoros

Executive Summary

The constitution specifies Islam is the state religion and defines the national identity as being based on a single religion – Sunni Islam – but proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all, regardless of religious belief.  The constitution also specifies that the principles and rules that regulate worship and social life be based on Sunni Islam under the Shafi’i doctrine.  Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for deportation of foreigners who do so.  The law prohibits the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places on the basis of “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.”  There were no reports of arrests for Comorians engaging in other religious practices, but members of non-Sunni groups reported broad self-censorship and stated they practiced or spoke about their beliefs only in private.  Shia Muslims continued to report government surveillance during religious observances important to their community.  For the second consecutive year, there were no reports of national leaders making public statements against religious minorities.  One religious minority group leader said that 2021 had been “generally quiet and peaceful” and attributed the government’s relative restraint to international engagement related to this issue.  Shia commemorations of all Eids, Ramadan, and Ashura proceeded peacefully on all three islands.  Shia Muslims on Anjouan said that local authorities prevented them from practicing in the Shia mosque that had existed on the island for more than a year; they were forced to worship in a Shia community center instead.

There continued to be reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals who were suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity or from Sunni to Shia Islam.

Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Antananarivo, Madagascar engaged on issues of religious freedom with government officials, including President Azali Assoumani and officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Justice, focusing on the importance of individuals having the ability to practice their religion freely and of government officials refraining from statements criticizing religious minorities.  Embassy representatives also discussed religious freedom with religious and civil society leaders and others, including members of minority religious groups.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Comoros on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 864,000 (midyear 2021), of which 98 percent is Sunni Muslim.  Roman Catholics, Shia Muslims, Ahmadi Muslims, and Protestants together make up less than 2 percent of the population.  Non-Muslims are mainly foreign residents and are concentrated in the country’s capital, Moroni, and the capital of Anjouan, Mutsamudu.  Shia and Ahmadi Muslims mostly live on the island of Anjouan.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution states Islam is the state religion and citizens shall draw principles and rules to regulate worship and social life from the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam.  The preamble “affirms the will of the Comorian people” to cultivate a national identity based on a single religion, Sunni Islam.  It proclaims equality of rights and obligations for all individuals regardless of religion or belief.  A law establishes the Sunni Shafi’i doctrine as the “official religious reference” and provides sanctions of five months’ to one year’s imprisonment, a fine of 100,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs ($230-$1,200), or both, for campaigns, propaganda, or religious practices or customs in public places that could cause social unrest or undermine national cohesion.

The law prohibits anyone from insulting a minister of religion in the exercise of his functions, punishable by a fine of 50,000 to 150,000 francs ($120-$350), and anyone who strikes or assaults a minister of religion in the exercise of his function will be punished with imprisonment of one to five years.

Proselytizing for any religion except Sunni Islam is illegal, and the law provides for the deportation of foreigners who do so.  The penal code states, “Whoever discloses, spreads, and teaches Muslims a religion other than Islam will be punished with imprisonment of three months to one year and a fine of 50,000 to 500,000 Comorian francs” ($120-$1,200).  The law also states, “The sale [or] the free distribution to Muslims of books, brochures, magazines, records and cassettes or any other media teaching a religion other that Islam” will be punished with the same penalties.

There is no official registration process for religious groups.  The law allows Sunni religious groups to establish places of worship, train clergy, and assemble for peaceful religious activities.  It does not allow non-Sunni religious groups to assemble for peaceful religious activities in public places, although foreigners are permitted to worship at three Christian churches in Moroni, Mutsamudu, and Moheli, and foreign Shia Muslims are permitted to worship at a Shia mosque in Moroni.

The law prohibits proselytizing or the performance of non-Sunni religious rituals in public places, to avoid “affronting society’s cohesion and endangering national unity.”  Without specifying religion, the penal code provides penalties for the profaning of any spaces designated for worship, for interfering with religious leaders in the performance of their duties, or in cases where the practice of sorcery, magic, or charlatanism interferes with public order.  The new penal code, adopted in February, provides a penalty from one to six months imprisonment and a fine of 150,000 to 750,000 francs ($350-$1,700) for those offenses.

According to the constitution, the Grand Mufti is the highest religious authority in the country.  The President appoints the Grand Mufti, who manages issues concerning religion and religious administration.  The Grand Mufti heads an independent government institution called the Supreme National Institution in Charge of Religious Practices in the Union of the Comoros.  The Grand Mufti counsels the government on matters concerning the practice of Islam and Islamic law.

The law provides that before the month of Ramadan, the Ministry of Islamic Affairs and the Council of Ulema publish a ministerial decree providing instructions to the population for events that month.

The government uses the Quran in public primary schools for Arabic reading instruction.  There are more than 200 fee-based schools with Quranic instruction that also receive some support from the government.  The tenets of Islam are sometimes taught in conjunction with Arabic in public and private schools at the middle and high school levels.  A new education law adopted in May provides that “pre-elementary education (for ages three to five years) aims at acquiring the first elements of the Muslim religion,” including initiation into reading the Quran.

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

Government Practices

A Shia leader said in July that 2021 had been “generally quiet and peaceful” for Shia Muslims in Moroni and that private Shia commemorations of all Eids, Ramadan, and Ashura were allowed to proceed and did so peacefully on all three islands.  Shia Muslims continued to report government surveillance during religious holidays important to their community.  For the second consecutive year, the President and other political leaders refrained from making public statements against religious minorities.  One religious minority group leader attributed the government’s relative restraint to international engagement related to this issue.

There were no reports of arrests for Comorians engaging in other religious practices, but members of non-Sunni groups reported broad self-censorship and stated they practiced or spoke about their beliefs only in private.  Shia and Ahmadi Muslims stated that they were not able to worship publicly and that government authorities sometimes attended religious gatherings held in private homes to observe their practices but did not interfere.

Ahmadi Muslims stated the tract of land on the island of Anjouan that was the site of an Ahmadi mosque seized and destroyed by local authorities in 2017 had not been returned to them.  Shia Muslims on Anjouan stated that local authorities prevented them from practicing in the Shia mosque that has existed on the island for more than a year.  Instead, they were forced to worship in a Shia community center that only has a rooftop space for prayer, exposing them to the elements.  Ahmadi and Shia Muslims on Anjouan stated they did not live in fear of violence but needed to exercise caution and self-censorship to avoid attracting unwanted attention from local authorities.

Expatriate Christian community members reported they had been waiting for more than four years for a government response to their application for a license to build a new nondenominational church.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were continued reports that local communities unofficially shunned individuals suspected of converting from Islam to Christianity.  Societal abuse and discrimination against non-Muslim citizens persisted, particularly against Christians or those who were converts from Islam.  Non-Muslim foreigners reported little to no discrimination.

Most non-Sunni Muslim citizens reportedly did not openly practice their faith for fear of societal rejection, and some Shia Muslims reported being harassed by Sunni Muslims.  Societal pressure and intimidation continued to restrict the use of the country’s three churches to noncitizens.  Christians reported they would not eat publicly during Ramadan so as not to draw attention to their faith.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

There is no permanent U.S. diplomatic presence in the country.  The ambassador and representatives from the U.S. embassy in Madagascar visited the country and engaged with government officials on issues of religious freedom, including with President Assoumani and officials from the Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry, and Justice Ministry, focusing on the importance of individuals being able to practice their religion freely and ending government statements criticizing religious minorities.

Embassy representatives met with a diverse group of Muslim and Christian religious and civil society leaders, including Sunni, Shia, and Ahmadi Muslims, on issues of religious freedom.  The embassy also used social media posts to highlight the importance of religious freedom and diversity and to engage with civil society and the general populace.

On November 15, 2021, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State placed Comoros on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Costa Rica

Executive Summary

The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the state religion; the law requires the state to contribute to the Catholic Church’s maintenance.  The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of religions that does not impugn “universal morality or proper behavior,” and it provides for redress in cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.  The time limit to enact a draft 2009 bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state expired in September 2020, and the Legislative Assembly did not advance a new bill on this issue during the year.  In June, the Legislative Assembly passed its first vote on a public employment bill that included an article on conscientious objection.  Some legislators, including those belonging to the government-affiliated Citizen Action Party and the National Liberation Party, objected to the inclusion of the article on conscientious objection and appealed before the Constitutional Court.  In August, the Constitutional Court upheld as constitutional the article on conscientious objection, an article several religious groups had requested.  Another first vote, required to pass the bill, was pending at year’s end.  Some non-Catholic religious leaders continued to state the constitution does not sufficiently address the specific concerns of their religious groups, particularly regarding registration processes.

Instances of anti-Catholic language on social media continued, reportedly spurred by high-level investigations of priests charged with sexual abuse.  Negative comments against Catholic priest Mauricio Viquez, as well as the Catholic Church for reportedly attempting to prevent Viquez’s case from going to trial, appeared on social media following his May extradition from Mexico on four charges of sexually abusing minors.  Jewish community leaders continued to report anti-Israeli comments, some of which they considered antisemitic, although not directed at Jews living in the country.  Interludio, an interreligious forum created in 2017 with participants from Catholic, evangelical Christian, Lutheran, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Muslim, and indigenous communities, continued to promote dialogue among the country’s faith communities.  The group met periodically in person and virtually throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including virtual talks.  In September, it began hosting some in-person meetings.

On May 26, embassy officials hosted a virtual roundtable with representatives from the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education and with leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities and other religious groups to discuss how to address the challenges of holding religious gatherings and celebrations during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Embassy representatives also met with religious leaders throughout the year, including those representing religious minorities, to discuss the situation of religious congregations during the pandemic, and the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on the free exercise of religious beliefs.  The embassy used social media to send congratulatory messages highlighting tolerance and respect for religious diversity to religious groups on special religious occasions.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.2 million (midyear 2021).  According to a University of Costa Rica (UCR) study released during the year, Catholics represent approximately 47 percent of the population (compared with 49 percent in 2019); no religious affiliation 27 percent (20 percent in 2019); evangelical Christians 19 percent; other Protestants 1.0 percent (the 2019 study estimated all Protestants combined at 36 percent); no response 6 percent, and others 2.7 percent.

Most Protestants are Pentecostal, with smaller numbers of Lutherans and Baptists.  There are an estimated 32,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses, predominantly on the Caribbean coast.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints estimates its membership at 50,000.  The Jewish Zionist Center estimates there are between 3,000 and 3,500 Jews in the country.  Approximately 1,000 Quakers live near the cloud forest reserve of Monteverde, Puntarenas.  Smaller groups include followers of Islam, Taoism, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Scientology, Tenrikyo, and the Baha’i Faith.  Some members of indigenous groups practice animism.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Catholicism as the state religion and requires the state to contribute to its maintenance.  The constitution prohibits the state from impeding the free exercise of other religions that do not undermine “universal morality or proper behavior.”  Unlike other religious groups, the Catholic Church is not registered as an association and receives special legal recognition.  Its assets and holdings are governed consistent with Catholic canon law.

The constitution recognizes the right to practice the religion of one’s choice.  By law, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may file suit with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and may also file a motion before the Constitutional Chamber to have a statute or regulation declared unconstitutional.  Additionally, a person claiming a violation of religious freedom may appeal to the Administrative Court to sue the government for alleged discriminatory acts.  Legal protections cover discrimination by private persons and entities.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship is responsible for managing the government’s relationship with the Catholic Church and other religious groups.  According to the law, a group with a minimum of 10 persons may incorporate as an association with judicial status by registering with the public registry of the Ministry of Justice.  The government does not require religious groups to register; however, religious groups must register if they choose to engage in any type of fundraising.  Registration also entitles them to obtain legal representation and standing to own property.

The constitution forbids Catholic clergy from serving in the capacity of president, vice president, cabinet member, or Supreme Court justice.  This prohibition does not apply to non-Catholic clergy.

An executive order provides the legal framework for religious organizations to establish places of worship.  Religious organizations must submit applications to the local municipality to establish a place of worship and to comply with safety and noise regulations established by law.

According to the law, public schools must provide nonsectarian Christian religious instruction by a person who is able to promote moral values and tolerance and be respectful of human rights.  If a parent on behalf of a child chooses to opt out of religious courses, the parent must make a written request.  The Ministry of Public Education provides religious education assistance to private schools, both Catholic and non-Catholic, including directly hiring teachers and providing teacher salaries and other funds.

The law allows the government to provide land free of charge to the Catholic Church only, but the government also provides funds to evangelical Christian groups.  Government-to-church land transfers are typically granted through periodic legislation.

Only Catholic priests and public notaries may perform state-recognized marriages.  Wedding ceremonies performed by other religious groups must be legalized through a civil union.

Immigration law requires foreign religious workers to belong to a religious group accredited for migration control purposes by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship, and it stipulates religious workers may receive permission to stay at least 90 days, but not more than two years.  The permission is renewable.  To obtain accreditation, a religious group must present documentation about its organization, including its complete name, number of followers, bank information, number of houses of worship, and names of and information on the group’s board of directors.  Immigration regulations require religious workers to apply for temporary residence before arrival.

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

Government Practices

The time limit to enact a draft 2009 bill that would reform the constitution to make the country a secular state expired in September 2020, and the Legislative Assembly did not advance a new bill on this issue during the year.

In June 17, the Legislative Assembly passed its first vote on a public employment bill that included an article on conscientious objection.  Some legislators, including those belonging to the government-affiliated Citizen Action Party and the National Liberation Party, objected to the inclusion of the article and appealed before the Constitutional Court.  On August 1, the Constitutional Court upheld as constitutional the article on conscientious objection.  Some religious groups had requested this provision to allow public employees to be exempted from participating in government-required LGBTQ+ training courses.  Another first vote, required to pass the bill, was pending at year’s end.

Some non-Catholic leaders continued to state the constitution did not sufficiently address the specific concerns of non-Catholic religious groups, particularly regarding registration processes.  Members of Protestant groups registered as secular associations continued to say they preferred a separate registration process that would specifically cover church construction and operation, permits to organize events, and pastoral access to hospitals and prisons for members of non-Catholic religious groups.  These Protestant groups continued to seek legislative reform to allow these changes through the passage of a religious freedom bill under legislative review since 2018.  In the case of the Catholic Church, the government continued to address such concerns through the special legal recognition afforded the Church under canon law.

During the year, the Constitutional Chamber received 12 claims of denial of the free exercise of religious freedom at educational institutions, Catholic institutions, or public places, compared with 24 claims in 2020.  Of the 12 claims presented in during the year, seven were dismissed, three were accepted, and two were unresolved through year’s end.  Reportedly, the decrease in numbers of claims was partly due to COVID-19 restrictions on in-person learning during the year.  The court dismissed seven claims due to insufficient evidence proving discrimination or because it found no basis for claiming discrimination.  In some of these dismissed cases, the claimants stated they experienced discrimination because of the government’s closure of places of worship during the COVID-19 pandemic and because of a pandemic-related restriction limiting the number of attendees at a religious service to 200 worshippers, regardless of the size of the venue.  For the purposes of limits on gatherings, religious organizations fell under the same category as sports, cultural and academic activities; the 200-person limit applied equally to all groups.  The court dismissed the complaints, stating the pandemic-related restrictions were applied to all places of worship for health reasons.

 

Two claims pertaining to a requirement that public employees attend a course on equal rights for LGBTQ+ persons remained unresolved through year’s end.  The chamber ruled in favor of three other claims.  In one case, a Jewish municipal employee filed a complaint seeking authorization to observe the Sabbath on Saturday.  In another case, the chamber ruled in favor of a minor claimant who opted out of a religious course, stating the minor could not be obligated to take an unrequired course.  The parents of children attending public schools filed the third claim against the Ministry of Education because the ministry had not replaced the school’s religion teacher several months after his retirement.  In its ruling, the chamber ordered the hiring of a new teacher of religion.

The government again included financial support for the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups in its annual budget.  It earmarked approximately 32.6 million colones ($51,100), 23 million colones ($36,000) for the Catholic Church and 9.5 million colones ($14,900) for evangelical Christian groups, for various projects requested by the religious groups, including funds to make improvements at churches and parish buildings in different parts of the country.  This total funding of 32.6 million colones ($51,100) for religious groups was included in supplemental budgets for the year and compared with 55 million colones ($86,200) earmarked in the 2020 budget.  According to a legislative aide, the decrease in allocation for religious groups was because of the overall decrease in the budget due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy.  A semiautonomous government institution again sold lottery tickets, using the proceeds to support social programs sponsored by religious groups.

In June, Marco A. Fernandez Picado became the new director of religious education in the Ministry of Public Education.  According to Fernandez Picado, because most classes were virtual during the year due to continuing COVID-19 restrictions, there was no implementation of a 2019 Ministry of Education directive stating school directors should make decisions on whether to place religious images in educational institutions based on “mutual respect for the rights and liberties of all, as well as the values and principles under which the education system functions.”

According to political observers and opinion polls, in the lead-up to the 2018 national election, religious issues such as same-sex marriage were polarizing campaign topics that impacted voters’ decisions.  According to press reports, during the February 2022 election campaign, candidates tended to avoid raising these topics, likely to avoid repeating such polarization.

Representatives of political parties that defined themselves as evangelical Christian continued to occupy 14 of the country’s 57 legislative seats, and evangelical Christian parties contested the municipal election in February.  No evangelical Christian mayors were elected, but 38 evangelical Christians were elected as representatives in 82 municipal governments.  The president of the Evangelical Alliance again instructed pastors to refrain from electoral politics, while Catholic leaders continued to defend the right of the Catholic Church to engage in the political process.  At year’s end, 30 political parties had registered for the 2022 general election; seven of these parties stated a Catholic or evangelical Christian religious affiliation.

Religious groups, including the Catholic Church and Evangelical Alliance, continued to state their opposition to same-sex partnerships and to legislation passed and implemented in 2020 that recognizes same-sex marriages, citing moral grounds.  In July, evangelical Christian groups belonging to the Evangelical Alliance, including its president, organized a prayer night broadcast on radio “in favor of families, life, and children.”  Other Christian radio stations joined the program.

Abortion continued to be a frequent topic of public debate involving religious groups.  According to a December 2019 executive order requiring hospitals to develop protocols for doctors to perform an abortion when the life and health of the woman was in danger, abortion was permitted in such cases in accordance with the penal code.  The order also allowed health personnel to refuse to participate in abortion procedures for religious reasons.  Media reported that opposition of the Catholic Church and evangelical Christian groups to abortions continued.  From March 22 to April 4, legislator Nidia Cespedes of evangelical Christian party New Republic (Nueva Republica), protested barefoot in the Legislative Assembly’s plenary room, expressing her opposition to a proposed bill decriminalizing abortion, which was later introduced in August.  The same month, the Catholic Church organized its members to sign a letter requesting the government keep abortion illegal.  By year’s end, the Legislative Assembly did not vote on the bill.

In July, the Ministry of Public Education organized a National Week of Religious Education to present a preview of the ministry’s new religious education programs to be offered as part of basic general education and diversified education levels.  As a result of the July meeting, the ministry drafted an Interreligious Declaration for a Religious Education for A Culture of Peace, which the ministry presented at a Ministry of Education conference on September 22.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

According to UCR polling, the demographic shift to fewer adherents of the Catholic Church continued.  Approximately half of those who left the Catholic Church joined evangelical Christian groups, while the other half gave up religious affiliation altogether.  According to Catholic Chancellor Rafael Sandi, however, there were fewer requests to formally disaffiliate with the Catholic Church during the year compared with the number of requests made in 2020, 2019, and 2018.

An increase in instances of anti-Catholic language on social media was noted after media reports detailed the continued high-level investigations of Catholic priests charged with sexual abuse.  In May, the extradition from Mexico of Catholic priest Mauricio Viquez on four charges of sexually abusing minors prompted negative comments on social media against Viquez, his alleged enablers, and the Catholic Church, the latter for attempting to prevent Viquez’ case from going to trial.  At year’s end, Viquez remained in preventive detention.  In 2019, the statute of limitation ended for three of the four accusations.

Jewish community leaders continued to report anti-Israeli comments appearing on social media, some of which, they said, were antisemitic, although not directed at Jews living in the country.  In September, the Israelite Zionist Center of Costa Rica reported antisemitic comments it detected online through its Antidiscrimination Web Observatory, which compiles antisemitic incidents and messages posted on social networks.  Some messages combined negative comments against Jews with actions taken by Israel.  For example, some messages compared former Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu with former Nazi officer Heinrich Himmler.  Another online comment accused Israeli citizens of using their religion and the Holocaust to repeat their experience with Palestinians.  One social media post stated, “Israel does not exist.  Not only do they appropriate a territory that does not belong to them, but also…most of these people are not even Semites, but rather, central European Aryans.”

Interludio, a forum of religious groups established by Pastor Jose Castro in 2017 to encourage interreligious dialogue among the country’s religious groups, continued to promote dialogue among religious leaders, with participation of representatives from the Catholic, evangelical Christian, Protestant, Lutheran, Jewish, Baha’i, and Buddhist faiths.  The group met periodically throughout the year and hosted a variety of events, including talks on spiritual growth and moral values.  

The Museum of Empathy, associated with Interludio, continued to promote a Resilience Academy, which provided psychological and spiritual support to populations especially vulnerable due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with a focus on the elderly and on single mothers. 

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy representatives raised with the Director of Religion Cyrus Alpizar of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship the request of some religious groups to register through a church-specific registration process.  On May 26, embassy officials hosted a virtual roundtable with the Director of Religious Issues from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Worship, the Director of Religious Education from the Ministry of Education, leaders of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant communities, and other religious groups to discuss how to address the challenges of holding religious gatherings and celebrations during the pandemic.

The embassy again used social media to send congratulatory messages highlighting tolerance and respect for religious diversity to religious groups on special religious occasions.  Examples included messages sent to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the evangelical Christian celebration of the Month of the Bible, and the celebration of Religious Freedom Day on January 16.

Denmark

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees the right of individuals to worship according to their beliefs.  The constitution establishes the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELC) as the national church, granting it privileges not available to other religious groups.  The Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs is responsible for granting official status to religious groups other than the ELC through recognition by royal decree (for groups recognized prior to 1970) or through official registration.  Congregations are not required to register by law, though registration is required to receive tax benefits.  Religious communities must comply with annual reporting requirements to maintain their government recognition.  In January, prior to parliamentary debate on 2020 draft legislation to mandate the translation of sermons into Danish, the Danish Council of Churches sent an open letter to Prime Minister Frederiksen opposing the legislation.  The letter noted, “We welcome the broader political intention of integrating ethnic minorities in an open and pluralistic Danish society – but we see dangers in a law leading to religious harassment.”  The letter stated that the draft legislation was “discriminatory and ill-considered” and would impose “significant burdens” on economically weak minority religious groups.  In March, parliament approved a new law that bans foreign countries from funding and financing mosques in the country.  The new law garnered support from all major political parties.  Social Democrat Immigration and Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye labeled the law as an important step to curb what he termed “Islamist extremism.”  In a report released in September and drawn from data collected in 2019, the Pew Research Center categorized the country as having “moderate government restrictions on religion,” the second level in the report’s four-tiered system (low, moderate, high, and very high government restrictions).  In November, the Immigration Service updated its national sanctions list of religious preachers barred from entering the country to include 21 individuals; five were U.S. citizens.  The Ministry of Immigration and Integration stated the individuals were barred from entering the country for the “sake of the nation’s public order,” but provided no additional details.

In January, witnesses discovered the words “[expletive] the Quran,” accompanied by a drawing of a hand with the middle finger up, painted on the side of the mosque belonging to the Danish-Turkish Islamic Foundation in Aabenraa, in the southern part of the country.  This was the third time vandals damaged the mosque since 2019.  By year’s end, authorities had not arrested anyone for the incident.  In April, vandals placed two dolls in nooses near a grave in the Jewish cemetery in Aalborg and poured red paint over the dolls and the wall surrounding the cemetery.  The vandals also left antisemitic flyers referring to a website for the right-wing radical organization Nordic Resistance Movement near the dolls.  Police charged a man with vandalism and racism for the crime, and in June, a court sentenced him to one year in prison.  He appealed the verdict and authorities released him in November, with the court expected to rule on his appeal in January 2022.

The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief to encourage the country to include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s examples in applying the alliance’s definition.  Embassy officials met with parliamentarians and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office of the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief to emphasize the importance the United States places on religious freedom, and to discuss ways to combat anti-Muslim sentiment and antisemitism.  Embassy officials expressed concerns about legislation proposing to ban circumcision and requiring translation of sermons into Danish, and urged support for the protection of religious expression.  Embassy officials engaged with religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities throughout the year to discuss issues including the debate on the proposed circumcision ban, the ban on ritual slaughter, the proposed bill requiring the translation of sermons into Danish, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their faith practices.  Embassy officials met with representatives from the Danish Islamic Center, Muslim World League, and Danish Muslim Aid to discuss interfaith engagement opportunities and challenges for Muslims in the country, including anti-Muslim sentiment.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.9 million (midyear 2021).  As of the end of 2021, 73.2 percent of the Danish population were ELC members according to Statistics Denmark.  In 2021, 8,961 members left the ELC, representing the lowest yearly number who departed that church since 2007.  A church historian at the University of Copenhagen attributed this development to the pandemic, which highlighted the importance of religious communities.  The Danish government does not collect data on religious affiliation outside of the ELC.  A professor estimated in April 2020 that there are approximately 250,000 Muslims, accounting for 4.4 percent of the population.  Muslims are concentrated in the largest cities, particularly Copenhagen, Odense, and Aarhus.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs estimates other religious groups, each constituting less than 1 percent of the population, to include, in descending order of size, Roman Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Serbian Orthodox Christians, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Pentecostals, members of the Baha’i Faith, and nondenominational Christians.  According to a 2020 survey released by the Ministry of Immigration and Integration, approximately 11 percent of the population does not identify as belonging to a religious group or identifies as atheist.  The organization Jewish Community in Denmark estimates between 6,000 and 8,000 Jews live in the country, mostly in the Copenhagen area.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The law prohibits hate speech, including religious hate speech, and specifies as penalties a fine (amount unspecified) or a maximum of two years’ imprisonment.  The law also prohibits the incitement of terrorism, murder, rape or violence in connection with religious movements or training and specifies penalties, including a fine or a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.

The ELC is the only religious group that receives funding through state grants and voluntary, tax-deductible contributions paid through payroll deduction by its members.  Voluntary payroll deduction contributions account for an estimated 79 percent of the ELC’s operating budget, and government grants contribute another 10 percent; the remaining 11 percent comes from a variety of activities, such as revenue from use of Church property.  Members of other recognized religious communities may not contribute via payroll deduction but may donate to their own community voluntarily and receive a tax deduction.  The ELC and other state-recognized religious communities have the authority to carry out registration of civil unions and name changes.  The ELC also registers births and deaths of its members.

The Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs is responsible for granting official status to religious groups other than the ELC through recognition by royal decree (for groups recognized prior to 1970) or through official registration.  Congregations are not required to register by law, although registration is required to receive tax benefits.  Religious communities must comply with annual reporting requirements to maintain their government recognition.  According to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs, there are 448 religious groups and congregations the government officially recognizes or that are affiliated with recognized groups:  338 Christian, 65 Muslim, 16 Buddhist, seven Hindu, three Jewish, and 19 other groups and congregations, including Baha’is, the Alevi community, and followers of the indigenous Norse belief system Forn Sidr.

Recognized religious groups may perform legal marriage ceremonies, name and baptize children with legal effect, issue legal death certificates, obtain residence permits for foreign clergy, establish cemeteries, and receive various value added tax exemptions.  The law allows only religious communities recognized before 1970 to issue birth, baptismal, and marriage certificates.  In accordance with the 2018 law recognizing religions outside the ELC, this privilege will expire for all religious communities except the ELC in 2023.  Members of other religious communities or individuals unaffiliated with a recognized religious group may have birth and death certificates issued by the health authority.

The state entitles groups not recognized by either royal decree or the registration process, such as the Church of Scientology, to engage in religious practices without public registration.  The state does not grant unrecognized religious groups full tax-exempt status, but members may deduct contributions to these groups from their taxes.

The law codifies the registration process for religious communities other than the ELC and treats equally those recognized by royal decree and those approved through registration.  A religious community must have at least 50 adult members who have resident status and possess Danish citizenship.  For congregations located in sparsely populated regions such as Greenland, the government applies a lower population threshold, which varies according to the total population of the region.

Religious groups seeking registration must submit a document describing the group’s central traditions and most important rituals to the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs.  A group applying for registration must also provide a copy of its rules, regulations, and organizational structure; an audited financial statement (which it must submit annually); information about the group’s leadership; and a statement on the number of adult members permanently residing in the country.  Groups also must have formal procedures for membership and make their teachings available to all members.  The ministry makes the final decision on registration applications after receiving recommendations from a group consisting of a lawyer, religious historian, sociologist of religion, and nonordained theologian.  Religious groups that do not submit the annual financial statement or other required information may lose their registration status.

The law prohibits masks and face coverings, including burqas and niqabs, in public spaces.  Violators face fines ranging from 1,000 to 10,000 Danish kroner ($150-$1,500).  Fines are 1,000 kroner ($150) for the first offense, 2,000 kroner ($310) for the second, 5,000 kroner ($760) for the third, and 10,000 kroner ($1,500) for the fourth and subsequent offenses.

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

The law requires persons to shake hands during their naturalization ceremonies to obtain Danish citizenship, although authorities suspended the requirement during the COVID-19 pandemic.  In December, the government passed a bill reintroducing the handshake requirement for citizenship ceremonies starting January 1, 2022.

All public and private schools, including religious schools, receive government financial support.  The Ministry of Children and Education oversees private schools, which includes supervising teaching standards, regulating compliance with the country’s regulations on curriculum, and financial screening.  The Board of Education and Quality conducts systematic monitoring and has authority to issue directives to individual institutions, withhold grants, and terminate financial support.  Public schools must teach ELC theology.  The instructors are public school teachers rather than individuals provided by the ELC.  Religion classes are compulsory in grades 1-9, although students may be exempted if a parent presents a request in writing.  No alternative classes are offered.

The ELC course curriculum in grades 1-6 focuses on life philosophies and ethics, biblical stories, and the history of Christianity.  In grades 7-9, the curriculum adds a module on world religions.  The course is optional in grade 10.  If the student is 15 or older, the student and parent must jointly request the student’s exemption.  Private schools must teach religion classes in grades 1-9, including world religions in grades 7-9.  The religion classes taught in grades 1-9 need not include ELC theology.  The law allows collective prayer in schools but each school must regulate prayer in a neutral, nondiscriminatory manner, and students must be allowed to opt out of participating.

The law requires parents in communities with significant non-Western populations to send children from one year of age to government-funded daycare, where they learn what are considered to be Danish values, including Christmas and Easter traditions.  The penalty for noncompliance is the loss of quarterly welfare benefits of up to 4,557 kroner ($700).

Military service, typically for four months, is mandatory for all physically fit men older than 18 years of age.  There is an exemption for conscientious objectors, including on religious grounds, which allows for alternative civilian service.  An individual wishing to perform alternative service as a conscientious objector must apply within eight weeks of receiving notice of military service.  The application is adjudicated by the Conscientious Objector Administration and must demonstrate that military service of any kind is incompatible with the individual’s conscience.  Alternative service may take place in various social and cultural institutions, peace movements, organizations related to the United Nations, churches and ecumenical organizations, and environmental organizations.

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

The law requires clergy members with legal authorization to officiate marriages to have an adequate mastery of the Danish language and to complete a two-day course on family law and civil rights administered by the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs.  The law also requires that religious workers “must not behave or act in a way that makes them unworthy to exercise public authority.”  The government may strip the right to perform marriages from religious workers whom it perceives as not complying with these provisions.

By law, the Ministry of Immigration and Integration may prevent entry by foreign religious figures who do not already have a residence permit if it determines their presence poses a threat to public order.  In such cases, the ministry places the individuals on a national sanctions list and bars them from entry for two years, a period which it may extend.  The sanctions list does not apply to European Union nationals and residents.

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

Government Practices

In January, prior to parliamentary debate on 2020 draft legislation to mandate the translation of sermons into Danish, the Danish Council of Churches sent an open letter to Prime Minister Frederiksen opposing the legislation.  The letter noted, “We welcome the broader political intention of integrating ethnic minorities in an open and pluralistic Danish society – but we see dangers in a law leading to religious harassment.”  The letter stated that the draft legislation was “discriminatory and ill-considered” and would impose “significant burdens” on economically weak minority religious groups.  Similarly, in February the Islamic Faith Society published a press release with concerns over the proposed bill’s potential to increase the alienation of Danish Muslims, referring to it as “an encroachment on religious freedom” and “a clear obstacle to the Danish Muslims’ practice of their religion.”  In July, the government postponed indefinitely plans to introduce the legislation, which had been sponsored by the ruling Social Democratic Party but opposed by ELC, Muslim, Jewish, and Catholic religious leaders.

Representatives of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express frustration at the country’s limitations on slaughter of livestock meeting their religious requirements but reported that halal and kosher meat could be imported from within the European Union.

In March, parliament approved a new law that bans foreign countries from funding and financing mosques in the country.  The new law garnered support from all major political parties.  Social Democrat Immigration and Integration Minister Mattias Tesfaye labeled the law an important step to curb what he termed “Islamist extremism.”  The law states, “Anyone who receives one or more donations that individually or together exceed 10,000 kroner ($1,500) within 12 consecutive calendar months from a natural or legal person who is included on the public ban list is punishable by a fine.”

In March, the parliamentary Legal Committee held a hearing focusing on hate crimes committed against Muslim women in the country at the request of Free Greens parliamentarian Sikandar Siddique.  During the hearing, Siddique criticized the government for not doing enough to publicly denounce incidents, such as a confrontation between an elderly couple and a Muslim woman in a suburb of Copenhagen in February.  In that incident, a Muslim woman reported that an elderly woman repeatedly slammed her car door into her car and when the young woman confronted the woman and her husband, they called her a racial slur and spat on her.  Police charged the elderly couple with assault and the husband with threatening violence, as well as vandalism.  In May, the court sentenced the husband to 50 days’ probation, subsequently lowered to 60 days of community service because this was his first offense.  The court acquitted his wife.

Siddique contrasted what he termed the government’s weak reaction to attacks against Muslims to what he said was its stronger response to hate crimes against the Jewish community.  He called for an action plan to combat what he labeled Islamophobia.  In response to Siddique’s comments, Minister of Justice Nick Haekkerup cited improved prosecution efforts for hate crimes and strengthened police training on identifying and handling hate crimes.  In October, Siddique and his parents were targets of hate speech outside of parliament when a man accosted them and shouted at them, “Go home,” and “Your Arabic culture has no place in Denmark, you’re not welcome here.”

In March, parliament amended the law for religion instructors seeking to extend their residency permits, raising the required passing grade for the test in competency in the Danish language and knowledge of Denmark and Danish society to qualify for an extension.

In April, Jakob Naesager, chairman of the Copenhagen municipality resident committee and member of the Conservative People’s Party, stated that municipal legislation should be changed to ban the Islamic call to prayer in that city in the absence of national level legislation to do so.  Legislators took no action on it during the year.

On May 18, parliament failed to pass legislation proposed in 2020 to ban and criminalize ritual circumcision for boys under the age of 18.  The vote followed extensive political and public debate, including opposition from Prime Minister Frederiksen, leader of the largest opposition party Jakob Ellemann-Jensen, and Jewish community leaders.  The Institute for Human Rights (IHR) stated that the proposed ban would have been “a significant encroachment on religious freedom.”  The Society of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care Medicine supported the legislation, which was proposed for the third year in a row in 2020.  Despite the government’s opposition, approximately 74 percent of the public supported the ban according to an April opinion poll conducted by the Danish research firm Epinion.  In a similar poll conducted by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Jewish Community in September, only 38 percent of respondents supported the ban, due to a different phrasing of the question.  Representatives from the Jewish and Muslim communities expressed concern that parliament could take up the bill again after the next parliamentary election, which will take place no later than June 2023.

In May, the Danish People’s Party (DPP) proposed requiring that cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad and discussion of the 2005 controversy surrounding publication of those caricatures be included in school curricula.  In a media interview, DPP parliamentary faction leader Peter Skaarup said the cartoon controversy is “part of Danish history” and reflected the country’s “firm stance” in favor of free speech.  Skaarup said the requirement would be “a protection for teachers who are under threat today because they want to show what the Muhammad cartoons are about, but they cannot be allowed to do so because someone is coming and threatening them.”  At the Socialist People’s Party’s annual meeting in September, Party Chair Pia Olsen Dyhr said there was a need for teachers to be able to use such “tools” in a classroom setting without fearing consequences.  The Chair of the Union of Teachers said the DPP proposal, which was not presented as draft legislation, would still leave the choice of whether to include the cartoons to the teachers.  Representatives from the Muslim community expressed concerns that if the proposal became enacted legislation, it would further fuel anti-Muslim sentiment.

In June, the government reached an agreement with five major political parties to modify the 2018 policy to reduce the number of what are termed “parallel societies” by 2030.  The agreement passed as legislation in November and replaced the term “ghetto” with the term “parallel society,” which the government defined as a neighborhood with more than 1,000 residents where at least two criteria based on employment, income, education, and crime rates were met and where the proportion of non-Western immigrants and their descendants exceeded 50 percent.  The agreement also introduced a new category called “prevention areas,” defined as meeting two of four socioeconomic criteria and where the proportion of non-Western immigrants and their descendants exceeded 30 percent.  The stated goal of the agreement was to prevent the emergence of new parallel societies by reducing the percentage of non-Western residents in such neighborhoods to less than 30 percent within 10 years, according to the Ministry of the Interior and Housing website.  In May, parliament had rejected a civil society petition that received 55,000 signatures calling for the pre-November “ghetto” law to be repealed altogether.

Media continued to widely interpret “non-Western” to mean Muslim-majority communities.  In March, Minister of Housing and the Interior Kaare Dybvad Bek said the government’s goal was to “prevent more vulnerable residential areas” by “creating more mixed residential areas” throughout the country.  He also said, “The term ghetto is misleading….This is about helping the residents and creating equal opportunities for all children, no matter where they grow up in Denmark.”  The November legislation required neighborhoods classified as parallel societies for four years in a row to reduce the amount of public housing in their area by 40 percent through demolition, sale, or privatization.  The government would be responsible for rehousing evicted individuals.  The legislation aimed to integrate Danish residents from these neighborhoods into other neighborhoods to reduce “the risk of an emergence of religious and cultural parallel societies,” according to Bek.  The legislation also mandated that parents living in those areas send their children to daycare to learn Danish values, and doubled penalties and sentences for crimes committed in the neighborhoods, such as vandalism, burglary, arson, drug offenses, and possession of weapons.

One activist from a neighborhood affected by the legislation said, “The ghetto lists and ghetto legislation are an expression of the politicians’ desire to change the composition of the population [in those areas].”  Some NGOs said that the government’s language regarding societal integration stemmed from anti-Muslim sentiment and therefore focused on predominately Muslim immigrant communities.  DIHR advocated for the removal of ethnic origin from the legislation’s criteria to avoid discrimination, and it said the term “parallel society” could be as stigmatizing as the term “ghetto.”  Several NGOs demonstrated against the new legislation on December 1 when the Interior Minister announced additions to the list of areas to be covered by the legislation.

In a report released in September and drawn from data collected in 2019, the Pew Research Center categorized the country as having “moderate government restrictions on religion,” the second level in the report’s four-tiered system (low, moderate, high, and very high government restrictions).

In November, the Immigration Service updated its national sanctions list of religious preachers barred from entering the country to include 21 individuals; five were U.S. citizens.  The Ministry of Immigration and Integration stated the individuals were barred from entering the country for “the “sake of the nation’s public order” but provided no additional details.

In consultation with Jewish Community, the government continued to provide security for sites considered to be at high risk of a terrorist attack, including Copenhagen’s synagogue, community center, and one school.

In a December letter to parliament, DIHR reiterated the need for religious communities to be able to apply for COVID-19 exemptions to permit services, weddings, and funerals to protect their religious freedom in future revisions of the Epidemic Act, which governed the country’s COVID-19 protocols.  Most leaders of faith groups, however, reported that the pandemic did not have a major impact on their religious services, as they were able to adapt by implementing safety protocols such as social distancing.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Police reported 194 religiously motivated crimes in 2020, the most recent year for which statistics were available, 8 percent more than in 2019, in which 180 such crimes were reported.  There were 87 crimes reported against Muslims, compared with 109 in 2019; 79 against Jews, compared with 51 in 2019; 25 against Christians, compared with eight cases in 2019; and three against members of other religions or belief groups, compared with 12 in 2019.  Most incidents involved harassment, hate speech, and vandalism, including desecration of cemeteries, and mainly affected the Muslim and Jewish communities.  The report cited hate speech as the most common type of religiously motivated hate crime.  In 2020, 45 percent of religiously motivated hate crime cases reported were directed at Muslims.  The number of hate crime cases committed against Jews increased significantly since 2018, when there were 26 cases reported.  The police report attributed the 2020 increase in hate crimes against Christians to the 12 cases of parish priests who received threatening text messages in April and May that year.

Police Inspector Claus Birkelyng said it was unclear whether the increase in reports in 2020 reflected an increase in actual crimes or a higher number of reported crimes than in previous years.  He also said there had been an increase in hate crimes committed online compared with previous years, from 128 in 2019 to 164 in 2020.  Of the 164 reported online hate crimes, 99 were identified as religiously motivated, of which 32 were directed at Muslims and 51 at Jews.

In January, witnesses discovered the words “[expletive] the Quran,” accompanied by a drawing of a hand with the middle finger up, painted on the side of the mosque belonging to the Danish-Turkish Islamic Foundation in Aabenraa, in the southern part of the country.  This was the third time vandals damaged the mosque since 2019.  By year’s end, officials had not arrested anyone for the incident.

In April, vandals placed two dolls in nooses near a grave in the Jewish cemetery in Aalborg and poured red paint over the dolls and the wall surrounding the cemetery. The vandals also left antisemitic flyers referring to a website for the right-wing radical organization Nordic Resistance Movement near the dolls.  Police charged a man with vandalism and racism for the crime and in June, and a court sentenced him to one year in prison.  He appealed the verdict and officials released him in November, with the court expected to rule on his appeal in January 2022.

On April 6, a court sentenced a man to nine months in prison for racism, violation of the peace of a graveyard, and gross vandalism against a grave in a Jewish cemetery in Randers in 2019.

In May, a video of a Danish man verbally abusing a Muslim couple and their two small children went viral, prompting several politicians, including Prime Minister Frederiksen, to condemn the act.  Frederiksen said, “We all have a responsibility to speak out – against racism, hate, and discrimination.  It doesn’t belong in Denmark.”

In July, the newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad released the findings of a survey the paper had conducted among 81 Muslim associations in the country.  The survey found that 30 percent of the associations contacted had been vandalized since January 2017.  The incidents ranged from graffiti and stickers promoting hatred on walls to door handles wrapped in bacon.  The survey reported that in two-thirds of the cases, the mosque or organization involved did not report the incident to the police.  In a media report about the survey, Ismail Celik, chairman of the mosque in Odense and spokesman for the Danish-Turkish Islamic Foundation said, “People are worried about the hatred of Muslims.  We want to be part of society and we want to be respected in the community.”  Similarly, a study released by the Ministry for Ecclesiastical Affairs in February showed that 19 percent of all churches had experienced vandalism since 2017.

In its report released in September, the Pew Research Center categorized the country as having “moderate societal hostility to religion.”

In September, a Danish-Somalian family appeared on television after being harassed by their downstairs neighbor in Copenhagen.  The family showed videos, including a clip in which the neighbor yelled “You know what you are? You are dirty Muslim animals.”  Authorities did not file charges in this case.

Also in September, unknown persons physically and verbally assaulted a Muslim woman at a public library in Copenhagen, where an individual called her a “Muslim [expletive]” and told her to “take that [expletive] off,” referring to her hijab.  Authorities charged the perpetrator with assault.  No further information emerged on the case.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief to encourage the country to include the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s examples in applying the alliance’s definition.  Embassy officials met with parliamentarians and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office of the Special Representative for Freedom of Religion or Belief to emphasize the importance the United States places on religious freedom, and to discuss ways to combat anti-Muslim sentiment and antisemitism.  Embassy officials expressed concerns about legislation proposing to ban circumcision and requiring translation of sermons into Danish, and urged support for the protection of religious expression.

Embassy officials engaged with religious leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian communities throughout the year to discuss issues including the proposed circumcision ban, the ban on ritual slaughter, the proposed bill requiring the translation of sermons into Danish, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their faith practices.  Embassy officials met with representatives from the Danish Islamic Center, Muslim World League, and Danish Muslim Aid to discuss interfaith engagement opportunities and challenges for Muslims in the country, including anti-Muslim sentiment.

The embassy funded a project designed by the Jewish Community to survey attitudes and knowledge about male circumcision and to create a website to counter misinformation related to this topic.  Representatives of the organization discussed their concerns about negative societal attitudes, which they attributed to increasing antisemitism in the country and fueled by extremists such as the Nordic Resistance Movement.  Embassy officials also supported the development of a national action plan to combat antisemitism.

Embassy officials also met with Christian groups, including representatives from the ELC and Roman Catholic Church, and discussed the proposed requirement for sermon translation, as well as broader issues of religious freedom and practice.  The embassy engaged with interfaith organizations, including the NGOs Religion and Society, the Islamic Christian Study Center, and DIHR, to discuss efforts to increase interfaith dialogue and understanding.

On May 6, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar with leaders of the Muslim community and discussed issues pertaining to religious freedom and the groups’ concerns, including the ban on ritual slaughter, the proposed circumcision ban, and the proposed bill requiring the translation of sermons into Danish.

Egypt

Executive Summary

The constitution states, “Freedom of belief is absolute” and “The freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine religions [i.e., the three Abrahamic faiths:  Islam, Christianity, and Judaism] is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution states citizens “are equal before the law” and criminalizes discrimination and “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason.”  The constitution also states, “Islam is the religion of the state…and the principles of Islamic sharia are the main sources of legislation.”  The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.  Authorities executed Ahmad Saeed Ibrahim al-Sonbati on June 21 for the 2017 premeditated killing of Coptic priest Father Samaan Shehata of the church of Yulius al-Aqfahsi in the village of Ezbet Girgis, Beni Suef Governorate.  In October, Alexandria’s criminal court sentenced brothers Nasser and Ali al-Sambo to life in prison for the December 2020 killing of Coptic Christian Ramsis Boulos Hermina.  On February 10, the Court of Cassation upheld 15-year prison sentences for 10 defendants who participated in a 2013 church burning in Kafr Hakim, Giza Governorate.  Minya’s Criminal Court on June 15 sentenced 10 defendants to five-year prison terms on charges of “vandalism, violence, and burning the homes of Coptic citizens” during a 2016 sectarian riot in the village of Karm in Minya.  A court on November 17 sentenced lawyer Ahmed Abdou Maher to five years in prison with hard labor for defaming Islam in his book, How the Imams’ Jurisprudence Is Leading the Nation Astray, and for comments he made to BBC TV and al-Mayadeen TV.  In June, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan contesting a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page.  Authorities twice renewed Quranist Reda Abdel Rahman’s detention.  Al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II hosted a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of Family House, a foundation established after the 2011 suicide bombing at Alexandria’s All Saints Church and dedicated to communal reconciliation.  In December, authorities banned Shia activist Haidar Kandil, a reporter for al-Dustour newspaper, from travelling to Moscow where he planned to seek employment.  On September 25, the Supreme Administrative Court issued a final verdict that banned the use of mosques for political purposes and upheld the state’s right to supervise them.  According to analysis by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, the government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, and authorized customs officials to confiscate religious materials from the groups’ adherents.  The Mansoura Emergency State Security Misdemeanor Court on December 7 ordered the release of Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) researcher Patrick George Zaki after 22 months of pretrial detention pending an investigation on charges related to his 2019 article on anti-Copt discrimination.  The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities opened the first stop on the 2,100-mile Holy Family Trail, the biblical route believed to have been taken by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus.  In September, the government launched its National Strategy for Human Rights, which contained a section dedicated to “Freedom of Religion and Belief” prescribing steps to reform religious discourse and promote religious tolerance.  In December, press reported the Ministry of Justice sent the draft Personal Status Law for Christians to the cabinet for approval.  The cabinet had not sent the draft legislation to the House of Representatives at year’s end.  Coptic human rights attorneys filed a lawsuit on August 25 demanding the Minister of Interior’s Civil Status Department remove the “religion” field from the national ID card.

In April, ISIS-Sinai Peninsula (ISIS-SP) released a video that documented the killing of Nabil Habashi, a local Coptic Christian and cofounder of the only church in the district of Bir al-Abd, one of the focal points of ISIS-SP operations.  On July 27, Copt Shenouda Salah Asaad was stabbed to death, allegedly by a Salafist neighbor, in Assiut Governorate.  In April, sectarian clashes in al-Mudmar village in Sohag Governorate resulted in at least one death and six injuries that required hospitalization.  A July report by the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Coptic Solidarity stated that out of 141 athletes on the national Olympic team that competed in the 2020 Tokyo games (held in 2021), only one was a Copt.  Reuters reported that the country’s first all-female Muslim recitation choir, al-Hour, is challenging “deep-rooted taboos about women singing in public or reciting from the Quran.”

The Ambassador, other embassy representatives, and senior U.S. government officials met with government officials and religious leaders to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law.  Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with the Grand Mufti, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, bishops, and senior pastors of the Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican churches, and the Jewish community.  In these meetings, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised concerns, including reports of harassment of religious converts, prospective changes to the country’s personal status law, lack of recognition for Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the continued use of religious designations on national identity cards.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 106.4 million (midyear 2021).  Most experts and media sources estimate that approximately 90 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 10 percent is Christian.  Approximately 90 percent of Christians belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, according to Christian leaders.

Other Christian communities together constitute less than 2 percent of the population.  These include Anglican/Episcopalian, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches.  Most Protestant denominations are members of the umbrella group known as the Protestant Churches of Egypt, also known as the General Evangelical Council.  These include the Apostolic Grace, Apostolic, Assemblies of God, Baptists, Brethren, Christian Model Church (al-Mithaal al-Masihi), Church of Christ, Faith (al-Eyman), Gospel Missionary (al-Kiraaza bil-Ingil), First Grace (al-Ni’ma al-Oula), Second Grace (al-Ni’ma al-Thaneya), Independent Baptist, Message Church of Holland (ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-day Adventists.  There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses and fewer than 100 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), the vast majority of whom are expatriates.  Christians reside throughout the country.

Scholars estimate that Shia Muslims comprise approximately 1 percent of the population.  Baha’i representatives estimate the size of their community to be between 1,000 and 2,000 persons.  There are very small numbers of Dawoodi Bohra Muslims and Ahmadi Muslims as well as expatriate members of various other religious groups.

According to a local Jewish NGO, there are six to 10 Jews in the country.

There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists; in 2020, local media sources quoted a former Minister of Culture and a scholar at al-Azhar University estimating numbers of atheists at “several million” and “four million,” respectively.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution specifies Islam as the state religion and the principles of sharia as the main source of legislation.  The constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute” and “the freedom of practicing religious rituals and establishing worship places for the followers of divine [Abrahamic] religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution also states citizens “are equal before the law,” prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, and makes “incitement to hatred” based upon “religion, belief, sex, origin, race…or any other reason” a crime.  The constitution prohibits political activity or the formation of political parties based on religion.  The constitution also states, “No political activity may be engaged in, or political parties formed, on the basis of religion, or discrimination [be permitted] based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location.”

The government officially recognizes Sunni Islam, Christianity, and Judaism and allows only their adherents as defined by the government to publicly practice their religion and build houses of worship.  The constitution defines al-Azhar, the main authority on theology and Islamic affairs, as “an independent scientific Islamic institution with exclusive competence over its own affairs… It is responsible for preaching Islam and disseminating the religious sciences and the Arabic language” worldwide.  Al-Azhar’s Grand Imam is elected by al-Azhar’s Council of Senior Scholars and is officially appointed by the President for a life term.  The President does not have the authority to dismiss him.  The constitution declares al-Azhar to be an independent institution and requires the government to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes.”

According to the law, capital sentences must be referred to the Grand Mufti, the country’s highest Islamic legal official, for consultation before they can be carried out.  The Grand Mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the sentence.

The constitution stipulates the canonical laws of Jews and Christians form the basis of legislation governing their personal status, religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders.  Individuals are subject to different sets of personal status laws (regarding marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) depending upon their official religious designation.  The Ministry of Interior issues national identity cards that include official religious designations.  Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens.  Although the government designates Jehovah’s Witnesses as “Christian” on identity cards, a presidential decree bans their religious activities.  Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is’ religious affiliation is denoted by a dash (“-”) on national identity cards.  The Minister of Interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data national identity cards must list.

Neither the constitution nor the civil or penal codes prohibit apostasy from Islam, nor efforts to proselytize.  The law states individuals may change their religion.  However, the government recognizes conversion to Islam, but generally not from Islam to any other religion.  The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to a Ministry of Interior decree pursuant to a court order.  Reverting to Christianity requires presentation of a document from the receiving church, an identity card, and fingerprints.  After a determination is made that the intent of the change – which often also entails a name change – is not to evade prosecution for a crime committed under the Muslim name, a new identity document is issued with the Christian name and religious designation.  In cases in which Muslims not born Muslim convert from Islam, their minor children, and in some cases adult children who were minors when their parents converted, remain classified as Muslims.  When these children reach the age of 18, they have the option of converting to Christianity and having that reflected on their identity cards.

The law stipulates Muslim women are not permitted to marry non-Muslim men.  Non-Muslim men who wish to marry Muslim women must convert to Islam.  Christian and Jewish women are not required to convert to Islam in order to marry Muslim men.  A married non-Muslim woman who converts to Islam must divorce her husband if he is not Muslim and is unwilling to convert.  If a married man is discovered to have left Islam, his marriage to a woman whose official religious designation is Muslim is dissolved.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 15 and her daughter until she marries.  The children’s father has the right to petition the court to ask the children to choose between staying with their mother or father, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim citizens, with documentation from a cleric, and does not recognize civil marriage between Egyptian citizens.  Marriages of Shia are recognized as Muslim.  The government recognizes civil marriages of Baha’is, as well as of individuals from other unrecognized religious groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and members of the Church of Jesus Christ, if one or both are foreigners.  Authorities deny Baha’is the rights of married couples pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse.  In practice, however, Baha’is have reported occasional success in filing individual petitions for recognition of their marriages in civil court.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance.  In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that personal status matters for Christian and Jewish communities are governed by their respective religious doctrine.

According to the penal code, using religion to promote extremist thought with the aim of inciting strife; demeaning or denigrating Islam, Christianity, or Judaism; or harming national unity carries penalties ranging from six months to five years’ imprisonment.

There are four entities currently authorized to issue fatwas (religious rulings binding on Muslims):  the al-Azhar Council of Senior Scholars, the al-Azhar Islamic Research Academy, the Dar al-Iftaa (House of Religious Edicts), and the Ministry of Awqaf’s (Islamic endowments) General Fatwa Directorate.  While a part of the Ministry of Justice, Dar al-Iftaa has been an independent organization since 2007.

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives previously unrecognized religious groups the right to be governed by their own canonical laws, practice religious rituals, establish houses of worship, and import religious literature.  To obtain official recognition, a religious group must submit a request to the Ministry of the Interior’s Administrative Affairs Department.  The department then determines whether the group poses a threat to national unity or social peace.  As part of this determination, the department consults leading religious institutions, including the Coptic Orthodox Church and al-Azhar.  The President then reviews and adjudicates the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws, and it bans Baha’i institutions and community activities.  The law does not stipulate any penalties for banned religious groups or their members who engage in religious practices, but these groups are barred from rights granted to recognized groups, such as having their own houses of worship or other property, holding bank accounts, or importing religious literature.

The government, through the Ministry of Awqaf, appoints, pays the salaries of, and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques.  According to the law, penalties for preaching or giving religious lessons without a license from the Ministry of Awqaf or al-Azhar include a prison term of up to one year, a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both.  The penalty doubles for repeat offenders.  Ministry of Awqaf inspectors also have judicial authority to arrest imams violating this law.  A ministry decree prevents unlicensed imams from preaching in any mosque, prohibits holding Friday prayers in mosques smaller than 80 square meters (860 square feet), bans unlicensed mosques from holding Friday prayer services (other prayer services are permitted), and pays bonuses to imams who deliver Friday sermons written and disseminated by the Ministry of Awqaf.  Ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques and an imam who fails to follow the guidelines for ministry sermons may lose the bonus and be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.

The Prime Minister has the authority to stop the circulation of books that “denigrate religions.”  Ministries may obtain court orders to ban or confiscate books and works of art.  The cabinet may ban works it deems offensive to public morals, detrimental to religion, or likely to cause a breach of the peace.  The Islamic Research Academy of al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (sunnah) and to confiscate publications, tapes, speeches, and artistic materials deemed inconsistent with Islamic law.

A 2016 law delegates the power to issue legal permits and to authorize church construction or renovation to governors of the country’s 27 governorates.  The governor is to respond within four months of receipt of an application for legalization; any refusal must include a written justification.  The law does not provide for review or appeal of a refusal, nor does it specify recourse if a governor fails to respond within the required timeframe.  The law also includes provisions to legalize existing unlicensed churches.  It stipulates that while a request to license an existing building for use as a church is pending, the use of the building to conduct church services and rites may not be prevented.  Under the law, the size of new churches continues to depend on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area.  Construction of new churches must meet specific land registration procedures and building codes and is subject to greater government scrutiny than that applied to the construction of new mosques.

Under a separate law governing the construction of mosques, the Ministry of Awqaf reviews and approves building permits.  A 2001 cabinet decree includes a list of 10 provisions requiring that new mosques built after that date must, among other conditions, be a minimum of 500 meters (1,640 feet) from the nearest other mosque, have a ground surface of at least 175 square meters (1,900 square feet), and be built only in areas where “the existing mosques do not accommodate the number of residents in the area.”  The law does not require Ministry of Awqaf approval for mosque renovations.

In public schools, Muslim students are required to take courses on “principles of Islam” and Christian students are required to take courses on “principles of Christianity” in all grades.  Schools determine the religious identity of students, and the religious studies courses they should take is based on official identity card designations, not personal or parental decisions.  Students who are neither Muslim nor Christian must choose one or the other course; they may not opt out or change from one to the other once selected.  A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including parochial schools.  Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system that serves an estimated two million students from kindergarten through secondary school using its own curriculum.

The penal code criminalizes discrimination based on religion and defines it as including “any action, or lack of action, that leads to discrimination between people or against a sect due to… religion or belief.”  The law stipulates imprisonment, a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,900) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($3,200), or both, as penalties for discrimination.  If the perpetrator is a public servant, the law states that the imprisonment should be no less than three months and the fine no less than 50,000 pounds ($3,200) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($6,400).

Customary reconciliation is a form of dispute resolution that predates the country’s modern judicial and legal systems and is recognized in the law in instances that do not involve serious crimes (i.e., homicide, serious injury, or theft).  Customary reconciliation sessions rely on the accumulation of a set of customary rules to address conflicts between individuals, families, households, or workers and employees of certain professions.  Parties to disputes agree upon a resolution that typically contains stipulations to pay an agreed-upon amount of money for breaching the terms of the agreement.

In matters of family law, when spouses are members of the same religious denomination, courts apply that denomination’s canonical laws.  In cases where one spouse is Muslim and the other a member of a different religion, both are Christians but members of different denominations, or the individuals are not clearly a part of a religious group, the courts apply sharia.

Sharia provisions forbidding adoption apply to all citizens.  The Ministry of Social Solidarity, however, manages a program called “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain conditions are met, including requirements that the guardians share the same religion as the child and have been married to one another for a minimum of five years.

The quasigovernmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament under a 2016 law, is charged with strengthening protections, raising awareness, and ensuring the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including religious freedom.  It also is charged with monitoring enforcement and application of international agreements pertaining to human rights.  The council’s mandate includes investigating reports of alleged violations of religious freedom.

The 2014 constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament, but the parliament has not yet established such a commission.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but declared in a reservation that it became a party considering that the provisions of the covenant do not conflict with sharia.

Government Practices

Authorities executed Ahmad Saeed Ibrahim al-Sonbati on June 21 for the 2017 killing of Coptic priest Father Samaan Shehata, of the church of Yulius al-Aqfahsi, in the village of Ezbet Girgis in Beni Suef Governorate.  Sonbati’s 2017 death sentence was confirmed by the court of appeals in 2018 and received final approval on November 9, 2020 from the Court of Cassation, the country’s highest court.

In October, the Alexandria Criminal Court sentenced to life in prison brothers Nasser and Ali al-Sambo for the December 2020 killing of Coptic Christian Ramsis Boulos Hermina in Alexandria.  Hermina was attacked in his plastics and household goods shop.  According to press reporting, Nasser and Ali Sambo and their brother Anwar had a reputation in their neighborhood for harassment of Coptic shop owners.

On February 10, the Court of Cassation upheld a 15-year prison sentence for 10 defendants who participated in a 2013 church burning in Kafr Hakim, Giza Governorate.

On October 11, the Court of Cassation dismissed the first appeal submitted by the defendants convicted of the 2013 arson attack on Mar Girgis Church in Sohag city and originally sentenced in 2015 and 2020 by the Criminal Court to 3 to 15 years’ imprisonment.  Authorities charged the defendants with assaulting Christian places of worship, destroying and burning police cars, possession of firearms and ammunition without a license, attempted theft, assaulting public and private property and shops, inciting violence, vandalism, and intimidating citizens.

According to press reporting, the Minya Criminal Court on June 15 sentenced 10 defendants to five-year prison terms on charges of “vandalism, violence, and burning the homes of Coptic citizens” during a 2016 sectarian riot in the village of Karm in Minya Governorate, and acquitted 14 others, citing lack of evidence.  The June 15 court verdicts were linked to a separate attack on Souad Thabet, an elderly Christian woman whom attackers stripped and dragged through the village of Karm during 2016 rioting.  Authorities originally charged four persons with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six other Christian-owned homes in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  In January 2020, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced three defendants in absentia to ten years’ imprisonment for the attack on Thabet.  After the men surrendered, the Minya court returned the case to the Beni Suef Criminal Court for retrial.  When that court acquitted the three defendants in December 2020, the Prosecutor General subsequently filed an appeal with the Court of Cassation in January.  At year’s end, no session had been called to examine the appeal.

BBC Arabic aired an interview on November 25 with Ahmed Abdou Maher, described as a “lawyer, researcher, and writer,” whom a court sentenced on November 17 to five years in prison with hard labor for defaming Islam in his book, How the Imams’ Jurisprudence Is Leading the Nation Astray.  Maher told the interviewer that his book did not include a word of extremism, blasphemy, or incitement against Islam; rather, it only criticized what he called Islam’s “blood-soaked ideology.”  In a separate interview, Abdou told al-Mayadeen TV that the Islamic “nation” was “static,” and that “enlightenment” required courage.  According to media reports, “liberals” defended him and insisted that his prosecution was “a disgrace” and “an assault on freedom of thought and expressions.”  Activists and NGOs responded to the case by calling for the abolition of the country’s blasphemy law, with some estimating there had been 130 cases of blasphemy during the last 10 years, with penalties ranging from six months to five years in prison.

On June 21, the Economic Misdemeanor Appeals Court in Alexandria rejected an appeal submitted on behalf of atheist activist and blogger Anas Hassan of a February 27 verdict sentencing him to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 300,000 pounds ($19,100) for managing “The Egyptian Atheists” Facebook page.  Authorities originally arrested Hassan in 2019 for publishing atheist ideas and criticizing the “divinely revealed religions.”  According to a local civil society group, Hassan’s next court session was set for February 2022.

The detention of human rights advocate Ramy Kamel Saied Salib (commonly known solely as Ramy Kamel) continued.  Authorities originally arrested Salib in November 2019 following his application for a Swiss visa to speak at a UN forum in Geneva, where he had previously presented issues affecting the Coptic community.  The government charged him with joining a banned group and spreading false news.  On October 10 and again on November 27, a Cairo court renewed his detention for 45 days.  Kamel’s defense team said he was subjected to harsh conditions of imprisonment, including solitary confinement, that may have endangered his health.

On October 12 and again on November 27, authorities renewed Quranist Reda Abdel Rahman’s detention.  During the year, the courts heard several appeals submitted by Abdel Rahman’s defense team to release him.  Quranists (Quraniyyun) believe the Quran is the sole source of Islamic law and reject the authenticity and authority of the hadith (the body of sayings and traditions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed).  The NGO EIPR called for Abdel-Rahman’s release and for dropping the charges against him.

In September, the government released four prominent Salafi preachers who were members of a political group arrested in 2019.  Authorities had charged Mahmoud Shaaban, Ashraf Abdel Moneim, Hisham Mashali, and Saad Fayyad with “inciting violence and joining a terrorist group.”  Shortly after their release, the government rearrested Shaaban and charged him with inciting violence, joining a group seeking to disrupt the country’s constitution and laws, and harming social peace.  His case remained pending at year’s end.

On September 8, social media activists posted videos of the demolition of a 4,300-square-foot unlicensed church building in the village of Bastra, Beheira Governorate.  As reported by the Coptic newspaper Watani, the city council in Beheira’s capital Damanhour implemented the removal order in cooperation with local security forces.  Clashes between parishioners and security forces as the demolition order was carried out resulted in at least four injuries and the arrest of 21 Coptic protestors, who were subsequently released; no interreligious community violence was reported because of the building’s demolition.  Observers, including Coptic Church officials, and administrators blamed local clergy for not having gone through official registration channels to erect the building.

On November 8, al-Azhar Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb and Coptic Pope Tawadros II hosted a celebration marking the 10th anniversary of the government-sponsored Family House (Beit al-’Aila), a foundation established after the 2011 suicide bombing at Alexandria’s All Saints Church.  Family House’s mission is “preserving the fabric of Muslim-Christian unity within Egyptian society and upholding the principles of coexistence and tolerance,” principally through communal reconciliation efforts.  Former president Adly Mansour attended, as did the Minister of Justice, who delivered a speech on behalf of the Prime Minister.  In remarks at the event, al-Tayyeb said that freedom of religion was “one of the most precious human rights.”  According to press reporting, Tawadros II said at the event, “God did not grant religion to man for the sake of rivalry, but rather for the sake of cooperation.”  Muslim and Christian religious leaders said Family House was very active in some areas, such as Assiut Governorate, while in others, such as Cairo and Alexandria, it was much less engaged.

While the Coptic Orthodox Church did not bar participation in government-sponsored customary reconciliation sessions, a Church spokesperson said reconciliation sessions should not be used in lieu of the application of the law and should be restricted to “clearing the air and making amends” following sectarian disputes or violence.  At least one Coptic Orthodox diocese in Upper Egypt continued to refuse to participate in reconciliation sessions, criticizing them as substitutes for criminal proceedings rather than a means of addressing attacks on Christians and their churches.  Other Christian denominations continued to participate in customary reconciliation sessions.  Human rights groups and some Christian community representatives characterized reconciliation sessions as encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and that Christian participants were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading in some cases to the dropping of criminal charges.

Some Christian expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly did not declare Easter, May 2, as an official holiday for state workers.  Instead, he announced it would be a day off from work in order to prevent overcrowding during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Citing the article (No. 53) in the constitution that says that the state shall take all necessary measures to eliminate discrimination, human rights activists said that basic religious holidays should be official ones for all citizens and should be referred to as such.  The government had not previously designated Easter as a holiday.

Efforts to combat atheism received official support.  In 2019, al-Azhar founded a Bayan (Declaration) Unit in its Center for Electronic Fatwa to “counter atheism” and prevent youth from “falling into disbelief.”  As of the end of the year, the unit remained active.  During the year, its activities included posting more than 15,000 social media comments intended to refute atheist opinions.

On October 18, the Supreme Administrative Court postponed hearing an appeal filed by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (NTRA) against an administrative court’s 2020 ruling that obligated the NTRA to block Shia websites in general, and the Ibn al-Nafis news website in particular, from the internet, until a November 15 hearing.  The case was pending at year’s end.

In August, a religious leader in the Presbyterian community said police stopped dozens of converts on their way to a church retreat, confiscated IDs, and detained and interrogated some parishioners.  While all detainees were ultimately released, the leader said many continued to be subject to harassment and occasional detention.

EIPR called on September 9 for the release of Coptic Christian Gerges Samih Zaki Ebeid and the dropping of charges against him for having written a post on his personal Facebook account described by villagers, social media commenters, and prosecutors as offensive to Islam.  On September 7 and again on November 24, a court renewed Samih’s detention for 45 days, pending an investigation into allegations he had joined a terrorist group, spread false news with the aim of disturbing the public peace, and used an online account with the intention of committing a crime.  Authorities arrested Samih in Delta Governorate in November 2020 following sectarian violence in the village of al-Barsha, in Mallawy District of southern Minya Governorate that had resulted from the Facebook post.  Following interreligious clashes, the Minya Public Prosecutor detained 35 defendants, including 15 Copts and 20 Muslims, for 15 days pending investigations, releasing them on January 12, pending further questioning.

Members of the country’s Shia community said that they risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought.

The government has designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization (the government in 2013 banned the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party).  On June 14, the Court of Cassation upheld death sentences for 12 senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders including Mohamed al-Beltagy, Safwat Hegazy, and Abdel-Rahman al-Bar, following a mass trial of 739 persons for their participation in large-scale antigovernment sit-ins in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in July and August 2013.  On July 11, the Cassation Court upheld the 2019 sentencing of 10 Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the group’s Supreme Guide, Mohammed Badie, to life imprisonment on charges of “killing policemen, organizing mass jail breaks, and undermining national security by conspiring with foreign militant groups, including Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah” during unrest in 2011.  On April 8, a court sentenced Mahmoud Ezzat, former acting Supreme Guide, to life in prison.  Media reported the court convicted Ezzat on terrorism-related charges stemming from 2013 clashes between Brotherhood supporters and their opponents in Cairo.  In an April 8 statement, the Brotherhood denounced the verdict as politicized and based upon fabrications and described Ezzat as a “devoted religious leader.”

On July 12, the parliament passed legislation, signed into law by the President on August 1, that allowed the dismissal of any public employee found to have undermined national security, or whom the government has listed as a member of a terrorist organization.  Press and NGOs said the new law targeted the Muslim Brotherhood.  On July 26, the Supreme Council of Universities directed university presidents in the country to prepare and submit lists of employees covered by the new law, for submission after the law took effect.  In September, press reported the country’s railway authority had removed approximately 190 employees for alleged Muslim Brotherhood ties.

In August, the Ministry of Awqaf issued an order banning books relating to extremism and the Muslim Brotherhood from all mosque libraries.  The director of the religious sector at the ministry alerted its directorates in all governorates to review books, magazines and publications in mosque libraries and remove any items that were found to include “extremist ideology.”  In a statement, Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa directed the punishment of any official neglecting these orders.  The ministry’s order also warned imams to not include any books in mosque libraries without permission from the ministry’s office responsible for religious guidance.

In November 2020, the Supreme Administrative Court added Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, leader of the Strong Egypt Party, to a list of designated terrorists, based on a charge that the party was affiliated with an Islamist group.  The court dismissed an appeal submitted by Aboul Fotouh on November 18.

In December, authorities banned Shia activist Haidar Kanil, a reporter for al-Dustour newspaper, from travelling to Moscow where he said he planned to seek employment.  Kandil told the news website The New Arab that police required him to check in on a weekly basis in his hometown, Tanta city.  He said officials accused him of contempt of religion, spreading Shiism and anti-state ideas, and establishing a group in violation of the law.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa directed the punishment of any official neglecting these orders.  The ministry’s order also warned imams to not include any books in mosque libraries without permission from the ministry’s office responsible for religious guidance.

At year’s end, authorities continued to detain Ahmed Sebaie, who was arrested in 2020 after posting a video on his YouTube channel that discussed the Bible and Christian doctrine.  More than 400,000 subscribers followed Sebaie’s YouTube account, which focuses on religion.  In the past, he produced videos in which he discussed Christian doctrinal issues, commented on social media posts of atheists, and promoted Islam.

On June 28, the Ministry of Awqaf banned Alaa Mohammed Hussein Yaqoub, son of a prominent Salafi imam and preacher, from preaching at mosques, ostensibly for having failed to adhere to sermon length and content guidelines.  The ban came after Alaa Yaqoub’s father, Mohammed Hussein Yaqoub, testified for the government in a terrorism case before a Cairo court, denying that he was a religious scholar and criticizing Salafism.  The press said that Mohammed Yaqoub’s testimony, which appeared to contradict many years of preaching, resulted in “widescale controversy.”  Al Masry al-Youm reported that, as a result of the testimony, a member of parliament introduced legislation to prevent nonspecialists from speaking in religious matters or issuing fatwas.  Alaa Yaqoub said he would comply fully with the government’s order banning him from preaching.

On January 17, the Court of Urgent Matters in Egypt accepted a lawsuit filed by the head of the Judiciary’s Committee for Inventory, Seizure, and Management of Terrorist Funds aimed at seizing assets belonging to 89 members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood – including family members of the late former president Mohammed Morsi – and transfer them to the state treasury.

On September 18, the Awqaf Minister ordered the dismissal of the undersecretary of the Ministry of Awqaf in Ismailia after a quarrel with worshipers at al-Matafy Mosque.  The undersecretary reportedly angered some of the worshipers by describing them as extremists during a sermon, leading to an altercation with worshipers following his address.

On September 25, local media reported the Supreme Administrative Court issued a final verdict that banned the use of mosques for political purposes and upheld the state’s right to supervise them.  This ruling upheld a previous decision by the Minister of Awqaf to place 42 mosques in Beheira Governorate under the ministry’s supervision.

Local media reported in October that a new prison complex at Wadi al-Natroun included a church, making it the first in the country to include church facilities.  Media reported Christian clergy previously had to conduct prison services in multipurpose rooms.  The government said publicly that clergy were allowed inside prisons to perform services for inmates during Copts’ celebration of Christmas on January 8.  According to the NGO Arab Network for Human Rights Information, on January 1, imprisoned labor activist Khalil Rizk asked a warden of Tora Prison for permission to attend upcoming Coptic Christmas services.  Although authorities told Rizk his request had been approved, they did not allow him to attend Christmas prayers or allow a priest to visit him.

The government largely continued to allow Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Shia Muslims to worship privately in small numbers, but it continued to deny requests for public religious gatherings by unregistered religious groups.

Baha’is were subject to inconsistent application of administrative court rulings recognizing marriages.  Members of the community reported that members whose marriages the state formally recognized were occasionally subject to government appeals seeking to overturn that recognition.

Shia community sources and religious freedom observers stated that information contained in a 2019 report by Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), an international NGO, on challenges facing the country’s Shia community remained valid in 2021.  The MRGI report stated that there continued to be no Shia congregational halls (husseiniyas) in the country and Shia Muslims remained unable to establish public places of worship.  Members of the Shia community risked accusations of blasphemy for publicly voicing their religious opinions, praying in public, or owning books promoting Shia thought.

Based on 2020 Supreme Administrative Court verdicts banning faculty and teaching staff at Cairo and Ain Shams Universities from wearing the niqab in class, a lawyer filed an October 5 lawsuit before an administrative court to obligate the Minister of Education to issue a decision banning the wearing of the niqab for teachers, students, workers, and administrators in public, private, and international schools.  According to the memo submitted to the court in support of the suit, criminals wearing the niqab had taken advantage of the anonymity it affords to commit crimes, including terrorist attacks.  The case remained pending at year’s end.

According to analysis by the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, an international NGO focused on human rights, the government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and authorized customs officials to confiscate religious materials from these groups’ adherents.

On July 9, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that a broad array of antisemitic books continued to be exhibited among the materials hosted at the state-run book fair, “including the notorious antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”  The ADL noted that it had raised the Cairo Book Fair’s sale of antisemitic titles with government representatives in previous years.  The NGO said that the 2021 book fair, which began on June 30, continued to sell every problematic book sold at the 2020 fair that the ADL had identified in its earlier communications with the government.

The Mansoura Emergency State Security Misdemeanors Court ordered on December 7 the release of EIPR researcher Patrick George Zaki after 22 months of pretrial detention, pending an investigation on charges of “spreading false news” following a 2019 article Zaki wrote on anti-Coptic discrimination.  The court set February 1, 2022 as the next hearing date in Zaki’s case.

The Coptic Papal Office, local bishoprics, and Coptic media expressed positive views about the pace of church registration and construction five years after passage of the 2016 Church Construction Law.  EIPR, however, listed 25 cases in which churches and worship places had been closed after the passage of the 2016 law, and called for new legislation guaranteeing freedom of religious practice and the building of places of worship for all citizens.

In a November 7 statement, a cabinet committee tasked with registering unlicensed churches approved the legalization of 63 churches and church facilities that had been operating without a permit, bringing the total number of churches and service buildings granted legal status since 2017 to 2,021.  In November, the Prime Minister ordered governorates to accelerate permits and to send him periodic reports on their progress.

In August, the Ministry of Awqaf said that 1,650 mosques had been opened since September 2020, including 1,510 new mosques, while 140 underwent maintenance or restoration.  The construction and renovation work, implemented under the supervision of the regional directorates, brought the number of new or refurbished mosques between September 7, 2020 and August 27 to 1,810.

Local media reported pharaonic inscriptions on the facade of the Ibrahim Abdel Latif Mosque, located in the Youssef al-Siddiq Center in village of Nazla, Fayoum Governorate, sparked controversy in September.  Local media said the community had paid to construct the mosque, but the inscriptions had escaped the notice of the Awqaf Ministry’s engineering department (which limits mosque inscriptions to Islamic themes or text).  An engineer in the engineering department of the Fayoum Awqaf Directorate was being investigated.

On January 5, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities opened the first stop on the 2,100-mile Holy Family Trail – marking the route believers hold was taken by Mary, Joseph, and Jesus – in Samannoud, Gharbeya Governorate.  Development projects in Samannoud included the conservation and restoration of St. Abba Noub Church and the surrounding area.  The ministry announced the project in 2020, stating the trail would run from Sinai to Assiut, including stops at churches, monasteries, and water wells.

On July 24, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi directed the renovation of the shrines of Ahl al-Bayt (the family of the Prophet Muhammad) across the country, particularly the tombs of Sayyida Nafisa (Muhammad’s great-granddaughter), Sayyida Zeinab (Muhammad’s granddaughter), and Sayyid al-Hussein (Muhammad’s grandson), including the restoration of the interior halls of mosques at these sites and their architectural details.

In November, the Ministry of Awqaf issued a decision that banned the use of collection boxes in mosques.  The boxes often are used for donations for mosque repair and upkeep, provision of social services, and charitable endeavors.  Authorities said the decision was driven by security and transparency concerns.  After the government’s initial announcement, the ministry stated an exception would be made for mosques belonging to Sufi orders, which have “vows” collection boxes, used for donations made if a worshiper believes God has answered a prayer.

On February 14, Deputy Minister of Education Reda Hegazy announced in parliament that the ministry supported a proposal by Member of Parliament Freddy al-Bayadi advancing school curriculum that highlighted the common values shared by Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, and the principles of tolerance, citizenship, and coexistence.  Sources in parliament stated that schools were gradually updating curricula to include messages of interreligious tolerance, although al-Bayadi’s proposal progressed no further in the chamber by year’s end.  According to news websites, Hegazy also said that there were new government instructions to remove Quranic verses from the general curriculum and restrict them to religious courses.  He explained that including religious texts in courses such as Arabic, history, and geography allowed unqualified teachers to provide “an extremist and destructive” interpretation of the texts.  A former senior Ministry of Awqaf official responded that the measure represented “a plan to alter Egypt’s Islamic identity” and that President Sisi “has used all his media outlets to attack al-Azhar, its grand sheikh, and Islam.”  The Salafist al-Nour Party said that the removal of Quranic texts from the general curriculum was “unacceptable.”

In December, parliament debated a bill intended to support the use of Standard Arabic, the Quranic form of the language.  During the debate, a representative of al-Azhar expressed support for the proposed legislation’s requirement that elementary school students memorize Quranic verses.  Yousef al-Husseini, a member of the House of Representatives, said, “There are non-Muslim students like Copts who should not be forced to memorize the Quran.”  In a statement, al-Azhar said, “The call to remove Quranic texts from the Arabic language subject is an explicit call to distance students from their religion and values and to cut them off from their language, culture, and identity, as it opens the door to destructive ideas and interpretations.”

The Ministry of Education and Technical Education continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In 2020, third grade students began using revised textbooks, including the book Values and Respect for Others, an ethics text drawn from Islamic and Christian religious traditions.  For the 2021/2022 academic year, use of the text expanded to first and second grade classes.

On March 9, the Jerusalem Post reported the Ministry of Education for the first time approved a measure that allowed Egyptian children to study verses from Jewish scripture.

On January 2, TV anchor and journalist Ibrahim Issa cited a lack of “adequate references” to Christian history in educational curricula, except for material dealing with monasticism, monasteries, and participation in the 1919 Revolution.  In June, Pope Tawadros II called on the Ministry of Education to include information on the route of the Holy Family in its curricula, calling the history of the flight to Egypt a source of “pride for any Egyptian.”  The Minister of Education pledged to study the Pope’s proposal “within the general framework of the new curricula in the ministry.”

In early September, the Ministry of Social Solidarity (MOSS) released a statement reinforcing a Dar al-Iftaa fatwa calling on preschools to stop posting verses from the Quran or the Bible over their entrances.  The fatwa and statement followed the viral spread via social media of a photo of a nursery gate that featured a Quranic verse that had been taken out of context and contained grammatical errors.  MOSS’s statement stressed, moreover, “Egypt is a home for everyone,” and said that the inclusion of religious verses could be construed to indicate that specific schools or nurseries only catered to Muslims or Christians, respectively.

Christians reported being underrepresented in the military and security services, and they stated that those admitted at entry levels of government face limited opportunities for promotion to the upper ranks.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 27 public universities.  The government barred non-Muslims from employment in public university training programs for Arabic-language teachers, stating as its reason that the curriculum involved study of the Quran.

The Minister of Immigration and Expatriate Affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet, which consists of 32 ministers.  Among the 27 governorates, only Damietta and Ismailia had Christian governors.  The governor of Damietta was the country’s first female Christian governor.  The electoral laws reserve 24 seats for Christian candidates in the House of Representatives.  During the year, the House of Representatives exceeded the quota, with 31 Christians, out of a total of 596 representatives.  There were a total of 24 Christian senators – 17 elected, and seven appointed by President Sisi – out of 300 seats in that chamber, including the Deputy Speaker.  Observers stated that President Sisi also had several senior Christian advisors.

Some Shia stated they were excluded from service in the armed services, and from employment in the security and intelligence services.

The government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country.  Sources continued to report, however, that some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

On March 1, the President issued a decree forming Boards of Directors of endowment bodies for the Catholic Church and Protestant churches of Egypt.  The decree followed passage of a law in parliament intended to give the Catholic and Protestant communities equal status to the Coptic Orthodox Church.

On August 22, local NGOs reported that the Supreme Judicial Council – the highest administrative body for the country’s judiciary and headed by the President of the Court of Cassation – approved a request by the Prosecutor General to transfer 11 female judges, including one Copt, to work in the public prosecutor’s office for the judicial year beginning in September.  On August 5, the Official Gazette published two presidential decisions appointing assistant delegates to the State Council – an independent body that rules on mainly administrative matters involving the country’s judiciary – from among 2016 and 2017 law school graduates.  According to EIPR researchers, the first decision included three Copts out of 204 delegates, or 1.5 percent.  The second decision included three Copts out of 207 delegates, or 1.4 percent.

Grand Imam al-Tayyeb made multiple public references to the Document on Human Fraternity for World Peace and Coexistence, which he signed with Pope Francis in 2019, as a framework for “a world full of prosperity, tolerance, peace, and love.”  Al-Tayyeb and Pope Francis met in person and discussed the initiatives resulting from the document on October 4 following a Vatican-hosted summit entitled “Faith and Science:  Towards COP26,” alongside other world faith leaders.

Al-Azhar continued tracking and countering online statements by ISIS and other extremist groups through the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism.  The observatory’s staff of approximately 100 individuals monitored and offered counterarguments to religious statements on jihadi websites.  The center’s website and social media employed numerous languages to reach foreign audiences, including English, Arabic, Urdu, Swahili, Chinese, and Farsi.  Al-Azhar, through the al-Azhar International Academy, also continued to offer courses to imams and preachers in 20 countries on a wide range of subjects related to Islam.  Al-Azhar largely curtailed travel and in-person training during the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic but continued to offer training virtually.

In May, the government announced it would include all civilians who lost their lives to terrorist operations since January 2014 among those eligible for government aid via the 2018 official Fund for Honoring Martyrs, Victims, Missing Persons, and Injured in Terror and Security Operations, and their Families.  The list of those eligible for aid included the families of 1,260 civilians killed and 1,804 civilians injured in terrorist attacks targeting religious minorities.

During an August 3 meeting with participants in a conference organized by Dar al-Iftaa, “Fatwa Institutions in the Digital Age,” President Sisi said that scholars needed to confront electronic platforms spreading false ideas that distorted the essence of Islam and exploited religion to achieve political goals through terrorism.  During an August 24 television interview, the President said, “We are all born Muslim and non-Muslim according to our ID cards, but we realize that we have to reformulate our understanding of the belief that we follow.”  On September 11, during the launch ceremony of the National Human Rights Strategy, President Sisi asked, “Why are you upset to see a church or a synagogue?  The state has moved to face this matter effectively and ensures the respect of all religions through laws.”  He added, “I respect nonbelievers.  If someone tells me [he or she is] neither Muslim nor Christian nor a Jew or that he or she does not believe in religion, I would tell them, you are free to choose.”  Sisi also said, “And it is not because I am not protective of my religion.  I am.  And that is why I respect the will of nonbelievers, which is based on freedom of belief – a God-given right.”  On social media, some users criticized Sisi for normalizing the acceptance of individuals who do not believe in God, saying this attitude was unacceptable to much of the Muslim majority in the country.  On October 17, marking the celebration of Mawlid al-Nabi (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday), Sisi urged religious institutions and scholars to intensify their efforts to spread values of tolerance, intellectual diversity, and acceptance of others.

The National Strategy for Human Rights contained a section dedicated to “Freedom of Religion and Belief” that noted several steps the government had taken in recent years, including the establishment of a National Council for Combating Terrorism and Extremism and the Supreme Committee for Combating Sectarian Incidents as well as the Ministry of Higher Education’s strategy against extremism and takfiri (declaring someone a nonbeliever) ideology at the country’s universities.  It stated that the Ministry of Awqaf dedicated some Friday sermons to promote tolerance and combat violence and hatred.  The document also noted efforts by al-Azhar, the Dar al-Iftaa, and Christian churches to promote intercommunal understanding.  The strategy stated the government frequently promoted interfaith dialogue.

On January 24, the Grand Mufti issued a fatwa permitting Muslims to work in church construction in exchange for a salary, a ruling that sparked controversy on social media.  Activists recalled previous 2013 fatwas on Salafist websites prohibiting such employment.  Dar al-Iftaa based the more recent decision on an earlier ruling by Imam Abu Hanifa in which he stated that such work was permissible and was an obligation unless it involves the humiliation of a Muslim or required him to consent to anything that contradicted Islamic theology.  Some media interpreted the fatwa as giving Muslims permission to contribute to the ongoing or planned construction/restoration of churches throughout the country.

On October 13, while addressing a workshop that trained religious leaders to raise awareness of women’s issues, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa said a pilot program involving female preachers and nuns set an outstanding model of national action, which, he added, was an approach adopted by the ministry in partnership with churches and the National Council for Women.  Gomaa said that women’s equality was a religious, national, and humanitarian obligation.  According to local press, in September, the number of female preachers was 304, including 251 female volunteers and 53 female mentors appointed by the ministry.

The cabinet’s media center released a documentary that promoted the values of citizenship, loyalty, nondiscrimination, and equality between Muslims and Christians.  The documentary highlighted the importance of strengthening these values in preserving the country’s security and stability, as well as of countering attempts to sow sedition within communities, according to a statement released by the center on January 7.

On January 9, the al-Azhar Observatory for Combating Extremism issued a report in 12 languages under the title Religious Freedom:  An Authentic Islamic Principle.  The observatory stated in the report that religious freedom was one of the most important principles of Islam.  On May 5, the Grand Imam said, “Congratulating non-Muslims on their holidays and their joys and comforting them in their misfortune…[is] the righteousness that Islam command[s].”

On August 11, President Sisi extended the term of Grand Mufti Shawky Allam by a year by presidential decree.  The President issued a separate but related decree the same week that designated the Dar al-Iftaa as a “special entity” not subject to the provisions of the civil service law.  Some observers said that these decrees redistributed power traditionally vested in the Council of Islamic Scholars to the President.  In July, a proposed law sought to make Dar al-Iftaa and the Grand Mufti independent of al-Azhar.  Sources told the press that the main objective of the proposed law was to create a parallel entity to al-Azhar under the direct control of the government.  Under its terms, the President would have had the right to appoint the Grand Mufti.  The State Council ruled the draft law unconstitutional, after which it was withdrawn by the government.

On September 14, after the launch of the National Strategy on Human Rights, the Minister of Awqaf announced his intention to establish a human rights unit to enact provisions of the strategy.  The unit, according to the statement, will work to promote the values of citizenship and religious tolerance, contribute to social protection and community service programs, and fulfill the rights of people with disabilities (for example, incorporating sign language during weekly sermons).

On March 7, EIPR filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Coptic woman with the Supreme Constitutional Court regarding the constitutionality of requiring Christian citizens to apply the rules of sharia in inheritance matters.  The lawsuit maintained that this requirement violated Article 3 of the constitution, which permits the canonical laws of religious minorities to prevail in civil matters.  Defendants in the lawsuit included the President, Prime Minister, Minister of Justice, and Speaker of Parliament.  On September 12, the court’s board of commissioners examined the case and on November 14, the court referred the case to the Constitutional Court to set a date for further review.  The case remained pending at year’s end.

On December 4, the news website Cairo 24.com reported that that the Ministry of Justice completed drafting the Family Law (Personal Status for Christians) after representatives of Christian denominations agreed on its text during meetings earlier in the year.  On July 4, a representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church announced completion of a review of the draft law in the Ministry of Justice after 16 sessions that brought together ministry officials with representatives of Christian denominations to agree on its articles.  In September, the newspaper Al-Dustour reported the draft law would be introduced in parliament, after other Christian churches expressed support.  In December, the ministry sent the draft law to the cabinet for approval.  At year’s end, the cabinet had not submitted the draft legislation to the House of Representatives.

There was public debate and court challenges on the issue of listing religions on the national ID.  Coptic human rights attorneys filed a lawsuit on August 25 demanding the Civil Status Department of the Ministry of Interior remove the “religion” field from the national ID card.  Referring to what it said was the positive atmosphere of religious unity promoted by the Sisi government, the lawsuit stated that some persons still used the religious designator on ID cards to discriminate against religious minorities.  During a panel discussion in September, journalist Ibrahim Eissa called for religion to be removed from citizens’ ID cards.  Justice Minister Omar Marwan responded that “there must be some form of official documentation of citizens’ religion” to ensure laws and services that were specific to one’s religion were properly provided.

On December 27, the Alexandria Administrative Court dismissed a lawsuit brought in January by EIPR on behalf of a group of Baha’i citizens in Alexandria seeking to have the government designate a cemetery for those whose national ID cards showed a “-” (meaning no selection) under religious affiliation.  The government cited opinions from al-Azhar that, despite earlier rulings and practices, said it was impermissible to allocate a plot of land for individuals who were not Muslims, Christians, or Jews.  Bassatine Cemetery in Cairo, which members of the Baha’i community described as overcrowded and inconveniently distant for Baha’is living outside Cairo, remained the only cemetery in the country where Baha’is could be buried.  EIPR said it planned to appeal the decision.

In June, the ADL reported that it had completed a review of elementary, middle, and high school textbooks as part of an examination of antisemitic content in state-published curricula.  The ADL stated that although the country’s most recent textbooks contained some positive material about the Jewish people, that content was “directly contradicted by other, much more problematic lessons in the curriculum.”  The report cited one fifth grade textbook that teaches taught students that “the treachery of the Jews” was “one of their traits” and that Jews “betrayed God and his Prophet.”

The press reported that on June 29 the al-Azhar International Center for Electronic Fatwas warned against the online video game Fortnite, saying it contained a portrayal of the destruction of the Kaaba, the center of the Great Mosque in Mecca.  The game’s designers posted a statement on Facebook that said they respected all religious faiths and that the problematic content was made by an independent player in “creative mode.”

On June 20, President Sisi met with Sultan Mufadal Saifuddin, head of the Bohra branch of Ismaili Shia Islam.  According to press reporting, the President noted the country’s close ties with Bohra Ismailis and thanked the group for its help in restoring several historic mosques and shrines in the country.

On March 16, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa said that the President and government had always called for the export of moderate Islam to Africa.  Gomaa said that the government had regularly sent imams and preachers to many African countries, stressing that the government placed great importance on countering extremism.  On August 2, al-Azhar announced a training course on countering extremism for 23 imams and preachers from Mali.  On August 10 after a meeting with the ambassador from Senegal, Grand Imam al-Tayyeb, said that al-Azhar was ready to establish a similar institution in Senegal, while confirming that 350 Senegalese students were currently studying at al-Azhar, which had sent 41 teachers to Senegal.  In separate statements in June and August, al-Azhar said it would step up efforts to train imams in Pakistan and Russia.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Terrorist groups, including Islamic State-Sinai Peninsula (or ISIS-SP, formerly known as Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis), continued sporadic attacks on government, civilian, and security targets in the North Sinai Governorate.  According to an international NGO, at least 26 civilian deaths, 51 security force deaths, and 31 terrorist deaths occurred in the conflict in Sinai between January and July.  According to an ISIS media affiliate, ISIS-SP claimed 101 attacks resulting in 206 casualties during the year.

In April, ISIS-SP released a video that documented the killing of Nabil Habashi, a local Coptic Christian and cofounder of the only church in the district of Bir al-Abd, one of the focal points of ISIS-SP operations.  ISIS-SP kidnapped Habashi in November 2020, using the justification of “Christian support for the Egyptian military and state” and held him for ransom until killing him in February.  Pope Tawadros II released a statement mourning the “faithful son and servant” Habashi, offering condolences to his family and church, and “saluting the heroes of the Egyptian military and police.”  EIPR characterized the killing as a “murder based on religious identity.”

On July 27, Shenouda Salah Asaad, a Copt, was stabbed to death, allegedly by a Salafist neighbor, in al-Qusiyah, Assiut Governorate.  Salah’s wife was injured and hospitalized.  The investigative police in al-Qusiyah reportedly intensified efforts to arrest the perpetrator.  At year’s end, there had been no official confirmation of his apprehension.

In April, sectarian clashes in al-Mudmar village in Sohag Governorate resulted in at least one death and six injuries that required hospitalization.  Witnesses in al-Mudmar said that the events began with a dispute between two Copts, and later drew in a Muslim would-be mediator.  Following the violence, security forces moved into the village.  Eyewitness residents said the village generally experienced amicable relations between Muslims and Christians.

On October 11, local media reported that a female pharmacist working in Sharqia Governorate accused her coworkers of assaulting, harassing, and persecuting her for her decision not to wear a hijab.  The pharmacist filed a report with the Zagazig District police department against her colleagues, prompting the Governor of Sharqia to offer support, pending investigation by the prosecution.  The pharmacist also appealed to the Pharmacists Syndicate to intervene, and one of her colleagues documented the alleged assault in her workplace with a video that was widely circulated on Facebook.  One week after the pharmacist’s complaint, the Supreme State Security Prosecution ordered her detained for 15 days pending investigation on charges of “joining a terrorist group and spreading false news.”  In November and again on December 21, the State Security Prosecution Office extended the pharmacist’s detention by 15 days.  The pharmacist remained in detention at year’s end.

In September, the press reported that two doctors and another employee at a Cairo hospital had anonymously posted a video to social media of them bullying a nurse and demanding that he kneel and pray to a dog.  The nurse stated that it would be a sin for all of them if he complied.  The press reported that there was a “wave of indignation on social media.”   The Ministry of Health later said that it fired the senior doctor; the country’s Prosecutor General ordered the three men detained, pending an investigation on charges of bullying, abuse of power, and contempt of religion.  The case was referred to a criminal court, which sentenced the three to two years in prison in October.

Religious discrimination in private sector hiring continued, according to human rights groups and religious communities.

A July report by the NGO Coptic Solidarity stated that out of 141 athletes on the national Olympic team that competed in the 2020 Tokyo games (held in 2021), only one was a Copt.  The Olympic teams in 2012 and 2016 had similar breakdowns, which the NGO stated was due to “entrenched, deep-rooted, systematic, and systemic discrimination against the Copts.”

In February, Al-Monitor, a news website, reported that Christian soccer players formed a team, Je Suis Club, in 2016 to provide Christians playing opportunities.  The report stated that the main Egyptian teams, including Zamalek, Ahli, Ismaili, and the Alexandria Union, had only Muslim players on their rosters.

During a nationally broadcast television program, an al-Azhar University professor responded to the beating of a woman by her husband by saying that women tended to exaggerate when complaining, that no man would resort to this degree of violence unless strongly provoked, and that wives were guilty of bringing domestic violence upon themselves.  A local advocacy group for battered spouses posted the video on social media, criticizing the downplaying of spousal abuse by a member of the country’s religious establishment.  One of the professor’s female colleagues at al-Azhar’s Tadwein Center for Gender Studies denounced the professor’s televised statements and said Islam did not justify violence against women under any circumstances.

Reuters reported the country’s first all-female Muslim recitation choir, al-Hour, was challenging “deep-rooted taboos about women singing in public or reciting from the Quran.”  Al-Hour founder Nemaa Fathi said, “Having women in the Muslim religious chanting field not only breaks social stereotypes about female chanters.  It also gives a new, distinctive style to an art that has long been dominated by only men.”

The press reported that a video of a girls’ choir singing Christian hymns on the Cairo Metro was extensively reposted after initially having been posted by Nabila Makram, a Copt and Minister of Emigration and Expatriate Affairs.  One human rights lawyer characterized the singing as courageous, adding, “The reality is that Egyptian society is intolerant of Christians’ public expression of faith.”

In June, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar welcomed a proposal to establish a center in Egypt for Islamic studies, presented to him by a delegation from the Anglican Episcopal Church. The proposal was the first of its kind in the history of relations between al-Azhar and the Church.  Also included in the proposal were the establishment of an Islamic library, in cooperation with al-Azhar University.

In November, Patriarch Theodore II of Alexandria and All Africa inaugurated the Patriarchal Center for Studies and Dialogue in the Holy Monastery of St. Georgios in Cairo as a new center for interfaith and intercultural dialogue.

In October, the Syndicate of Musical Professions in Egypt issued a decision banning its members from dealing with Egyptian rapper Marwan Pablo due to his having “defiled a religious invocation” during a concert in New Cairo.  In a statement, the syndicate said that Marwan “repeated a well-known religious invocation but that he replaced its words with vulgarity and emptied it of its moral content.”

According to a January 8 report on Al-Monitor, following a decision by the Government of Pakistan to ban the release of a British film, The Lady of Heaven, a number of social media activists, Islamic scholars, and Salafist imams called for a ban on screening the film in Egypt.  They urged the issuance of fatwas prohibiting the viewing of the film and sent demands to the United Kingdom to stop the international distribution of the movie.  According to press, the film portrayed the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter Fatima, who also was the wife of Ali, fourth caliph of Sunni Muslims and first imam of Shia Muslims.  Several newspapers reported that the film featured the voice of the Prophet Muhammad as a narrator in the film.

On April 3, 22 royal mummies and 17 sarcophagi were transferred from the Egyptian Museum, in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to the National Museum of Egyptian Civilizations, also in Cairo.  During the transfer, prominent actors and actresses portrayed figures from the history of Egyptian civilizations, including the centuries-long coexistence of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – including prominent scenes within churches and synagogues.

The research and consulting firm PSB took a June poll of youth between the ages of 17 and 24 in 17 Arab states and reported 24 percent of Egyptian respondents said that their religion was the most important factor in their personal identity, which was lower than the regionwide result of 34 percent.  Other choices offered by the poll as possible responses included family/tribe, nationality, Arabic heritage, political beliefs, language, and gender.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Ambassador, other embassy officials, and other senior Administration officials, regularly raised religious freedom concerns with senior government officials.  The Ambassador and other embassy representatives discussed church legalization and construction, preservation of Jewish cultural heritage and sites, interfaith dialogue, and countering religious extremism with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, members of parliament, regional governors, senior religious leaders, and civil society and minority religious groups.  In these meetings, embassy officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised issues including alleged harassment of religious converts; prospective changes to Egypt’s Personal Status Law; recognition of Baha’is, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Church of Jesus Christ; access to Jewish communal archives; and the use of religious designations on national identity cards.

Throughout the year, embassy representatives met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of al-Azhar; Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II; bishops and senior pastors of Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican Churches; and members of the Jewish community.  In these meetings, embassy staff members discussed cases in which administrative courts applied inconsistent or discriminatory standards to members of unrecognized religious minorities; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination via the continued inclusion of religious designations on national identity cards.  They also discussed progress on religious freedom issues such as continued issuance of permits for and new construction of churches, political support for Christian and Jewish communities, and the protection and restoration of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious sites.

U.S. officials met with human rights activists and religious and community leaders to discuss contemporary incidents of sectarian conflict and gather information to raise in meetings with government officials.  Embassy officials on several occasions attended court hearings or submitted letters to court officials expressing official interest in cases of Egyptians held in pretrial confinement based on religious statements or writings.

On April 18, following a five-year restoration project implemented through U.S. funding, the Ambassador attended the reopening of the country’s largest mausoleum dome:  the tomb of Imam Abu Abdullah Mohammed bin Idris al-Shafie, the founder of the Shafie school of Islamic jurisprudence.  On August 28, the Ambassador toured Sohag Governorate’s Red and White Monasteries – 3rd Century monastic churches that are among the best preserved of their kind in the country – where he met with church officials, observed more than five million dollars worth of U.S.-funded preservation work, and emphasized the U.S. commitment to preserving the country’s religious and cultural heritage.  On September 15, the Ambassador opened a U.S.-government-supported academic conference on the 12th-century Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides, reminding attendees in his remarks of the centrality of religious freedom to the founding principles of the United States and the longstanding history of pluralism in Egypt.  On October 20, the embassy held the public launch of a girls’ empowerment event in Upper Egypt.  The three million dollar program, with a strong emphasis on religious tolerance, was being implemented in the governorates of Qena and Minya, two areas historically characterized by higher levels of interreligious discord between Muslims and Copts.  In the second half of the year, the embassy conducted a six-month virtual interfaith dialogue program with U.S. and Egyptian Muslim and Christian religious influencers focused on conflict resolution and peace building.  The embassy facilitated a 12-week professional development course for more than 70 English language instructors at al-Azhar University, allowing for broader U.S. government engagement with al-Azhar and, according to al-Azhar staff members, allowing the institution to better engage with the outside world.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states all persons are equal before the law.  It prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration.  According to the Ombudsman for Human Rights (PDDH), during the year, the Attorney General’s Office prosecuted one case under the penal code for publicly offending or insulting the religious beliefs of others.  The Ministry of Governance reported that COVID-19 safety protocol restrictions continued to cause delays in registration of religious organizations and to limit access of the organizations to prisoners in national penitentiaries.  The ministry stated that during the year, there were 169 requests for registration of religious groups, compared with 122 in 2020.  Of these, the ministry approved 28 and denied 24; 117 were pending review at year’s end.

According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, gangs continued to control access to many neighborhoods, limiting movement of residents and engaging in violent acts and crimes against everyone, including members of religious groups.  In April, gang members attacked and beat an elderly priest in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Municipality, when he unknowingly drove into a gang-controlled neighborhood.  According to the Pew Research Center’s 12th annual study of restrictions on religion, issued in September but covering 2019, the country showed a moderate decrease in its social hostilities index, compared with a high level of social hostilities in its 2020 report covering 2018.  The social hostilities index measured acts of religious hostility by private individuals and societal organizations or groups.

In a meeting with the PDDH on September 14, U.S. embassy officials highlighted the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation.  An embassy official attended an iftar in May and engaged with the minority Muslim community regarding the challenges of being a minority religion in a predominately Christian country and the importance of religious tolerance and diversity.  During the year, embassy officials met with religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Anglican, and Catholic Churches, as well as the Baha’i Faith, to discuss religious freedom issues and the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories.  Embassy officials stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the PDDH.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.5 million (midyear 2021).  According to a February survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 43.3 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, 33.9 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 18.6 percent with no religious affiliation.  Approximately 3 percent state “other,” which includes Anglicans, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.  Approximately 1.2 percent of the population identifies as agnostic or atheist.  A small segment of the population adheres to indigenous religious beliefs, with some mixing of these beliefs with Christianity and Islam.  Muslim leaders estimate there are approximately 500 Muslims.  According to Imam Emerson Bukele, President Nayib Bukele’s half-brother, the 20,000 estimate in 2020 likely represents individuals of Palestinian descent, most of whom are Christian and not Muslim.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion.  It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion.  The PDDH monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for alleged violations of the free exercise of religion.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects.  The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma.  Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention.  Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years.

The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of President, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions.  Members of the clergy may not belong to political parties.  The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.

The law restricts support of and interaction with gangs, including by clergy members, and defines gangs as terrorist organizations.  Rehabilitation programs and ministry activities for gang members, however, are legal.

The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government.  It grants automatic official recognition to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements and from government financial oversight.  Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship.  To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) in the Ministry of Governance.  The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, functions of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues.  The DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law.  Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette.  The DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.

By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of nongovernmental organizations and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution.  Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas.  Religious groups must be registered to be eligible for their members to receive this special residence visa for religious activities.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of six months to two years for individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others or damage or destroy religious objects.  If these acts are carried out with the purpose of publicity, sentences may increase to one to three years in prison.

Public education, as funded by the government, is secular and there is no religious education component.  The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support or funding.  Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools.  Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion.  All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.

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

Government Practices

According to the Attorney General’s Office, during the year, authorities prosecuted one case under the penal code for publicly offending or insulting the religious beliefs of others; it did not provide details on the case.  At year’s end, the PDDH reported it had not received notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.

According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 169 requests for registration of religious groups during the year, compared with 122 in 2020.  Of these, the ministry approved 28 and denied 24 because of incomplete documentation; 117 were pending at year’s end.  Government officials said the COVID-19 pandemic continued to impact the registration process because several officials from the ministry teleworked and did not have access to all relevant documents.  The Ministry of Governance reported that although the registration process was available electronically, many religious groups did not present the required documents in a timely manner.  According to the ministry, delays in registration approvals occurred because religious groups were first required to obtain legal entity documentation and the paperwork that they submitted to the ministry was incorrect or incomplete.

Although the Minister of Prisons officially prohibited religious organizations, nonprofit organizations, and the PDDH from visiting prisons due to COVID-19 safety protocols, several religious organizations reported they had sporadic access to prisoners.

Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain with an outstanding arrest warrant for the killing Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass, remained a fugitive.  In March, civil rights attorneys stated that 41 years after the crime, the case still had not advanced.  They accused the Attorney General’s Office of negligence by not appointing a team to investigate the case, which remained pending at year’s end.

In February, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court of Spain dismissed former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano’s appeal and ratified his sentence of 133 years and four months in prison.  In September 2020, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced Montano for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuits at the Central American University in San Salvador.

According to press reports, the Attorney General’s Office had not replied to the December 2020 request by human rights advocates to reopen the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes and former president Alfredo Cristiani, all accused of planning the 1989 Jesuit killings.  Jesuit priest Jose Maria Tojeira said he was pressing the Prosecutor’s Office to reopen the cases and to investigate two magistrates who had ruled to close the cases in September 2020 because he said they seemed to intentionally ignore a 2007 decision by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.  The 2007 decision annulled the 1993 amnesty law, which had provided amnesty against prosecution to war criminals, including the perpetrators of the 1989 Jesuit killings.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On April 12, gang members assaulted an elderly priest, Father Gregorio Landaverde, in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Municipality, when he unknowingly drove into a gang-controlled neighborhood to find an alternative route around a traffic jam.  When Landaverde, pastor of the Asuncion Pleca Parish in the Delgado Municipality, stopped to ask for directions, gang members immediately surrounded him and searched his truck, where they found a machete that he had used the previous day to clear land for relatives, which gang members said made the priest a potential threat.  The gang members beat him with stones, took his wallet, and damaged his car.  Landaverde was hospitalized, and the parish church cancelled Mass until Landaverde recovered.

In January, Father Manuel Acosta, a professor of theology at the Jose Simeon Canas Central American University, told Catholic press outlet Crux that he was disturbed about the violence against Catholic priests, including the thus far unexplained killings of three priests in fewer than three years ending in 2020.  All were his former students.  “I had no words,” said Acosta recalling his thought the morning he heard of the killing in August 2020 of yet another former student, Father Ricardo Cortez, who was found dead after being shot in the head.

According to law enforcement representatives, gang members continued to extort organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, demanding payments in exchange for allowing them to operate in some territories.  Reports of criminals targeting churches, stealing religious relics and other valuable cultural items, and violently assaulting parishioners continued.

According to media, on July 28, security guards killed one thief and injured another when they attempted to rob the Los Heraldos del Evangelio Catholic Church in the Santa Elena neighborhood of San Salvador.  A third assailant escaped.  Authorities investigated the incident and charged the injured suspect with trespassing; he remained in detention and awaited trial at year’s end.

Media again reported, and religious leaders also said, former gang members who joined evangelical Protestant churches were allowed to leave their gang to dedicate themselves to their faith only after they gained approval from their gang leaders.  According to the national police, conversion to an evangelical Protestant group was a way out of gang membership from which there was otherwise no exit.  Gangs continued to monitor former members for years after they left the gang to ensure they were routinely attending church services and following strict religious practices.  If the gang discovered the religious conversion was not authentic, the penalty for the deception was death.  For some gangs, even if a member was allowed to leave for religious reasons, the member still could be called to rejoin the gang as needed.  According to law enforcement representatives, the gangs used death threats against these former gang members or their families to force their return to the gang.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 12th annual study of restrictions on religion, issued in September but covering 2019, El Salvador had a moderate decrease in its social hostilities index compared with Pew’s 11th annual report issued in 2018 and covering 2019.  The social hostilities index measured acts of religious hostility by private individuals and societal organizations or groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On September 14, embassy officials discussed with the PDDH the importance of government officials carrying out their duties to protect the rights of all individuals, including religious freedom, regardless of the officials’ personal religious affiliation or beliefs.

On May 6, an embassy official attended an iftar at the Hispano-American Islamic Mosque, under the leadership of Imam Bukele.  The official and the imam discussed the challenges the Muslim community faced in a predominantly Christian country and the importance of respecting religious tolerance and diversity.

During the year, embassy officials met with religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Anglican, and Catholic Churches, as well as the Baha’i Faith, to discuss religious freedom issues and the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories.  Embassy officials stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the PDDH.

On October 27, in support of International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy tweeted, “Religious freedom is a human right,” highlighting the importance of supporting religious freedom in the country and globally.

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 Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea.  Unregistered groups lack the privileges of registered groups; their members have been arrested and mistreated and their eventual release from detention has sometimes been conditioned on a formal renunciation of their faith.  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.  During the year, the government both arrested and released individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion.  According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), officials released 70 individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion in the first two months of the year:  six on January 27, and 64 on February 1.  On April 5, the Christian NGO Release International reported two new sets of arrests, one set of 23 persons in Asmara and the other of 12 persons in Assab.  On April 12, the BBC reported that 36 Christians were released on bail, including 22 from the previous group in Asmara reported by Release International and 14 who had been in prison on the Dahlak Islands for four years.  According to Christian Today’s September reporting, authorities arrested 15 Christians, all of whom had previously been imprisoned for their religion.  NGOs estimated authorities continued to detain from 130 to more than 1,000 people due to their faith.  Authorities reportedly continued to detain 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to participate in military service or renounce their faith.  At least 20 Muslim protesters reportedly remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.  Authorities continued to confine former Eritrean Orthodox Church Patriarch Abune Antonios to house arrest, where he has remained since 2006.  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.

While 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 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 occasions of religious holidays and other events.  There were no reports of sectarian violence, and most towns and ethnic groups included members from all the major religious groups.

U.S. officials in Asmara and Washington raised religious freedom concerns with government officials throughout the year, including the imprisonment of Jehovah’s Witnesses, lack of alternative service for conscientious objectors, and the continued detention of Patriarch Antonios.  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 and rebut the government’s argument that it does not persecute people based on their religious beliefs.

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 November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the ongoing denial of licenses or other approvals for exports or imports of defense articles and services as referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(n) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (midyear 2021).  The UN estimates a population of approximately 3.5 million.  Reliable population data in the country is difficult to gather.  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 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 resides in Eritrea only on a part-time basis.

A majority of the population in the southern and central regions is Christian, while the northern areas are majority Muslim.  A majority of the Tigrinya, the largest ethnic group, is Christian.  Seven of the other eight principal ethnic groups, the Tigre, Saho, Afar, Bilen, Hedareb, Nara, and the Rashaida, are predominantly Muslim and reside mainly in the northern regions of the country.  The Kunama are diverse, with Christians, Muslims, and animists.

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 it 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 Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea (affiliated with the Lutheran World Federation).  While Baha’is 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 synagogue exists in Asmara, but there are not enough adherents for regular services.  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.

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.  There is also a compulsory militia for all men not in the military, including many who had been demobilized from National Service, otherwise exempted from military service in the past, or are elderly.  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, and agricultural work.  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

During the year, the government both arrested and released individuals imprisoned on the basis of religion.  According to CSW, officials released 70 Christian prisoners in the first two months of the year, six on January 27, and 64 on February 1.  On April 5, Release International reported two new sets of arrests, one set of 23 persons in Asmara and the other of 12 persons in Assab.  On April 12, the BBC reported that 36 Christians were released on bail, including 22 from the previous group in Asmara reported by Release International and 14 who had been in prison on the Dahlak Islands for four years.  According to Christian Today’s September reporting, authorities arrested 15 Christians, all of whom had previously been imprisoned for their religion.

NGOs estimated authorities continued to detain from 130 to more than 1,000 people due to their faith.  Determining more precisely 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.

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 or renounce their faith.  At least 20 Muslim protesters reportedly remained in detention following protests in Asmara in October 2017 and March 2018.

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.

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, for which the government stripped them of their citizenship in 1994.  The government continued to detain Jehovah’s Witnesses and other religious prisoners for failure to follow the law or for national security reasons and continued to deny them citizenship.  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.  Some 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.

Government authorization remained necessary for any organization to print and distribute documents; for religious groups, that authorization needed to come from 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, again approved no new religious groups during the year.  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, access to bank accounts, 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.  Their eventual release from detention was sometimes conditioned on a formal renunciation of their faith.

Religious observers continued to report the government denied many exit visa applications for individuals seeking to travel to international religious conferences.  According to a 2019 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.

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.

The government announced plans to continue its confiscation and nationalization of Catholic schools, begun in 2018.  In June, it announced the scheduled closure of the remaining early childhood and intermediate primary schools, prompting the Eritrean Catholic Bishops collective to issue a letter denouncing the action, as “…explicitly detrimental to the most elementary principles of justice….”  As of year’s end, the schools remained open, according to Catholic sources.

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.  There were indications other unregistered groups, including Seventh-day Adventists and the Faith Mission Church, operated to some degree.  The Anglican Church building held services, but only under the auspices of the registered Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Some church leaders continued to state that 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; 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, led by President Isaias Afwerki, de facto appointed both the head of the Sunni Islamic community and the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, as well as some lower-level officials for both communities.  On May 12, the Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church elected the fifth patriarch, Abune Qerlos, six years after the death of the fourth patriarch, Abune Dioskoros, (and 15 years after the arrest of third Patriarch Abune Antonios, still seen as the rightful patriarch by many followers).  On July 10, Acting Mufti Sheikh Salim Ibrahim al-Muktar was elected Mufti of Eritrea, a position left vacant since 2017.

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 said its official party doctrine promoted national citizenship above religious sectarianism and stated that it did not officially prefer any religion.  Programs in support of this doctrine included National Service and required attendance for all 12th graders at Warsay Yikealo Secondary School at Sawa (co-located with a defense training center) where students from across the country study and receive military training.

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 occasions 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.  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 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.  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 and to rebut government statements denying persecution, such as an embassy Facebook post on September 16 highlighting the recent arrest of Christians at the same time the government claimed it supported a “culture of tolerance.”

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 November 15, 2021, the Secretary of State redesignated Eritrea as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the ongoing denial of licenses or other approvals for exports or imports of defense articles and services as referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(n) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Ethiopia

Executive Summary

The constitution requires the separation of religion and the state, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall any religion interfere in the affairs of the state.  The conflict that erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 spread to other regions during the year and victims of violence included religious figures.  According to media, at least 78 priests were killed in Tigray during the first five months of the year by soldiers from the national army and Eritrean troops.  The Telegraph reported the killings based on a church letter to the Synod of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church (EOTC) that said “priests, deacons, choristers and monks” had been “massacred” over a period of five months.  In April, according to media, EOTC Co-Patriarch Abune Mathias accused the government of genocide in Tigray.  On February 25, the Belgium-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Europe External Programme with Africa reported that one monk was killed during the bombing and looting of Debre Damo Monastery in January in Tigray.  Reportedly, Eritrean troops aligned with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces committed the attack.  According to media, on May 9, security forces violently shut down iftar celebrations at Meskel Square in Addis Ababa during Ramadan and turned away thousands of attendees.  Numerous individuals stated the shutdown was religiously motivated, as some members of the EOTC said Meskel Square was EOTC’s traditional property.  City officials, however, stated the shutdown was due to safety concerns.  According to media, in July, police officers raided a cathedral in Addis Ababa, interrupting prayers and forcing a dozen ethnic Tigrayan priests and monks into a pickup truck; they were released several weeks later.  On January 5, the BBC reported the government agreed to repair the al-Nejashi Mosque that was damaged in 2020 during the conflict in Tigray.  The government said a nearby church would also be repaired.

In October, the Amhara Region Islamic Affairs Supreme Council said the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) had demolished a historic mosque in Zarema town, North Gondar, Amhara Region.  Some human rights groups stated that societal violence was on the rise, especially in the context of the ongoing conflict in the northern part of the country.  Because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked, and because criminality also played a role, according to knowledgeable observers, it was difficult to characterize many incidents of societal violence as solely based on religious identity.  On March 5, according to the Addis Standard, members of the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) killed 29 individuals in Abo Church in Debos Kebele, East Wollega, Oromia Region.  Witnesses said victims were marking the beginning of the EOTC’s two-month period of fasting.  Reports stated members of the OLA stormed into the church, immediately killed the church administrator, took the rest of the victims to a nearby forest and killed them.

U.S embassy officials met with senior religious leaders to advocate peaceful resolution to the conflict in Tigray.  The Ambassador met with the Co-Patriarch of the EOTC following a viral video in which the Co-Patriarch warned of genocide against the Tigrayan people.  The embassy provided funding to faith-based organizations, including the Inter-Religious Council of Ethiopia (IRCE), to implement community projects aimed at long-term peacebuilding and religious tolerance, among other goals.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 110.9 million (midyear 2021).  According to 2016 U.S. government estimates, 44 percent of the population adheres to the EOTC, 31 percent are Sunni Muslim, and 23 percent belong to evangelical Christian and Pentecostal groups, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, and Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.  Most observers believe the evangelical Christian and Pentecostal proportion of the population has increased since the last national census was conducted in 2007.  The EOTC predominates in the northern regions of Tigray and Amhara, while Islam is most prevalent in Afar, Oromia, and Somali Regions.  Established Protestant churches have the most adherents in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People’s (SNNP) Region and Gambella Region and parts of Oromia Region.

Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include Eastern Rite and Roman Catholics, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and practitioners of indigenous religions.  The Rastafarian community numbers approximately 1,000 and its members primarily reside in Addis Ababa and the town of Shashemene in Oromia Region.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution requires the separation of state and religion, establishes freedom of religious choice and practice, prohibits religious discrimination, and stipulates the government shall not interfere in the practice of any religion, nor shall religion interfere in state affairs.  It permits limitations on religious freedom as prescribed by law to protect public safety, education, and morals as well as to guarantee the independence of government from religion.  The law criminalizes religious defamation and incitement of one religious group against another.

The law permits sharia courts to adjudicate personal status cases, provided both parties are Muslim and consent to the court’s jurisdiction.

Registration and licensing of religious groups fall under the mandate of the Directorate of Faith and Religious Affairs of the Ministry of Peace, which requires unregistered religious groups to submit a founding document, the national identity cards of its founders, and the permanent address of the religious institution and planned regional branches.  The registration process also requires an application letter, information on board members, meeting minutes, information on the founders, financial reports, offices, name, and symbols.  Religious group applicants must have at least 50 individuals for registration as a religious entity and 15 for registration as a ministry or association; the rights and privileges are the same for each category.  During the registration process, the government publishes the religious group’s name and logo in a local newspaper.  If there are no objections, registration is granted.  Unlike other religious groups, the EOTC is not registered by the Ministry of Peace but obtains registration through a provision in the civil code passed during the imperial era that is still in force.  Registration with the ministry confers legal status on a religious group, which gives the group the right to congregate and to obtain land to build a place of worship and establish a cemetery.  Unregistered groups do not receive these benefits.  Religious groups must renew their registration at least once every five years; failure to do so may result in a fine.

Registered religious organizations are required to provide annual activity and financial reports.  Activity reports must describe proselytizing activities and list new members, newly ordained clergy, and new houses of worship.

Under the constitution, the government owns all land; religious groups must apply to both the regional and local governments for land allocation, including for land to build places of worship.

Government policy prohibits the holding of religious services inside public institutions, per the constitutionally required separation of religion and state.  The government mandates that public institutions take a two-hour break from work on Fridays to allow Muslim workers to attend Islamic prayers.  Private companies are not required to follow this policy.

The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public and private schools, although both public and private schools may organize clubs based on shared religious values.  The law permits the establishment of a separate category of religious schools under the auspices of churches and mosques.  The Charities and Societies Agency, a government body accountable to the federal attorney general, and the Ministry of Education regulate religious schools, which provide both secular and religious instruction.  The Ministry of Education oversees the secular component of education provided by religious schools.

The law prohibits the formation of political parties based on religion.

The law allows all civil society organizations and religious groups to engage in advocacy and lobbying activities and to collect and obtain funding from any legal source.

Religious groups undertaking development activities are required to register their development arms as charities with the Charities and Societies Agency and to follow legal guidelines originating from the Charities and Societies Proclamation.

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

Government Practices

The conflict that erupted in northern Ethiopia in November 2020 spread to other regions during the year and victims of violence included religious figures.  According to media, at least 78 priests were reportedly killed in Tigray during the first five months of the year by soldiers from the national army and Eritrean troops.  The Telegraph reported the killings based on a church letter to the Synod of the EOTC that said “priests, deacons, choristers and monks” had been “massacred” over a period of five months.

In April, according to media, Co-Patriarch Mathias, an ethnic Tigrayan, accused the government of genocide in Tigray.  In a video shot the previous month on a mobile phone and taken out of the country, the Co-Patriarch addressed the Church’s millions of followers and the international community, saying his previous attempts to speak out were blocked.  “I am not clear why they want to declare genocide on the people of Tigray,” the Co-Patriarch said, speaking in Amharic.  “They want to destroy the people of Tigray,” he added, listing alleged atrocities including massacres and forced starvation as well as the destruction of churches and looting.

On February 25, the Europe External Programme with Africa reported that one monk was killed during the bombing and looting of Debre Damo Monastery in Tigray in January.  Reportedly, Eritrean troops aligned with the Ethiopian National Defense Forces were responsible for the attack.  The Times reported other buildings had been completely destroyed, including monks’ ancient dwellings.  Many reporters cited ethnic grievance as the basis of the attack and said there was no evidence the attack was religiously motivated.

On May 9, according to the Addis Standard, government security forces dispersed thousands of Muslims from Meskel Square where the Muslim community in Addis Ababa had organized a Grand Iftar event during Ramadan.  In response to videos and photos showing security forces firing teargas at the crowds, Muslim activists and clerics on social media decried the government’s actions as religiously motivated.  Some members of the EOTC said Meskel Square was the EOTC’s traditional property.  City officials, however, said the violent dispersal was due to safety concerns arising from the unexpectedly large number of attendees and ongoing construction in Meskel Square.  City officials consequently canceled the event and rescheduled it for May 11.  According to the Ethiopian News Agency (ENA), the rescheduled event was held peacefully.  ENA also reported that the purposes of the event included demonstrating that Ramadan was a time of compassion, sharing, and supporting one another in line with Islamic teachings and praying for the unity of the country.  Despite the delay, event organizers thanked city administrators for allowing the event to take place.  Mayor of Addis Ababa Adanech Abiebie stated that the square belonged to all citizens – not just Christians – and called for Ethiopians to unite and celebrate religious differences.

In June, police accused a preacher from the Mahibere Kidusan – an EOTC congregation – of supporting the TPLF, which parliament had designated as a terrorist group.  Police reportedly arrested members of the Mahibere Kidusan for taking pictures of police officers during a demonstration outside the home of EOTC Co-Patriarch Mathias.  Demonstrators marched to show solidarity with Mathias after he publicly condemned the ongoing war in Tigray and characterized abuses against Tigrayans as genocide.

According to media, in July, police officers raided a church in Addis Ababa, interrupting prayers and forcing a dozen ethnic Tigrayan priests and monks into a pickup truck; they were released several weeks later.

In August, Minister of Health Lia Tadesse thanked the IRCE for holding a high-level advocacy meeting on reduction of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS and their families.  She tweeted, “Our Creator does not stigmatize and discriminate; let’s not stigmatize and discriminate.”

On January 5, the BBC reported the government agreed to repair the al-Nejashi Mosque that was damaged in 2020 during the conflict in Tigray.  Local Muslims said the mosque was the oldest in Africa.  The government said a nearby church would also be repaired.

During the year, the government provided funding to religious schools, including 250 Catholic schools and 219 Islamic schools.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Human rights groups stated that societal violence was on the rise, especially in the context of the conflict in the northern part of the country.  Because ethnicity and religion are often closely linked and because criminality, politics, access to resources, and historical grievances were also drivers of violence, it was difficult to characterize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

In October, the Amhara Region Islamic Affairs Supreme Council said the TPLF had demolished a historic mosque in Zarema town, North Gondar, Amhara Region.  The secretary general of the council said the attack proved TPLF’s continued antireligious stand.  He said the TPLF had destroyed several other mosques and religious sites in the region and massacred religious students in madrassahs.

On March 5, according to the Addis Standard, members of the OLA killed 29 individuals in Abo Church in Debos Kebele, East Wollega, Oromia Region.  Witnesses said victims were marking the beginning of the EOTC’s two-month period of fasting.  Reports stated members of the OLA stormed into the church, immediately killing the church administrator.  The OLA members took the rest of the victims to a nearby forest and killed them.

In May, the EOTC stated that the government allowing Muslims to hold the Grand Iftar celebration in Meskel Square – of which the EOTC claimed traditional “ownership” – could threaten coexistence between the country’s Christians and Muslims.  The EOTC advised Muslims to hold the event at its usual venue, Abebe Bikila Stadium.  After the government disrupted the celebration on May 9 and despite the EOTC’s protests, the rescheduled celebration took place peacefully on May 11 in Meskel Square.

The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) expressed continued concern about what it said was the influence of foreign Salafist groups within the Muslim community.  The EIASC accused foreign Salafist groups of forcibly taking control of local mosques.  The EIASC said it continued to hold these foreign groups responsible for the exacerbation of tensions between Christians and Muslims and within the Muslim community.

According to the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and the EIASC, the number of Islamic religious schools was growing.  Abdul Geni Kedir, a headmaster at one school, said that the expansion of the schools, which were “significantly contributing to the spread of the faith,” reflected the steady increase of the community’s influence in society.  He said, “Islamic education has been reinforced by the burgeoning Islamic media and related public activities.  Now, we have private newspapers, television stations, educational videos, and there is an increase in the production of multilingual traditional and modern Islamic hymns.”

Observers described a small revival of Waaqeffanna – an indigenous religion in Oromia – especially on university campuses.

The IRCE continued to include representatives from the EOTC, EIASC, Catholic Church, and several evangelical Christian groups, including the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church, and Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

In May and December, the Ambassador hosted EOTC Co-Patriarch Mathias to discuss the humanitarian crisis in Tigray and Mathias’ public statement that genocide was occurring in Tigray.  In a Facebook post following the May meeting, the embassy reported that the Ambassador discussed the humanitarian situation in Tigray as well as the Co-Patriarch’s video message on the crisis released a week earlier and reported widely in local press.  The Ambassador invited the Co-Patriarch to attend future interfaith community meetings to “further explore and continue their conversation.”

The U.S. government awarded several grants to the IRCE and other faith-based organizations to fund projects that encouraged religious tolerance.  In September, the embassy awarded funding to the Ghion Peace, Reconciliation and Development Association for a program promoting religious tolerance.  The program trained 60 youth and faith-based organizations to facilitate consultative workshops on peacebuilding and conflict mitigation within Amhara and Qimant communities.  Participants then led discussions with over 200 youth from the towns of Gondar and Chilga/Aykel on peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

In October, the embassy provided funding to the IRCE to design a two-day program for religious leaders on conflict prevention and mitigation, to be conducted in 2022.  This program, designed to encourage peacebuilding and religious and ethnic tolerance, would bring together IRCE members across the country to engage on security issues, including the conflicts in Tigray, Amhara, and Afar.  The embassy provided logistical and technical support to the IRCE as it began organizing the meeting and identifying potential conflict mitigation roles for regional and religious leaders at the community level.  The two-day program would establish a six-month engagement plan framework.

In August, the embassy provided funding to the Inter-Religious Council in Dire Dawa to facilitate a program to promote interreligious peacebuilding and tolerance in Harar, Chiro, and Dire Dawa by empowering leaders to work with youth and women in their constituencies to promote interreligious peace.

 

Finland

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits religious discrimination “without an acceptable reason” and provides for the right to profess and practice a religion and to decline to be a member of a religious community.  The law prohibits breaching the sanctity of religion, which includes blasphemy, offending that which a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  According to representatives of their respective groups, immigration authorities continued to deny most asylum applications from Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia and Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan.  While a United Nations Human Rights Committee ruling granted two families that are members of Jehovah’s Witnesses positive interim decisions halting deportation proceedings, 15 other cases of Jehovah’s Witness asylum applicants were pending before the Supreme Administrative Court at year’s end.  At least 47 members of Jehovah’s Witnesses previously denied asylum renewed their applications.  In July and September, the Helsinki Police Department fired two officers and were investigating at least five others for engaging in communications that included antisemitic and anti-Muslim rhetoric.  A Finnish People First Party chairman and a Finns Party Member of Parliament (MP) were convicted of aggravated defamation and ethnic agitation respectively for comments against Muslims and asylum seekers.  In September, authorities charged a former city councilor with ethnic agitation for making threatening comments about Muslim immigrants and refugees.  The attorney general declined to prosecute a Social Democratic Party (SDP) MP regarding antisemitic comments made in 2011 because the attorney general declared that the MP had actively and independently sought to minimize the harm from his previous actions.  Prosecutors charged Christian Democrat MP Paivi Rasanen, a former Minister of the Interior, with ethnic agitation and incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality in connection with a booklet she published in 2004 and a 2019 tweet.  Rasanen said her statements were an expression of her freedom of speech and religion.

Police reported 108 hate crimes involving members of religious groups in 2020, the most recent statistics available, compared with 133 such incidents in 2019, but did not specify how many were motivated solely by religion.  Police stated the largest drop in hate crimes were crimes reported at bars and restaurants and were driven by COVID-19 protocols.  The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office received 34 complaints of religious discrimination in 2020, compared with 37 in 2019.  The Nordic Resistance Movement (NRM) continued to post anti-Muslim and antisemitic statements online and acted to circumvent the ban of the organization by continuing activities as part of Towards Freedom and far-right websites such as Partisaani.  There were several demonstrations by neo-Nazi or nativist groups.  The Jewish community reported continued incidents of antisemitic vandalism in Helsinki throughout the year.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the inability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center.  Some Muslim groups reported that currently available places of worship did not suit the full needs of their communities, but there was disagreement across communities as to the need for additional places of worship or the need for a grand mosque and disagreement as to how these places of worship could best serve the diverse Muslim population.

U.S. embassy staff engaged with government ministries to discuss government support for religious freedom and interfaith dialogue, government and police responses to antisemitic incidents, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Ahmadi Muslims seeking asylum.  Embassy staff met with the Jewish and Muslim communities to discuss their shared concerns about the impact of government guidelines discouraging male circumcision and addressed religiously motivated crimes and continuing problems involved in establishing or maintaining mosques sufficient for the diverse Muslim population.  Embassy staff also discussed the state of religious freedom with these communities, other religious minority groups, and interfaith networks.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 5.6 million (midyear 2021). According to Finnish government statistics from December 2020 that count only registered members of registered congregations, 67.8 percent of the population belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland (ELC) and 1.1 percent to the Finnish Orthodox Church, while 0.3 percent (approximately 17,000) have official membership in Islamic congregations, and 29.4 percent do not identify as belonging to any religious group.  The census combines other minority religious communities, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jews, and members of the Free Church of Finland, that together account for 1.4 percent of the population.

Multiple sources indicate the Muslim population has grown rapidly in recent years because of a significant inflow of immigrants.  Muslim religious leaders estimate the number of Muslims rose to 100,000 in 2018 (most recent data available), of which approximately 80 percent is Sunni and 20 percent Shia.  In 2017, the latest year for which statistics are available, the Pew Research Center estimated 2.7 percent of the population, or approximately 150,000 persons, were Muslim.  According to a survey by the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Muslim population numbered approximately 65,000 in 2016.  According to the Islamic Society of Finland, discrepancies among these sources and between them and official government statistics may occur because only a minority of Muslims register with registered Islamic societies.  Apart from Tatars, who immigrated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as well as during the Soviet Union period, most Muslims are immigrants or descendants of immigrants who arrived in recent decades from Somalia, North Africa, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Syria, Turkey, and Iran.  There are 300 registered members of the Ahmadi community, according to leaders of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland.

In a report released in 2020, the Institute of Jewish Policy Research estimated the Jewish population at 1,300.  There are 18,000 members of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the country, according to Church representatives.  According to Catholic Diocese statistics from 2021, there are 15,902 registered Catholics in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution bars discrimination based on religion “without an acceptable reason.”  It stipulates freedom of religion and conscience, including the right to profess and practice a religion, to express one’s convictions, and to be a member or decline to be a member of a religious community.  It states no one is under the obligation to participate in the practice of a religion.

The law criminalizes blasphemy, or the “breach of the sanctity of religion,” which includes “blaspheming against God,” publicly defaming or desecrating to offend something a religious community holds sacred, and disturbing worship or funeral ceremonies.  Violators are subject to fines or imprisonment of up to six months.  The amount of a fine is dependent both on the severity of the offense and the financial standing of the sentenced offender.  Authorities have occasionally applied the law, most recently in 2019.

The constitution cites the ELC, the only religious group it mentions, stating that “provisions on the organization and administration [of the ELC] are laid down in the Church Act.”

It is considered a crime of ethnic agitation if any person makes available or spreads to the public an expression of opinion or any other message that threatens, defames, or insults a certain group on the basis of race, skin color, birth status, national or ethnic origin, religion, belief, sexual orientation, or disability.  This includes the distribution of hate material intended to incite discrimination in print or in broadcast media, books, or online newspapers and journals.  Punishment includes a fine based on the severity of the defamation or insult or up to two years’ imprisonment.  If the ethnic agitation involves incitement or enticement to serious violence, a person may be charged with aggravated ethnic agitation, which carries a punishment of imprisonment of between four months and four years.  Hate speech is not a separate criminal offense but may constitute grounds for an aggravated sentence for other offenses.  In principle, any act that is considered a crime in legislation may be a hate crime, depending on the underlying motive.  The victim does not need to be a part of a defined group for a crime to be considered a hate crime; it is enough that the perpetrator assumes the victim to be a member of the group.

The law prohibits religious discrimination and establishes the position of a nondiscrimination ombudsman responsible for supervising compliance with the law, investigating individual cases of discrimination, and having the power to issue fines in noncriminal cases.  The ombudsman advocates on behalf of victims, offers counseling, promotes conciliation, and lobbies for legislation, among other duties and authorities.  The ombudsman may also refer cases to the National Non-Discrimination and Equality Tribunal (NDET), which also enforces fines issued by the ombudsman and assists plaintiffs seeking compensation in court.  Individuals alleging discrimination may alternatively pursue legal action through the NDET, which may issue binding decisions that may be appealed to the courts or through the district court system.  Litigants may appeal the decisions of the NDET and the district courts to the higher Administrative Court.  Neither the ombudsman nor the NDET has the authority to investigate individual cases of religious discrimination involving employment.  Such cases fall under the purview of the Occupational Safety and Health Authority.

Individuals and groups may exist, associate, and practice their religion without registering with the government.  To be eligible to apply for government funds, however, religious groups must register with the Patent and Registration Office as a religious community.  To register as a religious community, a group must have at least 20 members, the public practice of religion as its purpose, and a set of rules to guide its activities.  A registered religious community is a legal entity that may employ persons, purchase property, and make legal claims.  A religious group may also acquire legal status by registering as an association with a nonprofit purpose that is not contrary to law or proper behavior.  Registered religious groups and nonprofit associations are generally exempt from taxes.  According to the MEC, as of August, there were approximately 156 registered religious communities, most of which had multiple congregations.

According to the MEC, several additional religious communities are organized under the name the Pentecostal Church of Finland but have registered as associations and not as separate religious communities.  Similarly, other organizations, such as revivalist congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, have independent theological or functional operations but have remained administratively under the Evangelical Lutheran Church and have not registered as independent religious communities.  Persons may belong to more than one religious group.

In March, parliament passed an amendment to the Church Act that governs the practices of the ELC.  The amended Church Act provides greater freedom to the ELC administration for holding meetings in an online setting.  It allows members participating in meetings virtually to be considered as present for the purposes of reaching a quorum.

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

Registered religious communities other than the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church are eligible to apply for state funds in lieu of the church tax.  In addition to receiving the church tax, the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church may also apply for state funds.  The law states registered religious communities that meet the statutory requirements, including ELC and Orthodox congregations, may apply to receive an annual subsidy from the government budget in proportion to the religious community’s percentage of the population.

The law requires the ELC to maintain public cemeteries using its general allocation from state funds and church taxes and to account for monies used for this purpose.  Other religious communities and nonreligious foundations may maintain their own cemeteries.  All registered religious communities may own and manage property and hire staff, including appointing clergy.  The law authorizes the ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church to register births, marriages, and deaths for their members in collaboration with the government Digital and Population Data Services Agency.  State registrars do this for other persons.

Parents may determine their child’s religious affiliation if the child is younger than 12.  The religious affiliation of children between the ages of 12 and 17 may only be changed by a joint decision of the child and his or her parents or guardian, and the family must pursue specific administrative procedures with their religious community and the local population registration officials to change or terminate the religious affiliation.

All public schools provide religious teaching in accordance with students’ religion.  All students must take courses either in religious studies or ethics, with the choice left up to the student.  Schools must provide religious instruction in religions other than the Lutheran faith if there is a minimum of three pupils representing that faith in the municipal region, the religious community in question is registered, and the students’ families belong to the religious community.  Municipalities may arrange for students from different schools to take a combined course to meet this requirement.  Students who do not belong to a religious group or belong to a religious group for which special instruction is not available may study ethics.  Students aged 18 or older may choose to study either the religious courses pertaining to their religion or the ethics courses.  If a student belongs to more than one religious community, the parents decide in which religious education course the student participates.  The national and municipal governments fund private, including religiously based, schools.  Despite the name, private schools are in fact completely financially dependent on government funding, to ensure equitable education nationwide.  With the exception of international and foreign-language schools, by law private schools may not charge tuition.  They do not practice selective admission based on students’ religion.

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

By law, conscientious objectors, including those who object on religious grounds, may choose alternative civilian service instead of compulsory military service.  Conscientious objectors who refuse both military and alternative civilian service may be sentenced to prison terms of up to 173 days, one-half of the 347 days of alternative civilian service.  Regular military service ranges between 165 and 347 days.

The law requires that animals be stunned prior to slaughter or be stunned and killed simultaneously if done pursuant to religious practice.

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

Government Practices

YLE, the Finnish English news site, administered a poll revealing that a majority of MPs did not want to change Finland’s law on the sanctity of religion, which includes the possibility of a six-month prison sentence for blasphemy.  The survey, however, also indicated that MPs of the Greens Party, part of the governing coalition, and opposition Finns Party were united in favor of making changes to the law, with their views based on the same issue:  freedom of speech.  The UN Human Rights Committee called on Finland to change the “vague and broadly worded” criminal provision on the sanctity of religion, stating that it restricts freedom of expression.

Religious communities reported a consistently high level of autonomy in how they were allowed to implement COVID-19 protocols and said that inspections by government officials were unobtrusive and generally helpful.  According to the Ministry of Education and Culture, restrictions imposed on public events did not apply to the characteristic activities of religious communities organized in community premises or similar facilities.  According to legal analysts in an interview with the newspaper Iltalehti, the legislation on communicable diseases that provides the legal basis for limiting public gatherings does not apply to religious gatherings because the latter are legally distinct from public events, as defined by the relevant legislation regarding public assembly.  Catholic Church officials said that when more than 100 persons were potentially exposed to COVID-19 after attending a funeral service in Kouvola, which led to a public outcry, the Church worked closely with government officials to develop improved internal protocols to continue offering regular services without additional public backlash.

In August, the Helsinki District Court ruled that men who carried swastika flags in an Independence Day Towards Freedom rally in 2018 were not guilty of ethnic agitation.  According to the court, while flags carried in the demonstration were associated with the Nazi ideology of persecution and genocide of Jews, carrying a swastika flag was not sufficient for an ethnic agitation conviction.  The court found that the defendants had not been shown to have spread a message that threatened and insulted specific ethnic groups.  Prosecutor General Raija Toiviainen stated that he intended to appeal the decision.  Leaders in the Jewish community spoke out against the ruling, saying that displaying a swastika flag represented expressing advocacy of genocide.  According to a survey by the public broadcaster Yle News, most political parties supported criminalizing public use of the swastika flag, either through legislative action or through a Court of Appeal’s decision.  Of the major parties, only the Finns Party, citing concerns for individual freedom, responded that swastika flags should not be banned.

On October 1, Director General of the Finnish National Gallery Kimmo Leva stated the COVID-19 pandemic continued to disrupt plans to prepare a formal study of the state of research on the provenance of Holocaust-era art in museum collections, as recommended by the MEC in June 2019.  At the same time, the Finnish Heritage Agency organized a roundtable discussion for Finnish museums on art provenance (the record of ownership of a work of art) related to both Nazi art and colonialism.  Articles published in 2020 and 2021 through MuseoPro, a publication of the Finnish Association of Museums, showed an increasing consensus regarding the complications of art provenance.  Leva suggested the Finnish Association of Museums might crowdsource the research, following the example of the Finnish National Gallery, which had published a list online of all its art lacking sufficient provenance from the period 1933-1945.

Yle News in May reported that the Ministry of the Interior continued its previously postponed study regarding whether religious symbols, including headscarves, could be worn as part of police uniforms.  In January, the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat reported the story of Fardowsa Mohamud, a Muslim woman who withdrew from voluntary military service due to a similar hijab ban in the Defense Forces.

In November, the Ministry of Forestry and Agriculture requested public commentary for proposed changes to animal welfare laws.  Proposals included a section on the stunning of animals before slaughter, and explicitly did not include religious exceptions for ritual slaughter.  These legal changes, which would affect kosher and halal practices in the country, were met by vocal opposition by Muslim and Jewish organizations.  The Central Council of Jewish Communities in Finland in a public statement said the law trampled on religious rights and was in contradiction of rights protected under the European Human Rights Convention. Religious groups also stated that as the proposal did not include measures to rectify what they said were other problematic issues concerning animal rights, including tightening of animal stunning procedures, the effect was a culturally subjective law that exclusively limited the cultural traditions of religious minorities.

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health guidelines discouraged the circumcision of males and continued to withhold public healthcare funding for such procedures.  In its guidelines, which were recommendations rather than requirements per prior Supreme Court rulings, the ministry stated only licensed physicians should perform nonmedical circumcision of boys, a child’s guardians should be informed of the risks and irreversibility of the procedure, and it should not be carried out on boys old enough to understand the procedure without their consent.  The ministry termed nonmedical male circumcision a violation of child bodily integrity and self-determination.  Members of the Muslim and Jewish communities continued to express disagreement with the guidelines and stated that each time the issue came up for public debate, it was accompanied by antisemitic or anti-Muslim rhetoric in the press and more broadly.

Parliament took no action on a proposal submitted by 16 parliamentarians in 2020 that “the government…identify the need for regulation of non-medical circumcision of boys and take the necessary legislative measures to clarify the legal situation and define the legal boundaries of non-medical circumcision.”  In the parliamentary Legal Affairs Committee discussion on the October proposal, however, pro-ban MPs were able to get a mention in the committee report that the matter should be brought under consideration in the future.

According to representatives from Jehovah’s Witnesses, the number of Russia-origin members of Jehovah’s Witnesses applying for asylum based on stated religious persecution continued to decline for the second consecutive year, in part because of COVID-19 travel restrictions.  The Finnish Immigration Service (FIS) rejected most of the claims by members of Jehovah’s Witnesses and continued to state that asylum adjudicators did not consider membership in the Church alone to be sufficient basis for an asylum claim.  Information from representatives for Finnish Jehovah’s Witnesses and the FIS showed 15 cases pending before the Supreme Administrative Court (SAC) in the first half of 2021.  At least 47 individuals who received negative decisions from the SAC renewed their asylum applications with the FIS based on changed circumstances and were awaiting new decisions at year’s end.

In its Concluding Observations on the Seventh Periodic Report of Finland submitted in April, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed concern “that the Act Repealing the Act on the Exemption of Jehovah’s Witnesses from Military Service in Certain Cases (330/2019) has removed the exemption from military and civilian service accorded to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in contrast to the Committee’s previous recommendations to extend such exemption to other groups of conscientious objectors.”  The Human Rights Committee and the Finnish branch of Amnesty International both noted that alternative nonmilitary service amounted to the longest period of conscripted service, placing a burden on those who exercised their right to conscientious objection, including those who did so on religious grounds.

According to Jehovah’s Witnesses representatives, two asylum-seeking families who identified as members of Jehovah’s Witnesses faced deportation to Russia during the year because the families had exhausted all domestic legal remedies in seeking asylum.  The families applied for interim measures to the United Nations Human Rights Committee; both received positive interim decisions that halted their deportation.  While their applications were pending under the domestic immigration system, legal employment was no longer possible.  As a result, the families became dependent on limited government services.

According to representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland, the FIS continued to deny most asylum applications for Ahmadi Muslims from Pakistan.  The representatives said the FIS only considered “prominent persons” in the Ahmadi community to be in danger, while other Ahmadis should be able to move to safer areas of Pakistan instead of seeking asylum.  The representatives said that when deportation orders were appealed, authorities requested proof that the individuals in question were in danger instead of considering the systematic persecution Ahmadis faced in Pakistan.  Ahmadi community leaders said they were never consulted on how to confirm or verify membership or persecution status in seeking asylum.  They said that asylum applications had decreased during the past two years because individuals who faced persecution were unwilling to start the asylum process, knowing that it would ultimately be unsuccessful.  The representatives said the group had met with several government representatives, but that it had not yet been able to secure a meeting with the Ministry of Interior to discuss the challenges the community faced.  In the past, the Ministry of the Interior had formally declined to meet with the community and had directed representatives to the Ministry for Foreign Affairs.

According to a senior military officer, the military continued to maintain a zero-tolerance policy regarding hate speech and hate crimes, including religiously motivated incidents.  Unit commanders initiated investigations of reported incidents.  If a commander judged the infraction to be minor, he or she administered a formal reprimand or other punishment.  For more serious offenses, the commander reported the investigation up the chain of command, and military authorities might refer the case to civilian courts.  The officer also stated that the military accommodated, per regulation, religious dietary needs and fasting requirements, and granted religious leave and prayer time to all personnel.  The officer said that these procedures were maintained during the COVID-19 pandemic and that recruits still had access to military chaplains while pandemic protocols were in place.

Yle News reported in July and September that the Helsinki Police Department fired two officers, including the chief of staff, for engaging in communications with far-right hate groups that included anti-Muslim and antisemitic messages.  Text messages revealed discussion of an upcoming “civil war,” with language particularly targeting the country’s Muslim, Somali, and Roma populations.  The report indicated that an additional five police officers and one guard with ties to far-right groups were under investigation.

Religious community leaders repeatedly stated that reported hate crime statistics likely significantly undercounted incidences of hate crimes.  A member of the National Forum for Cooperation of Religions (CORE Forum), an interfaith dialogue group, stated that many members of Muslim communities, particularly women who wear hijabs, encountered verbal and physical harassment that had gone unreported because previous reports were unaddressed.  One Muslim woman said that she no longer used public transit, and a Jewish woman stated she was considering leaving the country due to increased harassment, but neither had reported incidents to the police.  In October, the hashtag #miksienluotapoliisiin (“why I do not trust the police”), trending on Twitter, included citizens’ statements of religious harassment and neo-Nazi, racist, and anti-Muslim rhetoric that they said police ignored.  Representatives from the Helsinki police responded that they were taking the discussion seriously.

On January 5, Yle News reported that Jyrki Aland, the chairperson of the Turku local association of the Finns Party, said he wished for increased COVID-19 deaths in the Varissuo district of Turku in light of the area’s ethnic composition.  Sources quoted Aland as saying that the reports of COVID-19 deaths in Sweden in 2020 would be good for Varissuo because “it is a neighborhood where migrants live and possibly a small Corona cleaning job would do a lot of good there.”  Aland later stated that the comments were made in jest and apologized for them.  According to Yle News on January 11, police were investigating the statements.  More than 48 percent of the population and more than 80 percent of school-age children in Varissuo identify as speaking neither Finnish nor Swedish as their first language, and the suburb is home to significant Muslim and Catholic immigrant populations.  Aland resigned as local association chairperson on September 20.

Yle News also reported in January that the Attorney General’s office announced it would not prosecute SDP MP Hussein al-Taee for Facebook posts from 2011-2012, before he was elected to parliament.  At a press conference in September 2019, al-Taee apologized to Jewish and Sunni Muslim communities for the posts, which were directed at those communities, and did not contest police findings that his posts promoted ethnic agitation.  The Attorney General’s office stated in its decision that al-Taee had actively and independently, without the intervention of authorities, sought to apologize and minimize the harm from his previous actions. On his website, al-Taee apologized to Jewish, Egyptian, and Sunni Muslim communities for the posts and stated that his previous writings are incompatible with his current worldview.

On April 30, the Helsinki Times reported that Christian Democrat MP Paivi Rasanen, a former Minister of the Interior, had been charged with ethnic agitation and incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality in connection with a booklet she published in 2004 and a 2019 tweet.  According to the article, the prosecutor examined statements in Rasanen’s booklet, entitled “Male and Female He Created Them – Homosexual Relationships Challenge the Christian Concept of Humanity,” and a tweet responding to news that the ELC was partnering with the Helsinki Pride Festival that stated, “How can the Church’s doctrinal foundation, the Bible, be compatible with the lifting up of shame and sin as a subject of pride?”  The prosecutor determined that these comments disparaged gays and lesbians, violated their equality rights, and fomented intolerance and hatred.  Incitement to hatred on the basis of sexuality was outlawed in 1995.  Rasanen defended her statements by stating her religious beliefs were an expression of her freedom of speech and religion.  Dr. Juhana Pohjola, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, faced a similar charge related to distribution of the 2004 booklet.

Yle News reported in May that authorities sentenced former chairman of the Finnish People First Party Marco de Wit to six months’ probation for three counts of aggravated defamation and 13 counts of defamation, one of which concerned “violating the peace of religion.”  De Wit had published several articles online threatening and insulting Muslims, Afghans, refugees, and asylum seekers on the basis of their religion, skin color, and ethnic origin.  More than 20 plaintiffs joined the defamation case against de Wit, who had posted social media items linking Finnish Muslims and police officers with child sexual exploitation.  In addition, the court ordered de Wit to delete his social media posts and pay more than 40,000 euros ($45,400) in compensation to the victims.

On October 7, Helsingin Sanomat reported that the Oulu District Court convicted former Oulu city councilor Junes Lokka of ethnic agitation and sentenced him to 70 day-fines with a value of 420 euros ($480).  The severity of a sentencing fine is measured by the number of day-fines while the monetary value of the day-fine is set by one’s income level.  The court had previously convicted Lokka on two counts of ethnic agitation regarding videos Lokka posted online in 2016 depicting Muslim immigrants and other immigrants as being inferior to other human beings.  The prosecution brought the new charge as a result of comments Lokka made at an Oulu city council meeting in February 2020 in which he threatened Muslim immigrants and refugees and promoted the hiring of “death squads” to promote migration of minorities out of the municipality of Oulu.

In October, a court convicted Finns Party MP Sebastian Tynkkynen on charges of ethnic agitation in connection with 2017 Facebook posts that were part of a municipal election campaign.  In the posts, Tynkkynen published several pictures and texts referencing “the criminal behavior of Muslim asylum seekers and immigrants towards women and children.”  Tynkkynen denied all charges, stating that his posts were moderate and in accordance with freedom of expression.  The court fined Tynkkynen 70 day-fines, totaling 4,410 euros ($5,000) and demanded Tynkkynen delete the posts from his Facebook account.

Ministry of the Interior and MEC statistics indicated the government allocated 117 million euros ($132.65 million) to the ELC, compared with 115.6 million euros ($131.07 million) in 2020, and 2.6 million euros ($2.95 million) to the Finnish Orthodox Church, compared with 2.58 million euros ($2.93 million) in 2019.  The MEC allotted a total of 824,000 euros ($934,000) to all other registered religious organizations, equal to the amount allotted in 2020.  This sum includes 524,000 euros ($594,000) distributed across communities in relation to the number of registered members and 300,000 euros ($340,000) to the Helsinki Jewish Congregation to continue its investments in security at facilities and events following antisemitic incidents.  Religious leaders of minority religions indicated concern over the funding allocation.  Several Muslim community leaders noted what they said was that a lack of cultural understanding regarding individual registration hurt funding for Muslim communities, while the Catholic Church lobbied for the ability of its members to designate funds for the Church through their taxes, as ELC and Finnish Orthodox Church members are able to do.

The MEC awarded 80,000 euros ($90,700) to promote interfaith dialogue, consistent with funding in 2020.  Three organizations split the funding:  the CORE Forum, composed of representatives from the largest religious denominations; Fokus, an interfaith and intercultural organization; and Ad Astra, an organization promoting dialogue, interfaith projects, and inclusivity for children in schools, preschools, and daycare facilities.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In 2020, the latest period for which data were available, police reported 108 hate crimes against members of religious groups, including crimes involving assault, threats and harassment, discrimination, and vandalism, compared with 133 such incidents in 2019.  There were 39 incidents involving Muslims, 28 involving Christians, including two involving Jehovah’s Witnesses, 18 involving Jews, and 21 involving others or unknown religious groups.  Police did not, however, cite any details of the incidents or release information on how many were motivated solely by religion.  Because religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.

Despite the ban on the self-described Pan-Nordic neo-Nazi NRM in the country, the group continued to operate a website, make statements promoting discrimination or violence against Jews and Muslims, and participate in demonstrations.  Authorities stated that in 2020, Finnish members of the NRM began operating as part of the Towards Freedom group, considered to be the NRM’s successor by the National Bureau of Investigation.  While Towards Freedom’s website remained active, it had not been updated since December 2020.  Former NRM members continued activities under new websites, including Partisaani, a far-right news aggregation website that spread anti-Muslim and antisemitic conspiracy theories and Finn Aid (Suomalaisapu), an organization that describes itself as a charity organization but also used anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric.  These outlets often featured the traditional NRM logo that includes neo-fascist imagery.

Finnish researchers studying online extremism stated that neo-Nazi activities decreased significantly during the year following the ban of the NRM.  Helsingin Sanomat reported in March, however, that the threat of terrorism posed by far-right groups, particularly as a response to racist and anti-Muslim “replacement theory” (which asserts that immigration and low birth rates among native populations will result in the replacement of native populations by foreigners of different races and religions), increased in the country, corresponding with the findings of a 2020 study by the National Bureau of Investigation.

In August, former Tampere City Council member and far-right party organizer Terhi Kiemunki led a protest organized by the Alliance of Nationalists commemorating the fourth anniversary of a terrorist attack by a self-identified soldier of ISIS in Turku, Finland.  While the Alliance of Nationalists stated that it did not take a position on the activities or opinions of its members or discriminate against other nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, the alliance hosted regular “White Lives Matter” events and promoted news articles describing “replacement theory” ideology on its webpage.  Leaders of the Alliance of Nationalists include former NRM members.  Police estimated attendance at the protest at more than 100 participants, fewer than both previous memorial demonstrations.  Police estimated attendance at a concurrent counterdemonstration by the anti-fascist group Turku Without Nazis as larger than the event sponsored by the Alliance of Nationalists.  Police arrested one person for harassing behavior, but police did not comment on whether the detainee took part in the protest or counterprotest.

Stickers and posters with antisemitic images and messages were placed on the synagogue of Helsinki’s Jewish Congregation, in neighborhoods with significant Jewish populations, and on public property throughout the year.  Sources stated the vandalism was both random and targeted.  Antisemitic graffiti and stickers bearing iconography of the NRM also appeared at LGBTQI+ Pride events.  Representatives of the Jewish community reported that despite available video and photographic evidence of those responsible, police made no arrests.

In September, anti-immigration activists organized a demonstration called Rise Finland (Nuose Suomi) in Helsinki’s Parliament Park to protest the reception of Afghan refugees in the country.  Speakers included former members of the NRM, and organizers advertised the event on the Norwegian branch of the NRM’s website and on Partisaani.  Speeches, broadcast live on YouTube, focused on what the organizers called “the Islamization of Finland” and called on Finns to take a stand for “Finnishness.”

In a Swedish documentary series released in Finland in January, Linda Karlstrom, the coach of the IK Kronan gymnastics club of Kronoby, made several remarks questioning the existence of the Holocaust.  The Swedish-speaking Sports Federation raised Karlstrom’s case, but the Gymnastics Association Disciplinary Committee did not punish her on free-speech grounds.  The disciplinary committee stated that, as a general rule, matters outside sports do not fall with its remit.  As of March, Karlstrom no longer coached at IK Kronan.

Anti-Muslim and antisemitic organizations were active across a variety of social media platforms.  “Replacement theory” references spread on Facebook, Twitter, the Russian social media network VK, and the American social media network Gab.  The European Jewish Congress and leaders of the Helsinki Jewish community reported antisemitic incidents in European social networks, including posts in Finnish, throughout the year.  Telegram, VK, Gab, and Twitter spread Holocaust denials and conspiracy theories of Jewish “world domination.” According to Helsingin Sanomat, the Finnish Football Association announced in May that it would donate Nike sports hijabs to every soccer player who wanted one.  The announcement was met with a backlash on Twitter, where a significant proportion of comments expressed opposition to the hijab.

NGOs working with migrants, including the Finnish Refugee Advice Centre, continued to raise concerns about the ability of religious minorities housed in migrant reception centers to worship without harassment from other migrants housed within the same center.  A representative of the center said converts to Christianity in migrant reception facilities continued to face harassment, including social exclusion, threats, and blackmail but that there were limited security and social services resources to combat these issues.

Leaders of Muslim religious organizations were divided concerning the need for additional houses of worship that could accommodate the growing and diverse Muslim community.  A representative of the CORE Forum said that Muslim groups continued to seek adequate houses of worship, but that they were hindered by insufficient funds from purchasing property, given that most Muslims did not belong to congregations registered with the government and did not choose to register.  Except for a handful of purpose-built mosques, most mosques were located in converted commercial spaces.  Other members of the Muslim community noted that, in sum, the spaces available were sufficient, but that persons from some religious or ethnic backgrounds may not feel comfortable using the currently available spaces.  According to one community leader, while the number of prayer rooms was sufficient, there were not enough spaces providing community services, particularly for women and children, or prayer services in Finnish.  Members of the LGBTQI+ Muslim community noted that there were no “safe spaces” for Muslims who identified as LGBTQI+ and, in particular, for LGBTQI+ Muslims in asylum-seeker reception centers.  Attempts to build a large grand mosque in the south of the country stalled; some Muslim community leaders identified politicization of zoning laws, anti-Muslim and racist attitudes in some local communities, and deep divisions across the diverse Muslim community as contributing factors.

Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland stated that other Muslim groups continued to block the group’s formal membership in interfaith organizations.  Representatives of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jamaat Finland said the group planned to construct a mosque and cultural center in the future and that although the mosque would be built solely with funds from the Ahmadi community, it would be open to all religious and nonreligious individuals.

The nondiscrimination ombudsman’s office reported receiving 34 complaints of religious discrimination in 2020 – 3 percent of total discrimination complaints – compared with 37 complaints in 2019.

The website Magneettimedia continued to post antisemitic content and in January published an article entitled, “Biden:  Jews in leadership positions in the White House, CIA, NSA, and Ministry of Finance,” and in April a piece entitled “World Power Aspirations of the Jewish Mafia.”  The website also warned of what it said was a coming confrontation among the Christian and Islamic and Jewish worlds that could lead to the destruction of Christianity.  Major companies and consumer brands continued to boycott the department store chain owned by the former owner of Magneettimedia, Juha Karkkainen, due to his antisemitic views.

In June, the Ministry of the Interior published a report by a working group dedicated to improving security at religious sites.  The report found that while nearly all (93 percent) Christian respondents reported feeling safe in or near their religious facilities, only 69 percent of Muslims and 33 percent of Jews reported feeling safe in the vicinity of designated religious spaces.  The report’s recommendations included improving state support for security for all religious communities.  According to the leadership of the Central Council of Jewish Communities, proposed budget cuts to synagogue security funding were a significant concern.  Representatives of the Ahmadi Muslim community said that they were not consulted in the production of the report and expressed additional security concerns, particularly about what they termed extremist groups.

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, representatives of religious groups participated in virtual events hosted by other religious groups.  Finn Church Aid (FCA), associated with the ELC, again hosted an interfaith iftar, bringing together virtually representatives from the largest religious groups, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and municipal governments.  The theme of the event was “Loving Thy Neighbor in the Time of a Pandemic:  An Inclusive Approach,” and it discussed how interfaith dialogue and community organization might advance religious freedom during difficult times and restrictions, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Throughout the year, embassy staff engaged with officials from the Ministries of Justice, Interior, and Foreign Affairs to discuss religious intolerance, the promotion of interfaith dialogue, the provision of religious services for refugees and asylum seekers, and the treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses in asylum adjudications.

Embassy staff engaged with Christian, Jewish, and Muslim clergy, lay activists from these communities, the Finnish Ecumenical Council, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other minority religious groups to discuss the state of religious freedom in the country.  Embassy staff and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities discussed these communities’ shared concerns about the impact of government guidelines discouraging male circumcision, religiously motivated crimes, and problems establishing or maintaining places of worship that fit the various needs of the diverse Muslim population.  Embassy staff also discussed anti-Muslim discrimination with representatives from different Muslim congregations and met regularly with NGOs such as the CORE Forum.  Embassy staff continued to engage with representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning the high rate of application denials for Jehovah’s Witnesses from Russia seeking asylum on grounds of religious persecution.  Embassy staff corresponded with representatives of the Ahmadi Muslim community, who expressed concerns over the high rate of denials of asylum applications for Ahmadis from Pakistan and the security situation of the Ahmadi community in Finland.  Embassy staff also engaged with the predominantly Muslim Uyghur community.

The embassy coordinated approaches on anti-Semitism with counterparts in the UK and Canadian diplomatic missions.  Embassy officers used social media messaging to elevate minority religious voices and to promote greater Holocaust awareness.

Embassy staff participated in events hosted by minority religious groups and the CORE Forum.  Embassy staff participated in an online seminar in September that promoted interfaith dialogue to confront persecution of religious minorities.  In October, embassy staff participated in the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the CORE Forum, which included a seminar series on religious literacy and direct engagement with government officials and leaders of religious institutions on issues of religious expression, cooperation, and freedom.

France

Executive Summary

The constitution and the law protect the right of individuals to choose, change, and practice religion. On August 24, President Emmanuel Macron signed a law providing authorities broader powers to monitor and close down religious organizations and groups they determined to be promoting ideas contrary to French values.  Religious groups, including Muslim, Catholic, Protestant, and Christian Orthodox leaders, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) publicly condemned the law before it was enacted, saying that it “risks undermining fundamental freedoms” such as freedom of worship and of association.  Although the law did not specifically mention Islam, critics said it targeted and stigmatized Muslims and that President Macron had initially proposed the law as a means to combat “Islamist separatism.”  In January, the government praised Muslim leaders who reached an agreement on a “Charter of Principles for the Islam of France,” affirming the signatories’ adherence to national law and values.  Critics of the charter said it was crafted by the government and represented an unconstitutional intervention into religious affairs.  The government dissolved by decree several Muslim organizations it accused of “inciting hatred, violence, and discrimination,” and said that it had closed 672 Muslim establishments from February 2018 through October 2021, including 21 mosques since November 2020.  On April 14, the Court of Cassation – the country’s highest court of criminal and civil appeal – upheld lower court rulings that cannabis use by the killer of a 65-year-old Jewish woman in 2017 rendered him criminally irresponsible for her death, leading to protests and creation of a parliamentary commission of inquiry into the affair.  After President Macron’s announcement that a COVID-19 “health pass” would be required to enter public spaces beginning in August, some protesters wore the yellow Star of David or held signs comparing treatment of nonvaccinated persons to that of Jews during the Holocaust; others protested with antisemitic signs.  President Macron and other government officials continued to condemn antisemitic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Christian acts, and the government continued to deploy security forces to protect religious and other sensitive sites.  In October, the Senate adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism.  In February, the Paris city council adopted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism; in March, the Strasbourg city council rejected it.

There were instances of religiously motivated crimes and other abuses against Christians, Jews, and Muslims, including physical assaults, threats, hate speech, discrimination, and vandalism and the killing in August of a priest in the Loire Region that generated a public outcry.  In the latter case, authorities judged the killer mentally unfit and placed him in a psychiatric hospital.  Authorities reported registering 1,659 antireligious acts during the year, a 12 percent drop compared with the same period in 2019, when 1,893 acts were reported.  (According to the Ministry of the Interior, statistics from 2020, when it recorded 1,386 antireligious acts, were not comparable because of the COVID-19 lockdown.)  While the total number of acts reported decreased from 2019, the number of anti-Muslim acts increased by 38 percent to 213, from 154 in 2019 (234 in 2020).  Anti-Christian acts decreased 19 percent to 857, from 1,052 in 2019 (813 in 2020), and antisemitic acts fell 14 percent to 589, from 687 in 2019 (339 in 2020).  In September, the Brussels-based NGO Action and Protection League issued the results of its European antisemitism survey based on data that was collected in France between February and June 2020.  According to the survey, 7 percent of 1,000 respondents ages 18-75 in France said they had negative feelings towards Jews.

Officials from the U.S. embassy, consulates, and American Presence Posts (APPs) discussed religious tolerance, antisemitic and anti-Muslim acts, the role of religious freedom in combating violent extremism, and cooperation on these issues with officials at the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs and the Interministerial Delegation to Fight Against Racism, Antisemitism and Anti-LGBT Hate (DILCRAH).  The Charge d’Affaires and embassy, consulate, and APP officials met regularly with religious communities and their leaders throughout the country to discuss religious freedom concerns and encourage interfaith cooperation and tolerance, including engaging Christian, Jewish, and Muslim representatives in Strasbourg, discussions of interfaith dialogue in Rennes, exchanges on antisemitism in Lyon, and raising Holocaust awareness in Marseille.  The embassy sponsored projects and events to combat religious discrimination and religiously motivated hate crimes, such as projects bringing together youth of different faiths and a roundtable with religious leaders, and regularly used social media to convey messages highlighting issues pertaining to religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 68.1 million (midyear 2021).  ccording to a January 2020 report released by the government-appointed Observatory for Secularism, based on a poll conducted in cooperation with polling company Viavoice, approximately 47 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 3 percent Muslim, 3 percent Protestant, 2 percent Buddhist, 1 percent Jewish, 1 percent Christian Orthodox, and 1 percent other religious groups; 34 percent said they have no religious affiliation and 8 percent preferred not to respond.  According to the observatory’s 2019 report, there are 140,000-150,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses and 150,000-300,000 Hindus.  In a poll on secularism released in February and conducted with Viavoice, 35 percent of respondents say they are believers, 30 percent nonbelievers or atheist, 14 percent agnostic, and 13 percent indifferent.  Most observers, including the observatory in its 2019 report, estimate the number of Muslims in the country at three to five million, or between 4 and 7 percent of the population.  According to Church of Scientology leaders, there are approximately 40,000 followers in the country.

A poll by the research firm French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) conducted August 24-25 found that 51 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God, and 49 percent said they do.  According to the IFOP poll, the highest percentage of believers (58 percent) was found among those 65 years and older and the lowest (45 percent) among those aged 35-49.  Other age groups were close to evenly split, with a slight majority of nonbelievers.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The law, as well as international and European covenants to which the country adheres, protects the freedom of individuals to choose, change, and practice their religion.  Interference with freedom of religion is subject to criminal penalties, including a fine of 1,500 euros ($1,700) and imprisonment for one month.  Individuals who are defendants in a trial may challenge the constitutionality of any law they say impedes their freedom of religion.

Laws increase the penalties for acts of violence or defamation when they are committed because of the victim’s actual or perceived membership or nonmembership in a given religious group.  Additional penalties beyond those for the underlying crime for acts of violence that courts determine are religiously motivated are three to five years’ imprisonment and fines of 45,000 to 75,000 euros ($51,000-$85,000), depending on the severity of the victims’ injuries.  For religiously motivated acts of public defamation, defined as an allegation of fact that affects the honor of a person or body, the penalties are one year’s imprisonment and/or a fine of 45,000 euros ($51,000).  The government may expel noncitizens for inciting discrimination, hatred, or violence against a specific person or group of persons based on religion.

The law penalizes hate crimes and hate speech.  Provisions in the criminal code cover hate crimes.  They criminalize racist, antisemitic, or xenophobic acts, considering them as aggravating circumstances when an offense is committed on the basis of a victim’s membership or nonmembership, true or supposed, in a given ethnic group, nation, race, or religion.  When made in public, such as on the internet, hate speech is covered by a special law related to the rights of the press that criminalizes the publication or dissemination of racist remarks, including those directed against persons because of their membership in religious groups.  The law covers all means of public expression (speeches, exclamations, threats, writings, printed matter, drawings, engravings, paintings, symbols, images, etc.), and any media permitting wide dissemination to the public.  When not made in public, hate speech is covered by the criminal code and punishable by a 1,500 euro ($1,700) fine.

There is no national-level law prohibiting blasphemy, but Alsace-Moselle continues to retain part of an old German code, a remnant from past German annexation of the area, that declares “blasphemy” against Catholics a crime.  However, a Ministry of Justice decree states that the antiblasphemy provision may not be applied anywhere in the country.

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

Religious groups must apply at the local prefecture (the administrative body, headed by a prefect, that represents the central government in each department) for recognition as an association of worship and tax-exempt status.  To qualify as an association of worship, the group’s sole purpose must be the practice of religion, which may include liturgical services and practices, religious training, and the construction of buildings serving the religious group.  The association must also engage in public worship and respect public order.  Among excluded activities are those that are purely cultural, social, or humanitarian in nature.  To apply for tax-exempt status, the association must provide to the prefecture its estimated budget for the year, annual accounts for the previous three years or since the association’s creation, whichever is shorter, a written justification of eligibility for the status, and the number of members of the association.  In Paris, the association must have a minimum of 25 members.  Once granted, the association may use the tax-exempt status nationwide.  The government does not tax associations of worship on donations they receive.  If the prefecture determines an association is not in conformity with its tax-exempt status, however, the government may change that status and require the association to pay taxes at a rate of 60 percent on past, as well as future, donations until it regains tax-exempt status.  The Ministry of Interior has not provided recent information on the number of associations with tax-exempt status.  According to ministry data more than a decade old, there are 109 Protestant, 100 Catholic, 50 Jehovah’s Witness, 30 Muslim, and 15 Jewish associations with tax-exempt status.

The number of cultural associations, many of which are not associated with religious groups, is in the thousands and changes frequently.  Cultural associations may be declared using an online form through the government’s public administration website.  Cultural associations, even if associated with religious groups, may operate without applying for government recognition, but receiving government recognition exempts them from taxes.  The Church of Scientology has the status of a secular and not a religious association.

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

Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find that comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred, or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.”  The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court.  A place of worship that has been closed may remain closed beyond the six-month maximum if it does not replace its chief cleric and/or management.  Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,500).  A counterterrorism and intelligence law that parliament enacted on July 22 makes permanent some provisions of a 2017 law on internal security and counterterrorism that had been set to expire July 31.  The new law allows authorities to close facilities belonging to places of worship linked to acts of terrorism, rather than only the places of worship themselves, as was previously the case.

The law prohibits covering one’s face, including for religious reasons, in public places, including public transportation, government buildings, and other public spaces, such as restaurants and movie theaters.  If police encounter a person in a public space wearing a face covering such as a niqab or burqa, they are legally required to ask the individual to remove it to verify the individual’s identity.  According to the law, police officials may not remove it themselves.  If an individual refuses to remove the garment, police may take the person to the local police station to verify his or her identity.  Police may not question or hold an individual for more than four hours.  Refusing a police instruction to remove a face-covering garment carries a maximum fine of 150 euros ($170) or attendance at a citizenship course.  Individuals who coerce other persons to cover their face on account of gender by threat, violence, force, or abuse of power or authority are subject to a fine of up to 30,000 euros ($34,000) and may receive a sentence of up to one year in prison.  The fine and sentence are doubled if the person coerced is a minor.  The law exempts use of face coverings mandated by the authorities, such as masks worn for COVID-19 prevention.

The law prohibits agents of the administration, public services, and companies or associations carrying out public services from demonstrating their religion through visible signs of religious affiliation, such as an Islamic headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, or Christian cross.  The prohibition applies during working hours even if the agents are not in their place of employment and at any time at the place of employment.

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

The Upholding Republican Values law – passed by parliament on July 23, ruled constitutional on August 13 by the Constitutional Court, and signed by President Macron on August 24 – includes measures expanding requirements of neutrality in expression and attire for public servants and private contractors of public services, methods to combat online hate speech, stricter restrictions on homeschooling, increased control of public associations, transparency of religious associations, and enhanced measures against polygamy, forced marriages, and “virginity certificates.”  The law requires audits of associations, including those that are religious in nature, that receive foreign funding of more than 153,000 euros ($173,500) per year.  The law imposes additional reporting requirements on local religious-based organizations.  It modifies a law on policing of religions to include punishing the