An official website of the United States Government Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

A .gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Algeria

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and worship.  The constitution declares Islam to be the state religion and prohibits state institutions from behaving in a manner incompatible with Islam.  The law grants all individuals the right to practice their religion as long as they respect public order and regulations.  Offending or insulting any religion is a criminal offense.  Proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a crime.  In May authorities charged 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia with “insulting the precepts of Islam,” “operating an association without approval,” and “collecting money without authorization.”  The courts acquitted three of the Ahmadis while sentencing the others to three months in prison.  According to media reports, authorities charged five Christians from Bouira Province, three of whom belong to the same family, with “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.”  On December 25, a judge at the court of Bouira acquitted the five individuals.  In March a court in Tiaret convicted and fined two Christian brothers for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use them for proselytism; the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).  In May another court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing, sentenced them to three months in prison, and fined them 100,000 dinars.  Leaders of the Ahmadi community reported the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims during the year.  Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations.  There were reports of police confiscating passports and educational diplomas from Ahmadi Muslims, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Authorities closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the Protestant Church of Algeria (EPA) during the year on charges of operating without authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  At the end of the year, four churches remained closed.  Some Christian groups continued to report facing a range of administrative difficulties in the absence of a written government response to their requests for recognition as associations.  The government continued to regulate the importation of all books, including religious materials.  Senior government officials continued to oppose calls by extremist groups for violence in the name of Islam.  They also continued to criticize the spread of what they characterized as “foreign” religious influences such as Salafism, Wahhabism, Shia Islam, and Ahmadi Islam.

Media outlets reported the killings of three Sunni imams during the year.  The government attributed the attacks to extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings.  Some Christian leaders and congregants spoke of family members abusing Muslims who converted to or expressed an interest in Christianity.  Media reported unknown individuals vandalized two Christian cemeteries, smashing tombstones and ransacking graves.  Individuals engaged in religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported they had experienced threats and intolerance, including in the media.

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers frequently encouraged senior government officials in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Religious Affairs, Justice, and Interior to promote religious tolerance and discussed the difficulties Ahmadis, Christians, and other religious minority groups faced in registering as associations, importing religious materials, and obtaining visas.  Embassy officers in meetings and programs with religious leaders from both Sunni Muslim and minority religious groups, as well as with other members of the public, focused on pluralism and religious moderation.  The embassy used special events, social media, and speakers’ programs to emphasize a message of religious tolerance.  In April the embassy hosted a delegation of nine Americans – a university program officer, one imam, six community and religious leaders, and the executive director of a think tank – for a ten-day tour focused on promoting people-to-people religious ties.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs facilitated the delegation’s visit to six cities – Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Biskra, Tlemcen, and Maskara – where the delegation met with a range of imams, community leaders, and ministry officials to discuss the role of religion in countering extremist narratives and religious communities in the United States.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 41.7 million (July 2018 estimate), more than 99 percent of whom are Muslims following the Maliki school of Sunni Islam.  Religious groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, Ahmadi Muslims, Shia Muslims, and a community of Ibadi Muslims residing principally in the province of Ghardaia.  Some religious leaders estimate there are fewer than 200 Jews.

The Christian community includes Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Methodists, members of the EPA, Lutherans, the Reformed Church, Anglicans, and an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Egyptian Coptic Christians.  Religious leaders’ unofficial estimates of the number of Christians range from 20,000 to 200,000.  According to government officials, foreign residents make up the majority of the Christian population.  The proportion of students and immigrants without legal status from sub-Saharan Africa among the Christian population has also increased in recent years.  Christian leaders say citizens who are Christians predominantly belong to Protestant groups.

Christians reside mostly in the cities of Algiers, Bejaia, Tizi Ouzou, Annaba, and Oran, and the Kabylie region east of the capital.

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 constitution provides for freedom of worship in accordance with the law and states freedom of conscience and freedom of opinion are inviolable.

The law does not prohibit conversion from Islam, but proselytizing of Muslims by non-Muslims is a criminal offense.  The law prescribes a maximum punishment of one million dinars ($8,500) 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 to this end 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 a punishment of three to five years in prison and/or a fine of 50,000 to 100,000 dinars ($420 to $850) 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 as long as they respect public order and regulations.

The constitution establishes a High Islamic Council and states the council shall encourage and promote ijtihad (the use of independent reasoning as a source of Islamic law for issues not precisely addressed in the Quran) and express opinions on religious questions presented for its review.  The president appoints the members of the council and oversees its work.  The constitution requires the council to submit regular reports to the president on its activities.  A presidential decree further defines the council’s mission as taking responsibility for all questions related to Islam, for correcting mistaken perceptions, and for promoting the true fundamentals of the religion and a correct understanding of it.  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 Ministry of Interior (MOI) grants association status to religious groups; only registered associations are officially recognized.  The MOI’s registration requirements for national-level associations stipulate the founding members must furnish documents proving their identities, addresses, and other biographic details; furnish police and judicial records to prove their good standing in society; show they have founding members residing in at least one quarter of the country’s provinces to prove the association merits national standing; submit the association’s constitution signed by its president; and submit documents indicating the location of its headquarters. The law requires the ministry to provide a receipt for the application once it has received all the required documentation and to give a response within 60 days of submission of the completed application.  The law states applicants are de facto approved if the ministry fails to make a decision within the 60-day limit.  The law grants the government full discretion in making registration decisions, but provides applicants an opportunity to appeal a denial to an administrative tribunal.  For associations seeking to register at the local or provincial level, application requirements are similar, but the association’s membership and sphere of activity is strictly limited to the area in which it registers.  An association registered at the wilaya (provincial) level is confined to that specific wilaya.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA) must approve registration applications of religious associations.  The law, however, does not specify additional requirements for religious associations or further specify the MRA’s role in the process.  Religious groups may appeal an MRA denial to an administrative tribunal.

The National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, a government entity, is responsible by law for facilitating the registration process for all non-Muslim groups.  The MRA presides over the commission, 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 Committee (CNDH).  Representatives from Catholic and Protestant churches have not met or communicated with this Commission and believe it rarely meets.

The CNDH monitors and evaluates human rights issues, including matters related to religious freedom.  The law authorizes the agency 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 agency may address concerns of individuals and groups that believe they are not being treated fairly by the MRA.  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 agency’s members.

The law specifies the manner and conditions under which religious services, Muslim or otherwise, may take place.  The law states religious demonstrations are subject to regulation and the government may shut down any religious service, taking place in private homes or in outdoor settings without official approval.  With the exception of 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, run by a registered religious association, open to the public, and marked as such on the exterior.  A request for permission to observe special non-Muslim 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 organizers also must obtain a permit from the wali.  The wali may request the organizers to move the location of an event or deny permission for it to take place if he deems it would be a danger to public order or harm “national constants,” “good mores,” or symbols of the revolution.  If unauthorized meetings go forward without approval, participants are subject to dispersal by the police.  Failure to disperse at the behest of the police may result in 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 ($850) and a prison sentence of one to three years.  Fines as high as 200,000 dinars ($1,700) and prison sentences of three to five years are stipulated for any person, including government-authorized imams, who acts “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion.”  The law states such acts include exploiting the mosque to achieve purely material or personal objectives or with a view to harming persons or groups.

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

The Ministries of Religious Affairs, Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Commerce must approve the importation of all religious texts, except those intended for personal use.

A 2017 decree established a commission within the MRA to review importation of the Quran.  Authorities generally consider “importation” to be approximately 20 or more religious texts or items.  This decree requires all applications to include a full copy of the text and other detailed information.  The ministry is given three to six months to review the text, with the absence of a response after that time constituting a rejection of the importation application.  A separate 2017 decree covering religious texts other than the Quran states, “The content of religious books for import, regardless of format, must not undermine the religious unity of society, the national religious reference, public order, good morals, fundamental rights and liberties, or the law.”  The importer must submit the text and other information, and the ministry must respond within 30 days.  A nonresponse after this period is considered a rejection.  Religious texts distributed without authorization may be seized and destroyed.

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

Under the law, children born to a Muslim father are considered Muslim regardless of the mother’s religion.

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 being closed.

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 constitution prohibits non-Muslims from running for the presidency.  Non-Muslims may hold other public offices and work within the government.

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

The family code prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men unless the man converts to Islam.  The code does not prohibit Muslim men from marrying non-Muslim women.

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

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.

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

Government Practices

In May authorities prosecuted 26 Ahmadi Muslims in Bejaia for insulting the precepts of Islam, operating an association without approval, and collecting money without authorization.  Their case went to trial in June.  The court acquitted three persons, sentenced a married couple in absentia to six months in prison, and sentenced the remaining individuals to three months in prison.

The government continued to enforce the ban on proselytizing by non-Muslim groups.  According to media reports, authorities arrested, jailed, and fined several Christians on charges of proselytizing by non-Muslims, which prompted churches to restrict some activities not related to proselytizing, such as the distribution of religious literature and holding of events in the local community Muslims might attend.  According to media reports, authorities charged five Christians from Bouira Province, three of whom belong to the same family, with “inciting a Muslim to change his religion” and “performing religious worship in an unauthorized place.”  On December 25, a judge at the court of Bouira acquitted the five individuals.

In March a court in Tiaret convicted two Christian brothers on proselytism charges for carrying more than 50 Bibles in their car.  Prosecutors said the accused planned to use the Bibles for proselytism, while the brothers said they were for church use only.  The court upheld the proselytism charges and fined each man 100,000 dinars ($850).

In May a court convicted a church leader and another Christian of proselytizing for transporting Bibles.  The court fined each individual 100,000 dinars ($850) and sentenced each to three months in prison.

In July a court in Dar El-Beyda dropped all charges against Idir Hamdad, a man arrested in April 2016 at the Algiers airport for carrying a Bible and several religious artifacts including crucifixes, scarves, and keyrings.  The court originally sentenced Hamdad in absentia in September 2017 to six months in prison and fined him 20,000 dinars ($170) on charges of importing unlicensed goods.  On May 3, following his lawyer’s appeal, the court overturned the prison sentence but upheld the fine.  On July 9, the prosecutor appealed, asking for a harsher sentence, but the court dropped all charges against Hamdad.  In its verdict, the court found that Hamdad was prosecuted “simply because he converted to Christianity, and what he was carrying was only gifts.”

Throughout the year, the government conducted investigations of at least 85 Ahmadi Muslims, according to leaders of the Ahmadi community.  Charges included operating an unregistered religious association, collecting funds without authorization, and holding prayers in unauthorized locations.  There were reports of police confiscating passports and educational diplomas from the Ahmadis, and pressuring employers to put Ahmadi workers on administrative leave.  Some of those investigated during the year were placed in pretrial detention, put on trial, and given prison sentences of up to six months.  Others appealed charges and court decisions, were placed under house arrest, or were freed after pretrial detention or serving a prison sentence.  As of December no Ahmadi Muslims were in prison.

Between November 2017 and December 2018, according to the president of the EPA, the government closed eight churches and a nursery associated with the EPA for operating without government authorization, illegally printing evangelical publications, and failing to meet building safety codes.  In June authorities reopened three churches in Oran, Ain Turk, and El Ayaida they had closed between November 2017 and February 2018.  As of the end of the year, three churches affiliated with the EPA in Bejaia and one non-EPA church in Tizi Ouzo remain closed.  Media reported that on December 4, in Oran, the provincial government cancelled the closure of a Christian bookshop associated with the nursery.  The bookshop owner, Pastor Rachid Seighir, was not compensated for the losses incurred since authorities ordered the shop’s closure in November 2017.

The UN Human Rights Committee in July adopted a report including the following language:  “the Committee remains concerned by reports of closures of churches and evangelical institutions and various restrictions on worship by Ahmadi persons.  It also expresses concern regarding allegations of attacks, acts of intimidation and arrests targeting persons who do not fast during Ramadan…”

A lawyer for the Ahmadi community said judges and prosecutors on several occasions questioned Ahmadi defendants in court about their religious beliefs and theological differences with Sunni Islam.  Members of the Ahmadi community said government officials tried to persuade them to recant their beliefs while they were in custody.

In April Slimane Bouhafs, a Christian convert, was released after spending 18 months in prison for posting statements in 2016 on his Facebook page deemed insulting to the Prophet Muhammad.  In July 2017, authorities commuted his sentence as part of a presidential amnesty.  A court originally sentenced Bouhafs to five years in prison plus a 100,000 dinar ($850) fine; authorities later reduced that sentence to three years.

In May a court in Tiaret upheld a verdict against Noureddine Belabbes and another Christian, who previously had been found guilty of proselytizing and fined 100,000 dinars ($850) and legal expenses after their arrest in 2015 for transporting Bibles.  Authorities originally sentenced Belabbes and his colleague in 2017 to two years in prison and a 50,000 dinar ($420) fine, but after a March appeal, the judge overturned the prison sentences and instead gave them suspended prison sentences of three months each and doubled the fines.  Belabbes stated that he would not appeal the judgment.

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

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

According to the MOI, although religious associations were de facto registered if the ministry did not reject their applications within 60 days of submission, the 60-day clock did not begin until the ministry considered the application complete and had issued a receipt to that effect.  Nongovernmental organizations and religious leaders said the MOI routinely failed to provide them with a receipt proving they had submitted a completed registration application.  Ahmadis reported their request to meet with Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa or another senior ministry official to discuss their registration concerns had not received a government response.

The Ahmadi community reported administrative difficulties and harassment since they are not a registered association and are unable to meet and collect donations.  Members of the Ahmadi community said they tried to register with the MRA and Ministry of Interior (MOI) as a Muslim group but the government rejected their applications because it regards Ahmadis as non-Muslims.  The government said it would approve the community’s registration as non-Muslims, but the Ahmadis refused to file as anything but Muslims.

In accordance with the 2012 Associations Law that all organizations needed to reregister with the government, several religious groups registered under the previous law continued to try to reregister with the government.  The EPA and the Seventh-day Adventist Church submitted paperwork to renew their registrations in 2014 but as of year’s end had still not received a response from the MOI.

Some religious groups stated they functioned as registered 60 days after having submitted their application, even though they had not received an MOI 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 and also had limited standing to pursue legal complaints and could not engage in charitable activities, which required bank accounts.

Most Christian leaders stated they had no contact with the National Commission for Non-Muslim Religious Groups, despite its legal mandate to work with them on registration, since its establishment in 2006.  Other MRA officials, however, met regularly with Christian leaders to hear their views, including complaints about the registration process.  Christian leaders stated some Protestant groups continued to avoid applying for recognition and instead operated discreetly because they lacked confidence in the registration process.

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 Kabylie region, reportedly held worship services more discreetly.  There were no reports of the government shutting down house churches during the year.

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

The government did not grant any permits for the importation of Christian religious texts during the year, and at least one request remained pending from 2017.  Representatives of the EPA stated they had been waiting more than a year for a new import authorization; the last such authorization was in October 2016.  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.  The government enforced its prohibition on dissemination of any literature portraying violence as a legitimate precept of Islam.

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, the government did not always enforce the family code prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men.

In August a local Muslim man applied to a court in Tebessa to marry a Belgian Christian woman.  The court rejected his request because the woman “is Christian and does not embrace Islam.”

Sources stated that Christian leaders were able to visit Christians in prison, regardless of the nature of their imprisonment.

Church groups reported the government did not respond in a timely fashion to their requests for visas for religious workers and visiting scholars and speakers, resulting in an increase in de facto visa refusals.  One Christian leader said the government did not grant or refused 50 percent of visas requested for Catholic Church workers.  As of the end of the year, three members of the Catholic Church had been waiting a year for visas.  Catholic and Protestant groups continued to identify the delays as a significant hindrance to religious practice.  One religious leader identified lack of visa issuances as a major impediment to maintaining contact with the church’s international organization.  Higher-level intervention with officials responsible for visa issuance by senior MRA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials at the request of religious groups sometimes resulted in the issuance of long-term visas, according to those groups.

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

Government-owned radio stations continued to broadcast Christmas and Easter services in French, although many Christians said they would prefer services be broadcast in Arabic or Tamazight.  The country’s efforts to stem religious extremism include dedicated state-run religious TV and radio channels and messages of moderation integrated into mainstream media.

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

Government officials continued to invite leading Christian and Jewish citizens to events celebrating national occasions.  President Abdelaziz Bouteflika invited Christian and Jewish community representatives to the November 1 parade to commemorate the beginning of the revolution, according them the same status as Muslim, cultural, and national figures.

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

Government officials regularly made statements about the need for tolerance of non-Islamic religious groups.  In May imams, representatives from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and municipal officials participated in an interfaith event at a Catholic church in Algiers on the significance of the Virgin Mary in Islam and Christianity.  The same group attended an exhibition on the 99 names of Allah at a Catholic church during Ramadan.

In December a cardinal of the Catholic Church beatified 19 Catholics killed during Algeria’s civil war at a ceremony in Oran.  Algerian authorities facilitated the beatification process by providing transportation, security, and visas to members of the Catholic Church who attended the ceremony.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In January unknown individuals hoping to regain control of mosques they reportedly considered too liberal physically killed two imams in the cities of Skikda and Tadjena, respectively.  The attacks took place during weekly committee meetings to manage the mosques’ space and affairs.  After the attacks, Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa filed a complaint and started an investigation of those who attacked the imams.  As of the end of the year, the government had not released updates or results of the investigation to the public.

In June Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa said, “It is no secret that radicals are constantly trying to seize the mosques of the republic and influence the mosques’ messages.  These individuals managed to infiltrate groups that seemed pacifist.  They are the cause of the death of two imams; they hurt and insulted dozens of others who did not share their ideologies.”  In July Aissa froze the weekly mosque management committee meetings because he reportedly felt extremist individuals would try to direct the mosques via these committee meetings.  He said these events were reminiscent of the 1990s when the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front forcibly seized control of mosques to spread its extremist ideology.

In October unknown individuals stabbed an imam in a mosque before dawn prayer near the city of Laghouat.  Mosque attendees found the imam and called emergency services, which declared the imam dead.  At year’s end, the government was conducting an investigation to find the individuals responsible.

Media reported a group of young people desecrated more than 31 Christian graves in the British Military La Reunion War Cemetery in Oued Ghir, Bejaia in September, smashing tombstones and ransacking the graves.  A few weeks earlier, unknown individuals vandalized another Christian cemetery in Ain M’lila.  Authorities stated they believed Islamic extremists were responsible for the vandalism but no news of those responsible had been released by year’s end.

Christian leaders said when Christian converts died family members sometimes buried them according to Islamic rites, and their churches had no standing to intervene on their behalf.  Christian groups reported some villages continued not to permit Christians to be buried alongside Muslims.

Several Christian leaders reported instances in which citizens who converted, or who expressed interest in learning more about Christianity, were assaulted by family members, or otherwise pressured to recant their conversions.

Some Christian converts reported 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.

Media outlets reported in August hundreds of imams had lodged complaints in recent years after suffering violent attacks.  MRA officials said extremists who opposed the imams’ moderate teachings carried out the attacks, while others were related to interpersonal disputes.  The government said it would take additional steps to protect imams such as stationing security forces near mosques to deter future attacks and providing more support for local authorities to investigate and prosecute such cases.

The media criticized religious communities it portrayed as “sects” or “deviations” from Islam or as “foreign,” such as Ahmadi Muslims and Shia Muslims.  Some who openly engaged in any religious practice other than Sunni Islam reported that family, neighbors, or others criticized their religious practice, harassed them to convert, and occasionally insinuated they could be in danger because of their choice.

Christian leaders continued to state they had good relations with Muslims in their communities, with only isolated incidents of vandalism or harassment.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Ambassador and other embassy officers met with government officials from 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.

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

The embassy discussed the practice of religion, its intersection with politics, religious tolerance, and the religious and political roles of women with religious and political leaders, as well as with the Muslim Scholars Association and High Islamic Council.  Visiting officials from the U.S. Department of State regularly raised religious freedom issues in meetings with civil society and government officials.

The Ambassador and other embassy staff hosted several dinners and receptions featuring discussions emphasizing the theme of religious tolerance.  The embassy regularly posted social media content promoting religious freedom, including examples of religious pluralism in the United States.  Embassy staff and embassy-sponsored U.S. speakers addressed the themes of pluralism and religious tolerance in discussions with civil society, youth, and organizations representing a cross-section of citizens.

In April the embassy facilitated the first part of a bilateral exchange program focusing on religion.  The embassy hosted a delegation of nine Americans – a university program officer, one imam, six community and religious leaders, and the executive director of a think tank – for a ten-day tour focused on promoting people-to-people religious ties.  The Ministry of Religious Affairs facilitated the delegation’s visit to six cities – Algiers, Constantine, Oran, Biskra, Tlemcen, and Maskara – where the delegation met with a range of imams, community leaders, and ministry officials to discuss the role of religion in countering extremist narratives and religious communities in the United States.  The second portion of the exchange program is scheduled to take place in 2019 and involve imams visiting the United States to learn about religion and share their experiences.

Burma

Executive Summary

The constitution guarantees every citizen “the right to freely profess and practice religion subject to public order, morality or health and to the other provisions of this Constitution.”  The law prohibits speech or acts insulting or defaming any religion or religious beliefs; authorities used these laws to limit freedom of expression and press.  Local and international experts said deeply woven prejudices led to abuses and discrimination against religious minorities by government and societal actors.  It was sometimes difficult to categorize incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity in the country.  Violence, discrimination, and harassment against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine State, who are nearly all Muslim, and other minority populations continued.  Following the ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya that took place in 2017 and resulted in the displacement of more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh, Rohingya who remained in Burma continued to face an environment of particularly severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status, according to the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).  In March the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar reported that the government appeared to be using starvation tactics against remaining Rohingya.  On September 17, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published its final report on the country, which detailed atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as other areas, and characterized the “genocidal intent” of the military’s 2017 operations in Rakhine State.  The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report.  Some government and military officials used anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech circulating on social media in formal meetings, public speeches, and other official settings.  Public remarks by the minister of religious affairs in November were widely understood to denigrate Muslims.  Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State.  In other areas, non-Buddhist minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and Muslims, reported incidents in which authorities unduly restricted religious practice, denied freedom of movement to members of religious minorities, closed places of worship, denied or failed to approve permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discriminated in employment and housing.  The military’s selective denial of humanitarian access in some conflict areas, including Kachin, Chin, and Rakhine States, led to severe hardship on religious minorities and others and intercommunal tensions, according to NGOs.  Among Rohingya who fled the country during the year, some cited ongoing abuses in Rakhine State, while others reportedly fled due to government pressure to participate in a citizenship verification campaign, which they stated they did not trust.  NGOs and religious groups said local authorities in some cases worked to reduce religious tension and improve relations between communities.

In the Wa Self-Administered Division, where the government has no administrative control, United Wa State Army (UWSA) authorities detained Christian leaders, destroyed churches, and otherwise interfered with Christian religious practice, according to media reports and the UWSA spokesperson.

Some leaders and members of Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation, better known by its former name Ma Ba Tha, continued to issue pejorative statements against Muslims.  In May the State Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee (SSMNC), an independent but government-supported body that oversees Buddhist affairs, reiterated its 2017 order that no group or individual was allowed to operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha.  In spite of the order, many local Ma Ba Tha branches continued to operate with that name.  The SSMNC’s 2017 ban on public speaking by the monk Wirathu, a self-described nationalist, expired in March.  He appeared at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon in October, at which he made anti-Muslim statements.  Other Ma Ba Tha leaders continued propagating anti-Muslim sentiment in sermons and through social media.  Anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya hate speech was prevalent on social media.  Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.  Religious and civil society leaders continued to organize intrafaith and interfaith events and developed mechanisms to monitor and counter hate speech.

Senior U.S. government officials, including the Vice President, Secretary of State, Ambassador to the United Nations, USAID Administrator, Ambassador to Burma, and Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom advocated for religious freedom and tolerance and consistently raised concerns about discrimination against religious minorities, the treatment of Rohingya and conditions in Rakhine State, and the prevalence of anti-Muslim hate speech and religious tension.  In November the Vice President said, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse” and asked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi about the country’s progress in holding accountable those who were responsible.  In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in Washington, the USAID Administrator stated, “The Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing:  extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.”  The United States has sanctioned five generals and two military units for human rights violations against ethnic and religious minorities.  Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, frequently met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, to highlight concerns about religiously based discrimination and abuses and called for respect for religious freedom and the values of diversity and tolerance in statements and other public messaging.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 55.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the most recently available estimates, approximately 88 percent are Theravada Buddhists.  Approximately 6 percent are Christians (primarily Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Anglicans, along with several small Protestant denominations).  Muslims (mostly Sunni) comprise approximately 4 percent of the population.  The 2014 Census reportedly excluded the Rohingya from its count, but NGOs and the government estimated the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim Rohingya population at 1.1 million prior to the outbreak of violence and initial exodus of Rohingya into Bangladesh in October 2016.  According to current estimates from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations, more than 700,000 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh beginning in August 2017, and an estimated 520,000 to 600,000 remain in Rakhine State.  There are small communities of Hindus and practitioners of traditional Chinese and indigenous religions.  There is a very small Jewish community in Rangoon.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

All organizations, whether secular or religious, must register with the government to obtain official status.  This official status is required for organizations to gain title to land, obtain construction permits, and conduct religious activities.

The law bars members of “religious orders” (such as priests, monks, and nuns of any religious group) from running for public office, and the constitution bars members of religious orders from voting.  The government restricts by law the political activities and expression of the Buddhist clergy (sangha).  The constitution forbids “the abuse of religion for political purposes.”

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

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

The Ministry of Religious Affairs’ Department for the Perpetuation and Propagation of the Sasana (Buddhist teaching) oversees the government’s relations with Buddhist monks and schools.

Four laws passed in 2015 for the “protection of race and religion” remain in effect.  The Buddhist Women Special Marriage law stipulates notification and registration requirements for marriages between non-Buddhist men and Buddhist women, obligations that non-Buddhist husbands must observe, and penalties for noncompliance.  The Religious Conversion law regulates conversion through an extensive application and approval process.  The Population Control Law allows for the designation of special zones where population control measures may be applied, including authorizing local authorities to implement three-year birth spacing.  The Monogamy Law bans polygamous practices, which the country’s penal code already criminalized.

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

Government Practices

Investigations of the 2017 ethnic cleansing in northern Rakhine State released during the year, including the UN Fact-Finding Mission’s final report, corroborated earlier accounts of a systematic abuses and a campaign against Rohingya civilians that involved extrajudicial killings, rape, and torture.  On September 17, the UN Fact-Finding Mission, established by the UN Human Rights Council, published its final report on the country, which detailed atrocities committed by the military in Rakhine, Kachin, and Shan States, as well as other areas, and characterized the “genocidal intent” of the military’s 2017 operations in Rakhine State.  The government denied the Fact-Finding Mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report.  The report also found the actions of the military in both Kachin (mostly Christian) and Shan States (mostly Buddhist) since 2011 amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The government established an independent Commission of Enquiry to investigate the 2017 violence in Rakhine State.  It is comprised of two international and two Burmese members, and chaired by Rosario Manalo, a former diplomat from the Philippines.  The commission did not make public any findings by year’s end.  Multiple government-led investigations into earlier reported abuses by security forces culminated in denials that abuses occurred and did not result in accountability.

In January Amnesty International (AI) reported three incidents of the military abducting Rohingya girls or young women.  One such instance occurred in January in Hpoe Khaung Chaung village, Buthidaung Township:  soldiers searched a house, held a man at gunpoint, and abducted a 15-year-old girl; the family has not seen the girl since.  AI also reported that security forces strip-searched Rohyingya women fleeing the country and robbed both women and men.

Two Reuters reporters, detained by the government in December 2017 and charged under the Official Secrets Act related to their investigation of security forces’ activities in northern Rakhine State, remained incarcerated throughout their trial and were sentenced on September 3 to seven years in prison.  Independent observers said the trial lacked due process.

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee told the Human Rights Council in March that the government appeared to be using a policy of starvation in Rakhine State to force out the remaining Rohingya.  The country’s envoy to the council denied the charge and called for Lee’s dismissal.

In March AI reported increased “land grabs” and razing of formerly Rohingya villages by authorities in Rakhine State.  AI stated that the military and police built roads and structures over burned Rohingya villages and land, making it even less likely for refugees to return to their homes and “erasing evidence of crimes against humanity.”  According to satellite imagery, the military and police built at least three new security bases in northern Rakhine State.  Reportedly, some Rohingya who were living near the new construction fled to Bangladesh in fear.

In February AI reported military forces in Rakhine had denied Rohingya access to their rice fields in November and December 2017, a denial that amounted to forced starvation, and that many Rohingya fled to Bangladesh on account of the food shortages.  The Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported that military forces imposed limits on how much rice displaced villagers in Rakhine could purchase per month, causing shortages.

An additional 13,764 Rohingya fled to Bangladesh between January and September.  The government prepared facilities to begin receiving some 2,000 of the 700,000 Rohingya who fled to Bangladesh in 2017.  In November amid efforts by the governments of Burma and Bangladesh to initiate returns, Rohingya refused to return, often saying they would be subject to human rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship.  Bangladesh authorities said they would not force them to go back, and no one chose to return.

Several NGOs reported approximately 120,000 Rohingya remained confined to camps since violence in 2012.

In May Hla Phyu was arrested and convicted of false representation after attempting to leave an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Rakhine State, where she had been living since her displacement during violence in 2012, and travel to Rangoon.  The 23-year-old teacher, who is Muslim, had previously applied for official permission to travel without success, and eventually traveled without receiving permission.  A court sentenced her to a year in prison with hard labor.

The government continued to tightly restrict outside access, including UN and NGO humanitarian aid and media, to northern Rakhine State and portions of Kachin State during the year.  Reportedly, the military selectively permitted humanitarian access to IDPs in some conflict areas – granting access to local relief organizations associated with certain religious denominations while denying access to organizations associated with other religious denominations, which created intercommunal tension.  In August the human rights group Fortify Rights reported that the government’s travel-authorization process for aid groups in Burma effectively acted as a restriction on aid and humanitarian access to displaced populations in violation of international humanitarian law.  Authorities suspended humanitarian access to northern Rakhine State entirely in August 2017; during 2018, the Red Cross Movement, World Food Program, and several other organizations regained some degree of access.  According to Fortify Rights, from June 2017 to June 2018, authorities unconditionally approved only approximately 5 percent of 562 applications submitted by international humanitarian agencies seeking “travel authorization” to assist displaced communities in government-controlled areas of Kachin State.  On May 21, the government’s minister of security and border affairs for Kachin State sent a letter to the Kachin Baptist Convention – one of the largest providers of aid to displaced communities in Kachin Independence Army (KIA)-controlled areas – saying the group would be prosecuted for illegally delivering aid in areas under KIA control.

Sources stated that authorities singled out Rohingya in northern Rakhine State to perform forced labor and arbitrarily arrested them.  Authorities imposed restrictions that impeded the ability of Rohingya to construct houses or religious buildings.

Authorities in northern Rakhine reportedly prohibited Rohingya from gathering publicly in groups of more than five persons.

Fighting between the government and ethnic armed groups that restarted in Kachin and northern Shan States in 2011 continued.  UN Special Rapporteur Lee reported that in March the military started new ground offensives in Kachin State using heavy artillery.  The UN estimated that 107,000 persons remained displaced by conflict in Kachin and northern Shan States, where there are many Christians as well as other religious groups.  Christians in Kachin State, according to media and NGO reports, stated the military was carrying out a campaign to eliminate them similar to the situation in Rakhine State.  It was often difficult to categorize specific incidents as based solely on religious identity due to the close linkage between religion and ethnicity in the country.

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) reported that thousands of Kachin fled the military, including residents of more than 50 villages as of June.  The KIO stated the military destroyed or damaged more than 400 villages, 300 churches, and 100 schools in Kachin State since 2011.  In August, at the Southeast Asia Freedom of Religion or Belief Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, several NGOs reported that government security forces encouraged the construction of Buddhist monasteries and temples in areas where they built new bases.  Minority religious communities said they perceived this effort to be part of a process of “Burmanization.”

According to a CHRO September report, the Chin people continued to face “institutionalized barriers to religious freedom.”  According to the report, the barriers usually involved local authorities blocking the ownership of land for Christian worship.  Christians have also faced mob violence by local communities, often “supported and even organized by local authorities and Buddhist-monks.”  The CHRO report said there were cases where police failed to investigate or hold perpetrators to account.

In Rakhine State, according to the UN and media reports, the government and security forces continued to restrict the movement of various ethnic and religious groups, particularly members of the Rohingya community.  Restrictions governing the travel of persons whom the government considers foreigners, including both Muslim and Hindu Rohingya, some other Hindus living in Rakhine State, and others between townships in northern Rakhine State, varied depending on the township, usually requiring submission of an immigration form.  The traveler could obtain this form only from the township of origin’s Immigration and National Registration Department and only if that person provided an original copy of a family list, temporary registration card, and two guarantors.  The form typically authorized travel for two to four weeks.  Authorities granted Muslims located outside of Rakhine State more freedom to travel, but they still faced restrictions on travel into and out of Rakhine State, and reportedly feared authorities would not allow them to leave Rakhine if they were to visit the state.

Such restrictions seriously impeded the ability of Rohingya to pursue livelihoods, access markets, hospitals, and other services, and engage other communities.  Sources stated that individuals stereotyped by security forces as appearing to be Muslim received additional scrutiny on movements in the region, regardless of their actual religion.  Obtaining these travel permits often involved extortion and bribes.

According to various religious organizations and NGOs, the process to register an NGO, whether religious in nature or not, remained lengthy and often went uncompleted due largely to bureaucratic inefficiency in local governments.  Organizations noted that lack of registration did not generally hinder the ability of groups and individuals to conduct religious activities, except in a few cases, although being unregistered left organizations vulnerable to harassment or closure by the government.

Religious groups throughout the country, including Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, and especially Muslims, reported difficulties and delays that could last for years in getting permits to allow construction of and repairs to religious buildings.  Buddhists, however, said getting such permission was harder for other groups.  Religious groups said the multiple permissions, unclear authority among government agencies, and interminable delays in responses to requests for permits led them to construct places of worship without the required permissions, leaving them vulnerable to future government action or to pressure by members of other religious groups.  Others said it was necessary to bribe authorities to obtain permits.

In areas with few or no mosques, Muslims often conducted prayer services and other religious practices, such as teaching, in private homes.  The Ministry of Religious and Cultural Affairs issued an order in June that restricted non-Buddhist religious teachings to government-approved religious buildings and prohibited prayer services and religious teaching in private homes.  The order also required that teaching materials, with an implicit focus on Islamic materials printed in Arabic, be in the Burmese language and submitted to the ministry in advance.  The General Administration Department, which has a significant leading role in all subnational administration aspects of daily life, issued notices in Yangon and Sagaing Divisions requiring compliance with the ministry’s order.  Authorities in Mandalay Division continued to enforce similar restrictions.

Local authorities closed 12 mosques and religious schools in Ayeyarwady, Mandalay, and Sagaing Divisions as well as in Shan State during the year, according to the Burman Human Rights Network (BHRN).  A 2017 ban on prayers in eight Islamic schools in Thakayta Township in Yangon Division and the closure of two remained in force.  Authorities prevented 14 mosques and religious schools in Yangon and Mandalay Divisions from operating in 2017 and they remained shuttered.  Human rights and Muslim groups reported that historic mosques in Meiktila in Mandalay Division, Hpa-An in Karen State, and other areas continued to deteriorate in part because authorities denied permits to perform routine maintenance.

Muslims in Mandalay Division reported continued obstacles to rebuilding mosques after anti-Muslim violence in 2014.  Authorities ordered that mosques be shut down after the 2013 anti-Muslim riots in Meiktila, and they remained closed, in addition to mosques in Bago and Mandalay Divisions.

According to a CHRO September report, Christian communities in Chin State reported applications to local authorities for property registration, construction, and renovation encountered delays spanning several years, or the applications were lost altogether.

The CHRO reported local authorities in Chin State continued to delay applications from Christian groups and churches to buy land in the name of their religious organizations.  Local authorities in Chin State also blocked Christian groups and churches from buying land in the name of their religious organizations for the purpose of worship.  Religious groups said individual members circumvented this requirement by purchasing land in their own names on behalf of the group, a practice the government tolerated.

In January, according to the CHRO, township administrators banned Christians from building a house for the local pastor in Magway Division and from worshipping in a residential house.  As of September local authorities had not responded to a March request to use the house as a church, according to the CHRO.  Christian and Muslim groups seeking to build small places of worship on side streets or other inconspicuous locations continued to be able to do so only with approval from local authorities, according to religious groups.

Sources stated that the government increased restrictions on both secular and religious civil society organizations holding public events in hotels and other venues, imposing new requirements for advance notice of events and participants, and civil society organizations sometimes turned to churches and other religious institutions in light of restrictions on the use of other venues.  Many religious and civil society organizations said they preferred to receive written authorization from ward, township, and other local authorities before holding events to avoid last-minute cancellations.

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

Teachers at many government schools reportedly continued to require students to recite Buddhist prayers, although such practices were no longer a mandated part of the curriculum.  Many classrooms displayed Buddhist altars or other Buddhist iconography.

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

Due to movement restrictions, many Rohingya could not access education in state-run schools, although observers reported some increased access during the year.  Authorities generally did not permit Rohingya high school graduates from Rakhine State and others living in IDP camps to travel outside the state to attend college or university.  Authorities continued to bar any university students who did not possess citizenship cards from graduating, which disproportionately affected students from religious minorities, particularly Muslim students.  These students were allowed to attend classes and take examinations, but could not receive diplomas unless they had a citizenship card, the application for which required some religious minorities to identify as a “foreign” ethnic minority.

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

Muslims said government authorities denied them permission to slaughter cows during the Eid al-Adha festival that marks the end of Ramadan.  Media and religious sources said local authorities in some villages restricted the licensing of and butchering of cattle by slaughterhouses, the vast majority owned by Muslims.  These restrictions negatively affected business operations and the ability of Muslim communities to celebrate Islamic holidays.

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

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

Rohingya remained unable to obtain employment in any civil service positions.

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

Buddhists continued to make up the vast majority of parliamentarians.  There were no Muslim members of parliament, and neither the ruling NLD nor the main opposition party ran any Muslim candidates during nationwide elections in 2015 or by-elections in 2017 and 2018.  Second Vice President Henry Van Thio, a Chin Christian, continued to serve in his position, and the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament were Christian.

Authorities required citizens and permanent residents to carry government-issued identification cards that permitted holders to access services and prove citizenship.  These identification cards usually indicated religious affiliation and ethnicity.  The government also required citizens to indicate their religion on certain official applications for documents such as passports, although passports themselves do not indicate the bearer’s religion.  Members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, faced problems obtaining identification and citizenship cards.  According to Fox News, a local official said Christians in Karen State applied to the central government for identification cards identifying them as “Christians” but received cards identifying them as “Buddhist,” and officials refused to change the cards.  Some Muslims reported that they were required to indicate a “foreign” ethnicity if they self-identified as Muslim on applications for citizenship cards.

BHRN published a case study of Muslim migrant workers in Thailand who applied to Burmese immigration officials for a formal verification of their nationality, known as a Certificate of Identity (CI).  Respondents consistently reported that they had to provide more documentation than did other groups, or that authorities said, “We are not giving CIs to Muslims.”  BHRN’s case study found that twice as many Muslims were rejected as were accepted.

The government continued to call for Rohingya to participate in the government’s citizenship verification process and to apply for National Verification Cards (NVCs, the first step in the citizenship verification process).  Many Rohingya objected to the exercise, citing a fear of being identified as “Bengali,” fear of being designated a “naturalized” rather than “full citizen,” a lack of requisite change in their rights if they obtained the NVCs, and a general distrust towards the government.  The government said it no longer required all participants to identify as “Bengali” as a condition of participating in the process, although implementing officials reportedly continued to require participants to identify as “Bengali,” and those verified as a citizen reportedly had “Bengali” listed as their race on their citizenship scrutiny card.  Recipients of naturalized citizenship were ineligible to participate in some political activities and professions, although all citizens had the right to vote.  The government also pressured Rohingya to apply for NVCs, including by continuing a requirement to have an NVC in order to have a fishing permit.  Many Rohingya entering Bangladesh during the year cited the pressure campaign as a primary reason for leaving Burma.

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

In November Minister of Religious and Cultural Affairs Aung Ko, speaking in nationally televised remarks at the funeral of a prominent Buddhist monk in Karen State, criticized “the followers of an extreme religion [who] take three of four wives and have families with 15 or 20 children.”  He added, “Devotees of other [non-Buddhist] religions will become the majority and we will be in danger of being taken over.”  His remarks were widely understood to refer to Muslims.

Sources stated that government officials circulated or advanced rumors and false information concerning Rohingya and other Muslims, including claims of a demographic takeover of Rakhine State by Muslims.  According to media reports, the military conducted a coordinated effort to spread anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya sentiment through dummy Facebook accounts and other social media.  The military in August published a book purporting to give a historic account of the Rohingya in northern Rakhine that included images from other areas and conflicts and falsely claiming to show a Rohingya influx into the country from Bangladesh before and after World War II.  Government officials distributed the book at formal meetings.  Also in August, government officials circulated anti-Rohingya videos to UN and other officials, and a military-linked think tank publicized such material at an event in Rangoon in October.

In November the Yangon Division Rakhine Ethnic Affairs Ministry organized a speaker event in Rangoon called “Hidden Truths of the Western Frontier in Rakhine State,” at which the Rakhine ethnic affairs minister gave remarks in which he blamed the Rakhine crisis on “Bengalis,” a term used to refer to Rohingya that is considered pejorative.

The government officially recognized a number of interfaith groups, including the Interfaith Dialogue Group of Myanmar, which organized monthly meetings and sponsored several religious activities promoting peace and religious tolerance around the country throughout the year.  The group’s leadership included Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, and Hindu leaders, as well as leaders from other religious groups.

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

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

In September the UWSA, which controls the Wa Self-Administered Division in Shan State, detained approximately 200 Christian leaders, destroyed churches, and imposed severe limits on Christian worship, teaching, and proselytizing, according to media reports and the UWSA spokesperson.  The UWSA later released most of those it detained.  The government exerts no authority inside the Wa territory, which has been under UWSA control since 1988.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In May AI reported that the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army was likely responsible for the killing of 45 Hindu villagers in Maungdaw Township on August 25, 2017, which the government previously had reported, but some civil society organizations had questioned.

The Chin Human Rights Organization reported the Arakan Army beat villagers and looted property in a village in Paletwa Township, Chin State, in May.

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

CHRO reported that in July a mob that included Buddhist monks attacked two Chin nursery school teachers in the house of a Christian pastor in Pade Kyaw Village, Ann District, Rakhine State.  Village monks previously said there would be a 50,000 kyat ($33) penalty per household if each household did not send a member to a meeting at which the monks urged participants to harass Christians attending a church service.  In August, according to CHRO, a mob attacked Pastor Tin Shwe of Good News Church in the same area of Rakhine State, and he was hospitalized.  In January the village tract administrator in Gangaw Township, Magway Division, along with two police officers and some local Buddhist monks, tried to expel a family who had converted to Christianity from the village.  Authorities reportedly failed to investigate or hold perpetrators accountable in these cases.

Despite the renewal during the year of the 2017 order by the SSMNC that no group or individual could operate under the banner of Ma Ba Tha, some branches of the group continued to use the name Ma Ba Tha, while others used the new name, Buddha Dhamma Parahita Foundation.  Many of the group’s leaders and members continued to make pejorative and hateful statements against Muslims in sermons and through social media.  In August Reuters found more than 1,000 examples of anti-Muslim hate speech on Burmese-language Facebook pages, including calls for “genocide,” comparisons to “pigs” and “dogs,” and widespread use of pejoratives to refer to Muslims.

In March the SSMNC’s ban expired on the influential self-defined nationalist Wirathu, a monk and the chairperson of the Ma Ba Tha branch in Mandalay, from delivering sermons across the country for one year.  The SSMNC imposed the ban due to what the SSMNC called religious hate speech against Muslims, which inflamed communal tensions.  In October Wirathu, who reportedly maintained strong ties to military and government officials, spoke at a large promilitary rally in Rangoon, mocking foreign sympathy for the Rohingya and making other anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim remarks.  There were numerous previous reports of Wirathu making anti-Muslim remarks, such as praising the killers of the prominent Muslim lawyer Ko Ni in 2017.  In September Facebook removed pages belonging to Wirathu and a number of senior military leaders and military-affiliated groups for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Some observers said Ma Ba Tha received financial support from and otherwise coordinated with the military.

In March prominent writer Maung Thway Chuun gave a speech in Sagaing Division in which he criticized the speakers of the upper and lower houses of parliament for being Christian and said the country’s religious and ethnic identity was under threat.  Authorities arrested him in June on charges of inciting conflict between ethnic and religious groups, and in October a court sentenced him to two years in prison.  Some observers criticized his case as an infringement of freedom of expression.

There were continued reports of social stigma surrounding any assistance to or sympathy for the Rohingya community.  Some civil society leaders said that even among otherwise tolerant individuals, anti-Rohingya sentiment remained prevalent.  There were continued reports of general anti-Muslim prejudice, including social pressure not to rent housing to Muslims in some areas.

Some Buddhist and Muslim community leaders in Mandalay continued to collaborate to quell rumors and prevent violence through formal and informal community-centered mechanisms.

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

In Mandalay Division, civil society and interfaith leaders held meetings and public events to promote peace and religious tolerance for community leaders and youth, as in previous years.  For example, an event in August drew dozens of community members to a day of activities around the theme of diversity and tolerance.  A number of interfaith groups continued mobilizing civil society around the country to promote religious tolerance.

On November 21-23, the Religions for Peace Advisory Forum on National Reconciliation and the Advancement of Peace in Myanmar convened in Nay Pyi Taw, bringing together voices from all major religions to advance an agenda of tolerance and respect.  State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy commander-in-chief, and other senior government officials participated in the event.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

On November 14, the Vice President stated, “The violence and persecution by military and vigilantes that resulted in driving 700,000 Rohingya to Bangladesh is without excuse” and asked State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi about the country’s progress in holding those accountable who were responsible.

In July at the Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the USAID Administrator said, “As our State Department and other sources have judged, the Rohingya were victimized by nothing less than ethnic cleansing:  extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, beatings, arbitrary arrests, displacement, destruction of property – all driven by intolerance and sectarian hatred.”

After his visit to Bangladesh in April, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom stated that the Rohingya situation “is a humanitarian crisis perpetrated by the Burmese security forces, and by vigilantes often acting in concert with security forces …. The Burmese military and others responsible must be held accountable for these horrific acts.”

Senior officials, including the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, reiterated during the year the determination of former Secretary of State Tillerson that the military had committed ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya.  In December the Ambassador at Large said the Kachin and Karen were also being persecuted.  He noted that the United States had sanctioned five generals and two military units.

The U.S. government severely curtailed bilateral military-to-military relations, restricted visas for current and former military leaders, imposed additional targeted financial sanctions against military leaders and units involved in the 2017 ethnic cleansing in Rakhine State and human rights abuses in Kachin and Shan States, and pressed for full accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations.  The Department of State published a report documenting atrocities perpetrated against Rohingya since 2016, drawing on over a thousand interviews with refugees in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

U.S. government officials consistently called for sustainable solutions to the root causes of discrimination and violence in Rakhine State, including a voluntary and transparent path to provision of citizenship, freedom of movement and access to services for IDPs, and unhindered access for humanitarian actors and media in Rakhine and Kachin States.  Embassy officials also urged government and interfaith leaders to improve efforts to mitigate religiously motivated violence in Mandalay, Kachin, and elsewhere.

Embassy officials at all levels discussed the importance of addressing the effects of ethnoreligious violence and hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.  Embassy officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in meetings with high-level government officials, including State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the deputy commander-in-chief, the national security advisor, and the ministers of foreign affairs, religious affairs, home affairs, ethnic affairs, immigration, population, and labor affairs, and social welfare, relief, and resettlement affairs.  Embassy officials also met with officials in the president’s office, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, parliamentarians, members of civil society, scholars, and representatives of other governments.

A Department of State Deputy Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration led a delegation in November that engaged government officials, civil society groups, and international organizations on the importance of enacting durable solutions that will allow the Rohingya and other minority populations to live in safety and dignity, with freedom of movement and worship.

Embassy officials traveled to ethnic minority-predominant areas to discuss religious freedom and tolerance with state and local government officials, NGOs, and members of community-based organizations and religious communities.  The Ambassador visited Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Mon, and Karen States, areas where conflict or violence have affected religious minorities in recent years, as well as other areas that had suffered from and were identified as at risk of ethnoreligious conflict.  The multiple visits to Rakhine State by the Ambassador and other officials to assess the situation informed the embassy’s efforts and strategies in engaging the government and advocating for the rights of all communities in the state.

The embassy continued to call for respect for religious freedom, tolerance, and unity in its interactions with all sectors of society, and in its social media accounts.  At high-profile events, embassy representatives spoke out for religious freedom and against intercommunal conflict and hate speech.  Embassy representatives, including the Ambassador, repeatedly met with Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Hindu leaders, including ethnic minority religious leaders, members of faculties of theology, and other religiously affiliated organizations – such as Ma Ba Tha and its successor organization – and NGOs to advocate for religious freedom and tolerance.  To advance religious tolerance, the embassy hosted celebrations of Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish holidays, and in each case invited members of various faiths to join.  The embassy also shared multiple posts on Facebook about religious pluralism, tolerance, and shared identity in the United States.

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

Public programs at embassy facilities in Rangoon and Mandalay offered a platform for community leaders, media, students, and others to discuss intercommunal tolerance, often featuring individuals from minority ethnic and religious communities.  The embassy hosted programs on digital and media literacy as a way to empower participants to reject online hate speech and the spread of rumors and other misinformation.  It also sponsored travel to the United States to receive media literacy training in methods of combating disinformation on social media, including combating the spread of hate speech.  As in prior years, the embassy worked with and supported numerous faith-based and civil society organizations working on programs promoting religious freedom and tolerance.

Since 1999, Burma has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, 2018, the Secretary of State redesignated Burma as a CPC and identified the following sanction that accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing arms embargo referenced in 22 CFR 126.1(a) pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

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

Executive Summary

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The government continued limitations on religious education.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

Executive Summary

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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Djibouti

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the state religion but mandates equality for persons of all faiths.  The government maintained its authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including assets and personnel of all mosques.  Non-Muslim groups register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which conducts lengthy background checks as part of the registration process.  The government continued to implement a decree for state control of mosques, and the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs’ High Islamic Council closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons.  Unlike in past years, the ministry did not take any disciplinary action against imams deemed extremist.  The Ministry of Education for the first time permitted refugees (students and teachers) to miss class to observe their respective religious holidays.  Additionally, the ministry launched an initiative to highlight religious tolerance in national civic education.  The government granted the request of the country’s Christian community to allot plots of land on the outskirts of Djibouti City to build the country’s second Christian cemetery.

Norms and customs continued to discourage conversion from Islam.  Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

U.S. embassy officials shared the Secretary of State’s Ramadan and Eid al-Adha messages on the importance of religious freedom with government and civil society leaders at an embassy-hosted iftar and on social media.  U.S. embassy officials met regularly with religious minority leaders to discuss equitable treatment of religious groups by the government.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 884,000 (July 2018 estimate), of which 94 percent is Sunni Muslim.  Shia Muslims, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, Jews, Baha’is, and atheists constitute the remaining 6 percent.  Non-Muslims are generally foreign-born citizens and expatriates, highly concentrated in Djibouti City.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the registered refugee population at approximately 27,500, of whom 44 percent are from Somalia, 37 percent from Ethiopia, 16 percent from Yemen and 3 percent from Eritrea.  No data exists on the religious affiliations of refugees, but they engage in both Islamic and non-Islamic worship.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

Islam is the religion of the state, according to the constitution.  The constitution mandates the government respect all faiths and guarantees equality before the law, regardless of one’s religion.  The law does not impose sanctions on those who do not observe Islamic teachings or who practice other religious beliefs.  The constitution prohibits religiously based political parties.

It is illegal for any faith to proselytize in public.

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs has authority over all Islamic matters and institutions, including mosques, religious events, and private Islamic schools.  The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Education jointly oversee the school curricula and teacher certification of approximately 40 Islamic schools.  The public school system is secular.

The president swears an Islamic religious oath.

Muslims may bring matters such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance either to family courts, whose code includes elements of civil and Islamic law, or to civil courts.  Civil courts address the same matters for non-Muslims.  Citizens are officially considered Muslims if they do not specifically identify with another religious group.

The government requires all foreign and domestic non-Muslim religious groups to register by submitting an application to the Ministry of Interior, which conducts a lengthy background investigation of the group.  The investigation reviews group leadership, religious affiliation, sources of finance, and the group’s objectives within the country.  Ties to extremist religious sects, strong political agendas, and relations with unfriendly foreign nations are factors that would cause a group’s application to be rejected.  Domestic and foreign Muslim religious groups must inform the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs of their existence and intent to operate and are subject to neither registration nor investigation by the Ministry of Interior.  Muslim and non-Muslim foreign religious groups must also gain approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to operate in the country.  Once approved, every foreign religious group signs a one-year agreement detailing the scope of its activities.  Foreign religious groups must submit quarterly reports to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and renew their agreements every year.  The quarterly report details activities, origin of funding for activities, and scope of work completed, and it identifies beneficiaries.  Non-Muslim religious groups may not operate in the interim while awaiting registration.

The government is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.  The government has declared a reservation regarding proselytizing in open public spaces.

Government Practices

The Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs continued its efforts to implement a 2014 decree executing a law on state control of mosques, which converted the status of imams, including refugee imams, to civil service employees of the ministry and transferred ownership of mosque properties and other assets to the government.  Government officials reiterated a decree aimed at eliminating political activity from mosques, providing greater government oversight of mosque assets and activities, and countering foreign influence.  Although imams were under the direction of the government, mosques’ properties continued to be controlled by individual congregations, since the government department designated to manage these assets was not yet operational.  The ministry’s High Islamic Council sent instructions on and closely vetted all Friday prayer service sermons.  The ministry reported no serious incidents of extremist views within mosques.  During the year, however, it issued several warnings to imams for polarizing speech.  Almost all mosques in the country had an imam who was a civil service employee.

The government continued to permit registered non-Islamic groups, including Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches, to operate freely, according to Christian leaders.  No other Christian groups had legal recognition from the government.  The government subsidized the cost of utilities at church properties of registered non-Islamic groups, since it considered some church properties to be part of the national patrimony.  Religious groups not registered with the government, such as Ethiopian Protestant and non-Sunni Muslim congregations, operated under the auspices of registered groups.  Smaller groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baha’is, were not registered with the government but operated privately without incident, according to Christian leaders.  Observers stated these groups and other religious minorities hosted worship gatherings in private housing and usually at night.  The groups coordinated loosely with the country’s security forces, who impose curfews and noise restrictions.

The government continued to allow non-Islamic religious groups to host events and proselytize on the groups’ private property; in practice, groups refrained from proselytizing in public spaces, such as hotels or street corners, due to cultural sensitivities and the threat of government intervention.  Government officials noted that any violation of the law forbidding public proselytizing would summon the police.  The government continued to permit a limited number of Christian missionaries to sell religious books and pamphlets at a bookstore in Djibouti City.

The government granted the request of the Christian community to allot plots of land on the outskirts of Djibouti City to build a second Christian cemetery.  The Christian coalition, composed of Catholic Christians, Protestants, and Ethiopian Orthodox, also requested permission to build an adjoining church, to which the government did not respond.

The government continued to issue visas to foreign Islamic and non-Islamic clergy and missionaries but required they belong to registered religious groups before they could work in the country or operate nongovernmental organizations.  Departing from past years’ practice, the government required foreign religious leaders to regularize their status by purchasing a residency card for 24,000 Djiboutian francs ($140).

Local public schools continued to observe only Islamic holidays, but under the direction of the Ministry of Education, schools in refugee camps for the first time permitted students to miss class for their respective religious holidays.  The ministry also launched an initiative to highlight religious tolerance in national civic education.  Government officials began to implement changes to curriculum that encouraged religious inclusivity.

In May the Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs organized logistics for 1,500 individuals to undertake the pilgrimage to Mecca.  As part of the official mandate, the ministry applied for visas, gathered information for health cards including arranging vaccination appointments, and coordinated with travel agencies to organize food and lodging.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Societal norms and customs discouraged conversion from Islam, but conversions reportedly occurred, particularly for marriages with non-Muslim partners.  Christian groups reported continued discrimination in employment and education against converts to Christianity who changed their names.  Non-Muslims reportedly hid their religious status for increased job options and societal acceptance.  Both Muslim and Christian leaders acknowledged conversion from Islam was detrimental to a person’s social status; Islamic religious leaders noted traditional social networks often ostracized converts from Islam.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials met with Ministry of Education and Ministry of Islamic and Cultural Affairs representatives to discuss allowing religious minorities within refugee camps to observe their respective holidays.

The Ambassador hosted three iftars, two in Djibouti City, and one in Dikhil, to highlight religious plurality and religious diversity.  The embassy welcomed a U.S. military Muslim chaplain as a special guest to speak on the importance of religious tolerance.

Embassy personnel shared the Secretary of State’s Ramadan message on the importance of religious freedom with government, religious, and civil society leaders, including at the Dikhil iftar, and on the embassy’s Facebook page.

In October and November surrounding International Religious Freedom Day, the embassy shared a series of stories from survivors of religious persecution on its Facebook page to highlight the importance of religious tolerance.

Egypt

Executive Summary

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 (i.e. Abrahamic) religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution states that 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.  In February authorities launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS in part to respond to the November 2017 attack on a mosque in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals; the mosque was reportedly targeted because it was frequented by Sufis.  In November a court sentenced an alleged supporter of ISIS to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta in 2016 and 2017 that killed more than 80 persons.  According to multiple sources, prosecutors employed charges of denigrating religion to arrest anyone who appeared to criticize Islam or Christianity, with a disproportionate number of all blasphemy charges brought against the country’s Christian population.  Under a 2016 law issued to legalize unlicensed churches and facilitate the construction of new churches, the government reported having issued 783 licenses to existing but previously unlicensed churches and related support buildings out of 5,415 applications for licensure, and authorized the building of 14 new churches since September 2017.  Local authorities frequently responded to sectarian attacks against Christians through binding arbitration sessions rather than prosecuting perpetrators of violence, leading to complaints by members of the Coptic community.  In December President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued a decree creating the Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents, tasked with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents and to address them as they occur, applying all relevant laws.  The Ministry of Awqaf (Islamic Endowments) continued to issue required certifications to imams, and register and license all mosques.  In May, based upon a 2015 policy, the ministry announced a ban on imams from Friday preaching at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques.  In October the ministry announced the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse.  In January Minister of Awqaf Mokhtar Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches was “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church are “martyrs.”  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed two Christian governors, including the country’s first-ever female Christian to hold the position, the first such appointments since April 2011.

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Attacks continued on Christians and Christian-owned property, as well as on churches in the Upper Egypt region.  On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  Reports of anti-Semitic remarks on state-owned media, as well as sectarian and defamatory speech against minority religious groups, continued during the year.  Al-Azhar, the country’s primary institution for spreading Islam and defending Islamic doctrine, held conferences on interfaith dialogue, and gave statements condemning extremism and supporting improved relations between Muslims and Christians.

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of the Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly meetings in September.  U.S. officials, including the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Charge d’Affaires, visiting senior-level delegations from Washington, and embassy and consulate general officials met with government officials to underscore the importance of religious freedom and equal protection of all citizens before the law.  In meetings with high-level officials at the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Education, Justice, Awqaf, and Interior, embassy and consulate general officers and visiting U.S. officials emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 99.4 million (July 2018 estimate).  Most experts and media sources state that approximately 90 percent of the population is officially designated as Sunni Muslims and approximately 10 percent is recognized as Christian (estimates range from 5 to 15 percent).  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 and include Anglican/Episcopalian and other Protestant denominations, Armenian Apostolic, Catholic (Armenian, Chaldean, Melkite, Maronite, Latin, and Syrian), and Orthodox (Greek and Syrian) Churches.  The Protestant community includes 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), Grace (An-Ni’ma), Independent Apostolic, Message Church of Holland (Ar-Risaala), Open Brethren, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Revival of Holiness (Nahdat al-Qadaasa), and Seventh-day Adventist.  Jehovah’s Witnesses account for 1,000-1,500 people, according to media estimates, and there are also an estimated 150 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, although the percentage of Christians is higher in Upper Egypt and in some sections of Cairo and Alexandria, according to religious and civil society groups.

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

According to a local Jewish nongovernmental organization (NGO), there are seven Jews.  There are no reliable estimates of the number of atheists or religious converts.

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 Abrahamic religions is a right regulated by law.”  The constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion and makes “incitement to hate” a crime.  It describes freedom of belief as absolute.  The constitution limits the freedom to practice religious rituals and establish places of worship to adherents of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.  The constitution prohibits the exercise of political activity or the formation of political parties on the basis of religion.

The constitution states that Al-Azhar is “the main authority in theology and Islamic affairs” and is responsible for spreading Islam, Islamic doctrine, and the Arabic language in the country and throughout the world.  The 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.  While the constitution declares Al-Azhar an independent institution, its 2018 budgetary allocation from the government, which is required by the constitution to provide “sufficient funding for it to achieve its purposes,” was almost 13 billion Egyptian pounds ($726.66 million).

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 mufti’s decision in these cases is consultative and nonbinding on the court that handed down the death sentence.

The constitution also stipulates that 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 (MOI) issues national identity cards that include official religious designations.  Designations are limited to Muslim, Christian, or Jewish citizens.  Since a 2009 court order, Baha’is are identified by a dash.  The minister of interior has the authority to issue executive regulations determining what data should be provided on the card.

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 not from Islam to any other religion.  In a 2008 ruling on a lawsuit against the government for not recognizing a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity, the Administrative Court ruled in favor of the government asserting its duty to “protect public order from the crime of apostasy from Islam.”  The government recognizes conversion from Islam for individuals who were not born Muslim but later converted to Islam, according to an MOI 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 should be issued with the Christian name and religious designation.  In those 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.

Consistent with sharia, the law stipulates that 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 need not convert 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.  Children from any unrecognized marriage are considered illegitimate.

A divorced mother is entitled to custody of her son until the age of 10 and her daughter until age 12, unless one parent is Muslim and the other is not, in which case the Muslim parent is awarded custody.

The law generally follows sharia in matters of inheritance.  In 2017, however, an appellate court ruled that applying sharia to non-Muslims violated the section of the constitution stating that the rules of the Christians and Jewish communities govern in personal status matters.

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

Islamic, Christian, and Jewish denominations may request official recognition from the government, which gives a denomination the right to be governed by its 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 Interior Religious 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 decides on the registration application.

The law does not recognize the Baha’i Faith or its religious laws and bans Baha’i institutions and community activities.  Although the government lists “Christian” on the identity cards of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a presidential decree bans all Jehovah’s Witnesses’ 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 appoints and monitors imams who lead prayers in licensed mosques and pays their salaries.  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 and/or a fine of up to 50,000 pounds ($2,800).  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 consistent with Ministry of Awqaf guidelines.  Any imam who fails to follow the guidelines loses the bonus and may be subject to disciplinary measures, including potentially losing his preaching license.  The ministry also issues prewritten sermons, and ministry personnel monitor Friday sermons in major mosques.  Imams are subject to disciplinary action including dismissal for ignoring the ministry’s guidelines.

The prime minister has 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 Center of Al-Azhar has the legal authority to censor and confiscate any publications dealing with the Quran and the authoritative Islamic traditions (hadith), 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 rather than the president.  The governor is to respond within four months; 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 depends on a government determination of the “number and need” of Christians in the area.  Construction of new churches must meet stringent 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 approves permits to build mosques.  A 2001 cabinet decree includes a provision requiring that new mosques built after that date must be a minimum distance of 500 meters (1600 feet) from the nearest other mosque, 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.  Determinations of religious identity are based on official 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.  A common set of textbooks for these two courses is mandated for both public and private schools, including Christian-owned schools.  Al-Azhar maintains a separate school system which serves some two million students from elementary through secondary school using its own separate 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 and/or a fine of no less than 30,000 pounds ($1,700) and no more than 50,000 pounds ($2,800) 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 ($2,800) and no more than 100,000 pounds ($5,600).

The government recognizes only the marriages of Christians, Jews, and Muslims with documentation from a cleric.  Since the state does not recognize Baha’i marriage, married Baha’is are denied the legal rights of married couples of other religious beliefs, including those pertaining to inheritance, divorce, and sponsoring a foreign spouse’s permanent residence.  Baha’is, in practice, file individual demands for recognition of marriages in civil court.

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 entitled “Alternative Family” which recognizes permanent legal guardianship if certain requirements are met.

The quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights, whose members are appointed by parliament, 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.

According to the constitution, “no political activity may be exercised or political parties formed on the basis of religion, or discrimination based on sex, origin, sect, or geographic location, nor may any activity be practiced that is hostile to democracy, secretive, or which possesses a military or quasi-military nature.”

The constitution mandates that the state eliminate all forms of discrimination through an independent commission to be established by parliament.  However, by year’s end, parliament had 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

In February security forces launched a military campaign, “Sinai 2018,” in the Sinai Peninsula against ISIS, in part to respond to a November 2017 attack on a mosque in Al-Rawda village in North Sinai that killed over 300 individuals at worship; the mosque was reportedly attacked because it was frequented by Sufis.  Although the government reported significant successes in the campaign, ISIS attacks continued in North Sinai.

In November a court sentenced an alleged ISIS supporter to death for the fatal stabbing of an 82-year-old Christian doctor in September 2017.  Authorities did not identify the defendant.

On July 12, police thwarted an attempted suicide bombing at the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qalioubiya, near Cairo.  After encountering security forces, the attacker detonated an explosive vest in the vicinity of the church, killing a police officer and civilian.  On August 11, security forces foiled a suicide bombing at the Coptic Virgin Mary Church in the Cairo suburb of Mostorod.  After being denied entry to the church, the bomber died when he exploded his suicide belt; no one else was injured.

During the year, courts imposed death sentences on several people convicted of killing Christians.  On February 12, a court confirmed a death sentence against the killer of Semaan Shehata, a Coptic Orthodox priest from Beni Suef.  The killer stabbed Shehata to death in the Cairo suburb of El-Salaam City in 2017 and carved a cross on his forehead.  On April 1, the Cassation Court upheld the death sentence of the killer of liquor storeowner Youssef Lamei, who had confessed to slitting Lamei’s throat outside his store for selling alcohol in January 2017.  In April a military court sentenced 36 people to death for Coptic church bombings between 2016 and 2017 in Cairo, Alexandria, and Tanta, resulting in the deaths of more than 80 people.  ISIS claimed responsibility.  International human rights organizations expressed concern about these mass convictions and asserted the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards.

In March media reported that Matthew Habib, a Christian military conscript who had complained to his family of persecution from superiors due to his religion, committed suicide while on duty.  Although the official cause of death was determined to be multiple self-inflicted gunshot wounds, the family alleged that Habib had been killed by a more senior officer.

On January 31, the Giza misdemeanor court sentenced 20 individuals to one-year suspended jail sentences for an attack on an unlicensed Coptic church in Kafr al-Waslin village south of Cairo, carried out on December 22, 2017.  Each was fined 500 pounds ($28) on charges of inciting sectarian strife, harming national unity, and vandalizing private property.  The court also fined the owner of the unlicensed church 360,000 pounds ($20,100) for building without a permit.  The Archdiocese of Atfih has reportedly applied for the Kafr al-Waslin Church to be legalized.

On January 2, press reported that the public prosecutor filed murder charges against an individual accused of killing 11 people on December 29, 2017, in an attack on a Coptic church and Christian-owned shop in Helwan, a suburb south of Cairo.  On December 1, the prosecutor general referred 11 additional suspects to trial for forming a terrorist group, murder, attempted murder, and other charges related to the attack.

The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, citing its 2016 report, reported in October that 41 percent of all blasphemy charges had been brought by authorities against the country’s Christian population

March 14, police in Beni Suef Governorate arrested social studies teacher Magdy Farag Samir on charges of denigrating Islam after he included wordplays in a set of questions for students about the Prophet Muhammad.  Samir was detained for 15 days while police investigated the charges.  A court acquitted him on April 19.

In December a court in Upper Egypt upheld a three-year prison sentence for blasphemy against Christian Abd Adel Bebawy for a Facebook post that allegedly insulted Islam.  Authorities arrested Bebawy in his home village of Minbal on July 6 and the original court passed the prison sentence in November.  Bebawy’s lawyers stated that he reported the hacking of his Facebook account in July and that the post was immediately deleted.  On July 9, reportedly in response to Bebawy’s social media posts, a crowd of Muslims attacked Christian-owned homes in Minbal.  Police arrested over 90 Muslim attackers, charging 39 with a variety of crimes related to the attack.

On May 3, police arrested atheist blogger Sherif Gaber and detained him for four days.  Authorities accused Gaber of insulting Islam and sharia, disrupting communal peace, and other charges stemming from a series of videos he posted on YouTube.  Police had earlier arrested Gaber on similar charges in 2015 and 2013.  In October Gaber tweeted that he had been prevented from leaving the country and that authorities had charged him with three additional felonies and that the charges now included blasphemy, contempt of religion, supporting homosexuality, and religious extremism.

According to the NGO International Christian Concern (ICC), during several incidents of interreligious violence between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt from August 22 to 25, security forces delayed providing protection to Christians.  On August 22, in the village of Esna in Luxor Governorate, a crowd of Muslims gathered to protest Christian worship in a church that was seeking legalization.  Following Friday prayers on August 24, the crowd gathered a second time.  While the police prevented this second gathering from escalating, local sources report that authorities arrested five Christians, who were charged with conducting religious rituals in an unlicensed church and incitement, and 15 Muslims.  All those arrested were released in September.  Also on August 24, a crowd gathered in the village of Sultan in Minya Governorate to protest efforts by a local church to seek official legalization.

Security forces arrested members of what they described as a terrorist cell in Nag’ Hammadi in Qena Governorate during Coptic celebrations for Easter in April.  Security forces increased their presence in Coptic institutions and communities around Christmas, Easter, and other Christian holidays.

Religious freedom and human rights activists said government officials sometimes did not extend procedural safeguards or rights of due process to members of minority faiths, including by closing churches in violation of the 2016 church construction law.  On April 14, a group of Muslim villagers hurled stones and bricks, breaking the windows of a building used as a church in Beni Meinin in Beni Suef Governorate.  The attack followed a government inspection of the building, a step toward legalizing the church.  Authorities arrested 45 Muslim and Christian residents of the village, and, following an agreement according to customary reconciliation procedures (a binding arbitration process, often criticized by Christians as discriminatory), all arrestees were released and the church remained unlicensed and closed.

The government prosecuted some perpetrators of sectarian violence committed in previous years.  Authorities transferred to a court in Beni Suef for prosecution the 2016 case against the attackers of Souad Thabet, a Christian who was paraded naked through her village of Karm in Minya in response to rumors that her son had an affair with the wife of a Muslim business partner.  Authorities charged four people with attacking Thabet, and another 25 with attacking Thabet’s home and six others owned by Christians.

There were multiple reports of the government closing unlicensed churches following protests, particularly in Upper Egypt.  In November the NGO Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) reported that from September 28, 2016, when the church construction law was issued, to October, authorities shuttered nine churches that hosted religious services prior to the closure orders.  Four of these churches were closed during the year, with Copts denied access and religious services in them prohibited.  In July media reported that police closed a church in Ezbet Sultan after a series of protests and the destruction of Christian-owned property.  During one protest, Muslims reportedly chanted, “We don’t want a church.”

In a November report, EIPR documented 15 instances of sectarian violence related to the legalization of 15 previously unlicensed churches from September 2017 to October 2018.  The churches had been functioning for several years and were well known to both state institutions and local residents.  EIPR’s report also documented 35 cases of violence since the church construction law was issued, not including incidents associated with the construction of new churches.

On August 22, in Zeneiqa village in Upper Egypt, police closed a church following protests by local Muslims against legalization of the church.  They arrested five Copts and five Muslims, plus an additional 10 Muslim residents during protests held a week later.  In March local mosque personnel in Al-Tod village near Luxor encouraged Muslims to protest the licensing of a church that had been in use for a decade.  Protestors built a wall to block access to the church.  Christians and Muslims took part in a customary reconciliation session led by Muslim elders and, reportedly under pressure, the Christians agreed to abandon their application for a church license.

According to official statistics, from September 2017 the government approved 783 of the 5,415 applications for licensure of churches.  According to a local human rights organization, the increased pace of legalization and construction of churches was causing sectarian tensions in some communities where Muslim citizens did not want a legal church in their village.

As it did in recent years, the government in October closed the room containing the tomb of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, Imam Al-Hussein, located inside Al-Hussein Mosque in Old Cairo, during the three-day commemoration of Ashura.  The government explained the closure was due to construction, but multiple news reports described it as an attempt to discourage the celebration of Shia religious rituals.  The main area of the mosque remained open; only the room containing the shrine was closed.

In September the Ministry of Awqaf cancelled the preaching permit of prominent Salafi cleric Mohamed Raslan and banned him from delivering sermons for refusing to recite the official sermon written by the ministry.  The ministry reinstated his license after he apologized publicly and committed to follow the government’s weekly sermon.

There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had designated as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.

In May the government announced a policy to ban imams from preaching on Fridays at 20,000 small prayer rooms (zawiyas) used as mosques and restricted their use to daily prayers.  In a statement, the Ministry of Awqaf said the measure would prevent “fundamentalist” preaching during Ramadan.  The May announcement repeated a policy first announced in 2015 that resulted in the closure of 27,000 zawiyas and forbade preaching in them.  Authorities also increased the penalties for mosques using their loudspeakers for anything other than the traditional call to prayer.

In October the Ministry of Awqaf announced that the government had successfully “regained” control over 95 percent of public Islamic discourse in the country and cited the ministry’s “complete” control of Islam as expressed through “the media, lessons, seminars and [public] forums.”  Public issuances of fatwas were, according to a senior advisor at the Dar al-Iftaa, the country’s fatwa issuing authority, restricted to Muslim clerics from Al-Azhar University, 40 clerics from Dar al-Iftaa, and a small number of clerics affiliated with the Ministry of Awqaf.  The ministry announced that any unauthorized cleric offering religious sermons or issuing fatwas would be subject to criminal investigation and prosecution for “carrying out a job without a license.”

In September the Court of Urgent Matters suspended a July ruling by an administrative court that had allowed policemen with long beards to return to work.  The court upheld MOI regulations on facial hair and stated the government had an obligation to keep the police force a “secular organizational entity.”

During Ramadan in May the government put in place regulations governing the practice of reclusion (itikaaf), a Sunni Muslim religious ritual requiring adherents spend 10 days of prayer in mosques during Ramadan.  Authorization required an application to the Ministry of Awqaf, registration of national identification cards, a residence in the same neighborhood of the requested mosque, and personal knowledge of the applicant by the mosque administrator.

On June 22, a video showing adherents performing Sufi religious rituals in a mosque sparked demands on social media to ban Sufi rituals inside mosques.  In response, the Ministry of Awqaf suspended the mosque attendant for participating in the incident, and announced a public campaign to raise awareness of “correct Islam.”

The government did not prevent Baha’is, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses from worshiping privately in small numbers.  However, Baha’i sources said the government refused requests for public religious gatherings.  According to members of Jehovah’s Witnesses, security officials engaged in surveillance and frequent home visits during which adherents were interrogated and sometimes threatened.  The National Security Services (NSS) also summoned members to their offices for interrogations.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on April 3, a security officer who has interrogated and threatened its members in the past questioned a male Witness at length, asking numerous probing questions about the operations and activities of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

The government continued to ban the importation and sale of Baha’i and Jehovah’s Witnesses literature and to authorize customs officials to confiscate their personally owned religious materials.  In July NSS officers stopped two Jehovah’s Witnesses members in Beni Suef and confiscated their religious materials.  NSS officers did the same with two other Jehovah’s Witnesses who arrived later.

Twelve Baha’i couples filed lawsuits requesting recognition of their civil marriages, four of which were approved by October.  While Baha’i sources hailed the first issuance of a civil marriage license that took place in 2017, they reported that courts remained inconsistent in their rulings on the matter.  By year’s end, standardized procedures for issuing civil marriage licenses to couples with no religious affiliation designated had not been developed.

In May the country’s Supreme Administrative Court ruled that regulators must block the YouTube service for one month because of the availability of a video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad.  A lower court had ordered in 2013 the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to block YouTube because of the video, but the decision had been appealed and the court’s ruling has not been implemented.

The minister of immigration and expatriate affairs was the only Christian in the cabinet.  On August 30, as part of a nationwide governors’ reshuffle, President al-Sisi appointed Christian governors to the Damietta and Dakahliya governorates, the first such appointments since April 2011 when the government suspended the appointment of a Copt to Qena in Upper Egypt following protests.  The new Governor of Damietta was the country’s first-ever female Christian governor.

Christians remained underrepresented in the military and security services.  Christians admitted at the entry-level of government institutions were rarely promoted to the upper ranks of government entities, according to sources.  According to a press report, a senior Christian judge in line for promotion to the leadership of the Administrative Prosecution was reportedly denied the position in May due to her religion.  When a Muslim judge challenged the failure to promote her, he was dismissed.

No Christians served as presidents of the country’s 25 public universities.  In January for the first time, a Christian was appointed as dean of the dental school of Cairo University.  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 government generally permitted foreign religious workers in the country.  Sources reported, however, some religious workers were denied visas or refused entry upon arrival without explanation.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) stated that it continued to develop a new curriculum that included increased coverage of respect for human rights and religious tolerance.  In the fall, kindergarten and first grade students began instruction under the new curriculum.  According to the MOE, the new curriculum for subsequent grade levels would be introduced yearly.  Local English-language press reported in May that curriculum reform plans, aimed at encouraging tolerance, included a textbook for use in religious studies classes to be attended jointly by Muslim and Coptic Christian students.  Muslim and Christian students previously attended separate religion classes.  Minister of Awqaf Gomaa, whose ministry oversees Islamic studies courses in the country’s schools, announced the plan.  The press reported that the planned textbook drew criticism from conservative Muslims.

In January the grand mufti issued a fatwa that defined greeting Christians on Coptic Christmas as an act of righteousness.  During the same month, Minister of Awqaf Gomaa affirmed the protection of churches “as legitimate as defending mosques,” and said that those who died in the defense of a church were “martyrs.”

In August Al-Azhar issued a statement criticizing ISIS for issuing fatwas justifying the killing of non-Muslims and stressed its prohibition.

In June the Ministry of Awqaf completed training in Quranic interpretation and other Islamic texts for 300 female preachers (wa’ezaat).  In July the government published an action plan for “renewing religious discourse” that included hiring and training imams and expanding the role of women in religious preaching.  The ministry opened a new training academy for preachers in October and announced that women could begin to serve as preachers in mosques and schools, serve on governing boards of mosques, and sing in choirs dedicated to liturgical music.

In December President al-Sisi decreed that the government create an agency tasked with countering sectarian strife.  The new Supreme Committee for Confronting Sectarian Incidents would be headed by the president’s advisor for security and counter terrorism affairs and composed of members from the Military Operations Authority, the Military and General Intelligence Services, the NSS, and the Administrative Oversight Agency.  The new committee was charged with devising a strategy to prevent sectarian incidents, address them as they occur, and apply all antidiscrimination and antihate laws in carrying out these responsibilities.  The committee had the authority to invite ministers, their representatives, or representatives of concerned bodies to meetings.  The government stated that the strategy would include awareness-raising campaigns, promotion of religious tolerance, and possible mechanisms for dealing with individual incidents.

Al-Azhar continued to host events to promote religious tolerance.  In February the grand imam received a delegation from the Anglican Communion and stressed the importance of dialogue between religions.  In July the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Archbishop of Canterbury organized an interfaith conference in London for young Muslims and Christians.  In October Grand Imam Ahmed el-Tayeb visited Pope Francis in the Vatican, where they stressed their commitment to religious dialogue.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On November 2, armed assailants attacked three buses carrying Christian pilgrims to a monastery in Minya in Upper Egypt, killing seven and wounding 19.  Media reported the attackers used automatic weapons to spray the buses indiscriminately, targeting men, women, and children.  The local ISIS affiliate claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.  Media reported that ISIS repeatedly vowed to attack the country’s Christians as punishment for their support of the government.  Following the attack, authorities stated they killed 19 individuals suspected of involvement in the assault in a shootout west of Minya.  The government did not present evidence to link these individuals to the attack, and a local human rights activist argued these shootings might have constituted extrajudicial killings.

On January 14, armed assailants killed a man in North Sinai upon discovering he was Christian, according to press.  Following a series of attacks against Christians in North Sinai that began in January 2017, more than 250 Christian families left the region, according to EIPR.  Displaced families reported they remained unable to return to their homes.

On May 26, seven Christians were injured in the village of Shoqaf in Beheira while attempting to defend a church from an attack by Muslim villagers.  The church had been used for religious services for three years, and had applied for a license in January 2017.  According to the press, calls to attack the church had come from a nearby mosque.  Police arrested 11 Muslims and nine Christians.  All of those arrested were released following a customary reconciliation session, and the church remained open.

There were reported incidents of mob action against, and collective punishment of, Christians.

On January 17, Muslim villagers attacked the houses of three Christian families in the village of Al-Dawar in Beheira after a Christian man was accused of attempting to sexually assault a Muslim woman, according to press.  Muslim villagers used stones and Molotov cocktails to attack local Christian property.  Police arrested the Christian accused of sexual assault and two of his relatives, but none of the Muslim attackers.  Following a customary reconciliation session attended by a number of parliamentarians, the village mayor and elders, it was agreed that the accused Christian would pay a fine and be expelled from the village.

In late August and early September local press reported Muslim residents of the village of Dimshaw Hashem in Minya Governorate in Upper Egypt protested Christian religious services held in an unlicensed church, and looted four Christian-owned houses before setting them on fire.  The attack injured two Coptic villagers and a firefighter.  Coptic Orthodox Bishop Macarius told the press numerous Christian villagers had informed local police about an imminent attack and that the police failed to take action.  After the attack, police arrested and criminally charged multiple protesters, releasing them on September 27.  EIPR subsequently criticized authorities for pressuring Copts to accept customary reconciliation in addressing the attacks.  Referring to this case, Human Rights Watch stated that customary reconciliation “allows perpetrators to evade prosecution, while authorities offered no concrete future protections to the worshippers and their families.”

Similar to the previous year, the Coptic Orthodox Church refused to participate in government-sponsored customary reconciliation as a substitute to criminal proceedings to address attacks on Christians and their churches.  However, customary reconciliation continued to take place without its participation.  Human rights groups and Christian community representatives said that the practice constituted an encroachment on the principles of nondiscrimination and citizenship, and effectively precluded recourse to the judicial system.  Human rights activists said that, as part of the process, Christians were regularly pressured to retract their statements and deny facts, leading to the dropping of charges.

Discrimination in private sector hiring continued, including in professional sports, according to human rights groups and religious communities.  According to the press, the country’s participation in the World Cup highlighted the absence of Christian players from the national team and major club teams.  The Christian community told the press clubs excluded Christian players from tryouts.  Press reported there were no Christian players on the national soccer team for more than 15 years.  A single Christian player played for one of the 18 top clubs the previous season.  Coptic Pope Tawadros II told the press that the lack of Christians in Egyptian soccer was “extraordinary.”

Some religious leaders and media personalities continued to employ discriminatory language against Christians.  In March exiled Salafi cleric Wagdi Ghoneim told the press senior officials who maintained good relations with Christians were kafirs (infidels).  Dar Al-Iftaa condemned the statement, and said Ghoneim wrongly interpreted Islamic texts.  Television preacher Abdullah Roshdi said that “It is prohibited for Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on their religious occasions because it expresses support for practices that Islam considers to be acts of unbelief.”  Dar al Iftaa and Al Azhar issued several fatwas permitting and encouraging Muslims to congratulate Christians on their holidays.

Reports of societal anti-Semitism continued.  Journalists and academics made statements on state-owned TV endorsing conspiracy theories about Jewish domination of world media and the economy, according to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).  In a June interview on a state-owned channel, law professor Nabil Hilmi said, “Jews control the money and the media,” adding that they have a 50-year plan to reach Mecca and Medina.

In May Chair of the Hebrew Language Department at Menoufia University, Professor Amr Allam, said on a weekly show on a state-owned channel that “Israeli violence…is embedded in the Jewish genes.”

Anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements continued in the wake of the December 2017 U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the subsequent move of the embassy to Jerusalem.  According to a MEMRI report, Grand Imam Ahmed Al-Tayyeb blamed Israel for terrorism in the Middle East in a January interview on a state-owned channel.  He described Israel as a “dagger plunged into the body of the Arab world,” and said that were it not for “Zionist entity abuse…the Middle East would have progressed.”  He said Arab infighting worked to the advantage of Israel, which he claimed would “march on the Kaaba and on the Prophet’s Mosque [in Medina].”

In January Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church co-sponsored a conference addressing terrorism.  Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq, secretary general of the Egyptian Family House, an Al-Azhar and Coptic Orthodox Church initiative created to send religious leaders to defuse community tensions following sectarian violence, called for religious scholars to challenge terrorism and include education to protect future generations from what he termed the mistaken ideas of extremism.  He stated that all Muslims suffered from the consequences of terrorism.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The President discussed religious freedom and the treatment of Egypt’s Coptic community during his meeting with President al-Sisi during the UN General Assembly session in September.  The Vice President discussed religious freedom issues during his visit to Cairo in January.  Other U.S. government officials at multiple levels, including the Charge d’Affaires, and other Department of State, embassy, and consulate general officials, raised religious freedom concerns with the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Awqaf, as well as with members of parliament, governors, and representatives of Islamic institutions, church communities, religious minority groups, and civil society groups.  In their meetings with government officials, the Charge and other embassy and consulate general officers emphasized the U.S. commitment to religious freedom and raised a number of key issues, including attacks on Christians, recognition of Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses, the rights of Shia Muslims to perform religious rituals publicly, and the discrimination and religious freedom abuses resulting from official religious designations on national identity and other official documents.

Throughout the year, embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials met with senior officials in the offices of the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, and bishops and senior pastors of Protestant churches.  Issues raised included cases in which the government failed to hold the perpetrators of sectarian violence accountable and failed to protect victims of sectarian attacks; prosecuted individuals for religious defamation; and enabled religious discrimination by means of official religious designations including on national identity cards.

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 government engagements.  Embassy representatives also met with leading religious figures, including the Grand Mufti of Dar Al-Iftaa, the chairman of the Sufi Council, leading Christian clergy, and representatives of the Jewish, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Baha’i communities.  The embassy also promoted religious freedom on social media throughout the year, including three posts on the 2017 International Religious Freedom Report that reached 30,000 people and four on the 2018 Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom that reached 20,000 people.

Hong Kong

Executive Summary

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


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

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

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

Section I. Religious Demography

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

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government Practices

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

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

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

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

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

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

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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

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


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

Iran

Executive Summary

The constitution defines the country as an Islamic republic, and specifies Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam as the official state religion.  It states all laws and regulations must be based on “Islamic criteria” and an official interpretation of sharia.  The constitution states citizens shall enjoy human, political, economic, and other rights, “in conformity with Islamic criteria.”  The penal code specifies the death sentence for proselytizing and attempts by non-Muslims to convert Muslims, as well as for moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the Prophet”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.  The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The constitution also stipulates five non-Ja’afari Islamic schools shall be “accorded full respect” and official status in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs.  The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians (excluding converts from Islam) are the only recognized religious minorities permitted to worship and to form religious societies “within the limits of the law.”  The government continued to execute individuals on charges of moharebeh, including two Kurdish minority prisoners at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8.  Human rights groups raised concerns regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  On June 18, the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the minority Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations widely decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  Salas’ execution and alleged show trial was largely seen by the international community as being part of the region’s broader crackdown on Sufi dervishes.  International media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities detained more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran where they were protesting the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  One of the Sufi dervishes arrested in February, Mohammed Raji, died in police custody.  The Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  The Iran Prison Atlas, compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, stated at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  The government continued to harass, interrogate, and arrest Baha’is, Christians (particularly converts), Sunni Muslims, and other religious minorities, and regulated Christian religious practices closely to enforce a prohibition on proselytizing.  The Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) reported that the government banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi, the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  Mohabat News, a Christian news website, reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian.  Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.  According to media and NGO reports in early December, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month, including 114 in one week.  According to Sufi media and NGOs, Shia clerics and prayer leaders continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements, and the government closed Sufi websites, such as the Gonabadi Sufi Order’s websites, in an attempt to erase their online identity.  Yarsanis stated they continued to face discrimination and harassment by authorities.  The government reportedly denied building permits for places of worship and employment and higher educational opportunities for members of religious minorities, and confiscated or restricted their religious materials.  There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down.  On November 23, the Baha’i International Community (BIC) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  On October 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz city council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council.

According to multiple sources, non-Shia Muslims and those affiliated with a religion other than Islam, especially members of the Baha’i community, continued to face societal discrimination and harassment, and employers experienced social pressures not to hire Baha’is or to dismiss them from their private sector jobs.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country.  The U.S. government used public statements, sanctions, and diplomatic initiatives in international forums to condemn the government’s abuses and restrictions on worship by religious minorities.  Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on religious grounds.  In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a speech and USA Today op-ed piece.  In his opinion piece, he said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “As representatives of the international community, we stand together in condemning the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom taking place in Iran and call on authorities to ensure religious freedom for all.”  During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end of religious persecution in the country, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned the “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi dervish community.”  The United States supported the rights of members of religious minority groups in the country through actions in the UN, including votes to extend the mandate of the special rapporteur.  The U.S. government also supported resolutions expressing concern over the country’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Iran as a CPC.  The following sanction accompanied the designation:  the existing ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the population at 83 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to U.S. government estimates, Muslims constitute 99.4 percent of the population; 90-95 percent are Shia and 5-10 percent Sunni (mostly Turkmen, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds living in the northeast, southwest, southeast, and northwest, respectively).  Afghan refugees, economic migrants, and displaced persons also make up a significant Sunni population but accurate statistics on the breakdown of the Afghan refugee population between Sunni and Shia are unavailable.  There are no official statistics available on the number of Muslims who practice Sufism, although unofficial reports estimate several million.

According to U.S. government estimates, groups constituting the remaining less than 1 percent of the population include Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Sabean-Mandaeans, Zoroastrians, and Yarsanis.  The three largest non-Muslim minorities are Baha’is, Christians, and Yarsanis.

According to HRW data, Baha’is number at least 300,000.

According to World Christian Database statistics, there are approximately 547,000 Christians, although some estimates suggest there may be many more Christians than actually reported.  While the government Statistical Center of Iran reports there are 117,700 Christians, Elam Ministries, a Christian organization, estimates that there could be between 300,000 and one million Christians.  The majority of Christians are ethnic Armenians concentrated in Tehran and Isfahan.  Estimates by the Assyrian Church of the total Assyrian and Chaldean Christian population put their combined number at 7,000.  There are also Protestant denominations, including evangelical groups, but there is no authoritative data on their numbers.  Christian groups outside the country estimate the size of the Protestant community to be less than 10,000, although many Protestants and other converts to Christianity from Islam reportedly practice in secret.

There is no official count of Yarsanis, but the Human Rights Activist News Agency (HRANA) estimates there are up to two million.  Yarsanis are mainly located in Loristan and the Kurdish regions.

According to Zoroastrian groups and the government-run Statistical Center of Iran, the population includes approximately 25,000 Zoroastrians.

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, the population includes approximately 9,000 Jews, while a British media report estimated their number at 18,000-20,000.

The population, according to one international NGO, includes 5,000-10,000 Sabean-Mandaeans.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

The constitution prohibits the investigation of an individual’s ideas, and states no one may be “subjected to questioning and aggression for merely holding an opinion.”  The law prohibits Muslim citizens from changing or renouncing their religious beliefs.  The only recognized conversions are from another religion to Islam.  Apostasy from Islam is a crime punishable by death.  Under the law, a child born to a Muslim father is Muslim.

By law, non-Muslims may not engage in public persuasion or attempted conversion of Muslims.  These activities are considered proselytizing and punishable by death.  In addition, citizens who are not recognized as Christians, Zoroastrians, or Jews may not engage in public religious expression, such as worshiping in a church or wearing religious symbols such as a cross.  Some exceptions are made for foreigners belonging to unrecognized religious groups.

The penal code specifies the death sentence for moharebeh (enmity against God), fisad fil-arz (“corruption on earth,” which includes apostasy or heresy), and sabb al-nabi (“insulting the prophets” or “insulting the sanctities”).  According to the penal code, the application of the death penalty varies depending on the religion of both the perpetrator and the victim.

The constitution states the four Sunni (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki, and Hanbali) and the Shia Zaydi schools of Islam are “deserving of total respect” and their followers are free to perform religious practices.  It states these schools may follow their own jurisprudence in matters of religious education and certain personal affairs, including marriage, divorce, and inheritance.

The constitution states Zoroastrians, Jews, and Christians are the only recognized religious minorities.  “Within the limits of the law,” they have permission to perform religious rites and ceremonies and to form religious societies.  They are also free to address personal affairs and religious education according to their own religious canon.  Any citizen who is not a registered member of one of these three groups, or who cannot prove that his or her family was Christian prior to 1979, is considered Muslim.

Since the law prohibits citizens from converting from Islam to another religion, the government only recognizes the Christianity of citizens who are Armenian or Assyrian Christians, since the presence of these groups in the country predates Islam, or of citizens who can prove they or their families were Christian prior to the 1979 revolution.  The government also recognizes Sabean-Mandaeans as Christian, even though the Sabean-Mandaeans state that they do not consider themselves as such.  The government often considers Yarsanis as Shia Muslims practicing Sufism, but Yarsanis identify Yarsan as a distinct faith (known as Ahle Haq or Kakai).  Yarsanis may also self-register as Shia in order to obtain government services.  The government does not recognize evangelical Protestants as Christian.

Citizens who are members of one of the recognized religious minorities must register with the authorities.  Registration conveys certain rights, including the use of alcohol for religious purposes.  Authorities may close a church and arrest its leaders if churchgoers fail to register or unregistered individuals attend services.  Individuals who convert to Christianity are not recognized as Christian under the law.  They may not register and are not entitled to the same rights as recognized members of Christian communities.

The supreme leader oversees extrajudicial Special Clerical Courts, not provided for by the constitution.  The courts, headed by a Shia Islamic legal scholar, operate outside the judiciary’s purview and investigate offenses committed by clerics, including political statements inconsistent with government policy and nonreligious activities.  The courts also issue rulings based on independent interpretation of Islamic legal sources.

The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) monitor religious activity.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) also monitors churches.

The constitution provides for freedom of the press except when it is “harmful to the principles of Islam or the rights of the public.”

The Ministry of Education (MOE) determines the religious curriculum of public schools.  All school curricula, public and private, must include a course on Shia Islamic teachings, and all pupils must pass this course in order to advance to the next educational level through university.  Sunni students and students from recognized minority religious groups must take and pass the courses on Shia Islam, although they may also take separate courses on their own religious beliefs.

Recognized religious minority groups, except for Sunni Muslims, may operate private schools.  The MOE supervises the private schools operated by the recognized minority religious groups and imposes certain curriculum requirements.  The ministry must approve all textbooks used in coursework, including religious texts.  These schools may provide their own religious instruction and in languages other than Farsi, but authorities must approve those texts as well.  Minority communities must bear the cost of translating the texts into Farsi so the authorities can review them.  Directors of such private schools must demonstrate loyalty to the official state religion.  This requirement, known as gozinesh review, is an evaluation to determine adherence to the government ideology and system as well as knowledge of the government interpretation of Shia Islam.

The law bars Baha’is from founding their own educational institutions.  A Ministry of Science, Research, and Technology order requires universities to exclude Baha’is from access to higher education or expel them if their religious affiliation becomes known.  Government regulation states Baha’is are only permitted to enroll in universities if they do not identify themselves as Baha’is.  To register for the university entrance examination, Baha’i students must answer a basic multiple-choice question and identify themselves as followers of a religion other than Baha’i (e.g., Muslim, Christian, Jewish, or Zoroastrian).  To pass the entrance examination, university applicants must pass an exam on Islamic, Christian, or Jewish theology based on their official religious affiliation.

According to the constitution, Islamic scholars in the Assembly of Experts, an assembly of 86 popularly elected and supreme leader-approved clerics whose qualifications include piety and religious scholarship, elect the supreme leader, the country’s head of state.  To “safeguard” Islamic ordinances and to ensure legislation passed by the Islamic Consultative Assembly (i.e., the parliament or “Majles”) is compatible with Islam, a Guardian Council composed of six Shia clerics appointed by the supreme leader, and six Shia legal scholars nominated by the judiciary, must review and approve all legislation.  The Guardian Council also vets all candidates for the Assembly of Experts, president, and parliament and supervises elections for those bodies.

The constitution bans the parliament from passing laws contrary to Islam and states there may be no amendment to its provisions related to the “Islamic character” of the political or legal system or to the specification that Twelver Ja’afari Shia Islam is the official religion.

Non-Muslims may not be elected to a representative body or hold senior government, intelligence, or military positions, with the exception of five of the 290 parliament seats reserved by the constitution for recognized religious minorities.  There are two seats reserved for Armenian Christians, one for Assyrian and Chaldean Christians together, one for Jews, and one for Zoroastrians.

The constitution states in regions where followers of one of the recognized schools of Sunni Islam constitute the majority, local regulations are to be in accordance with that school within the bounds of the jurisdiction of local councils and without infringing upon the rights of the followers of other schools.

According to the constitution, a judge should rule on a case on the basis of the codified law, but in a situation where such law is absent, he should deliver his judgment on the basis of “authoritative Islamic sources and authentic fatwas.”

The constitution specifies the government must “treat non-Muslims in conformity with the principles of Islamic justice and equity, and to respect their human rights, as long as those non-Muslims have not conspired or acted against Islam and the Islamic Republic.”

The law authorizes collection of “blood money” or diyeh as restitution to families for the death of Muslims and members of recognized religious minorities.  Baha’i families, however, are not entitled to receive diyeh.  This law also reduces the diyeh for recognized religious minorities and women to half that of a Muslim man.

By law, non-Muslims may not serve in the judiciary, the security services (separate from regular armed forces), or as public school principals.  Officials screen candidates for elected offices and applicants for public sector employment based on their adherence to and knowledge of Islam and loyalty to the Islamic Republic (gozinesh requirements), although members of recognized religious minorities may serve in the lower ranks of government if they meet these loyalty requirement.  Government workers who do not observe Islamic principles and rules are subject to penalties and may be fired or barred from work in a particular sector.

The government bars Baha’is from all government employment and forbids Baha’i participation in the governmental social pension system.  Baha’is may not receive compensation for injury or crimes committed against them and may not inherit property.  A religious fatwa from the supreme leader encourages citizens to avoid all dealings with Baha’is.

The government does not recognize Baha’i marriages or divorces but allows a civil attestation of marriage to serve as a marriage certificate, which allows for basic recognition of the union but does not offer legal protections in marital disputes.  Baha’i activists report this often leaves women without the legal protections of government-recognized marriage contracts.

Recognized religious groups issue marriage contracts in accordance with their religious laws.

The constitution permits the formation of political parties based on Islam or on one of the recognized religious minorities, provided the parties do not violate the “criteria of Islam,” among other stipulations.

The constitution states the military must be Islamic, must be committed to Islamic ideals, and must recruit individuals who are committed to the objectives of the Islamic revolution.  In addition to the regular military, the IRGC is charged with upholding the Islamic nature of the revolution at home and abroad.  The law does not provide for exemptions from military service based on religious affiliation.  The law forbids non-Muslims from holding positions of authority over Muslims in the armed forces.  Members of recognized religious minorities with a college education may serve as officers during their mandatory military service, but may not continue to serve beyond the mandatory service period to become career military officers.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but at ratification entered a general reservation “not to apply any provisions or articles of the Convention that are incompatible with Islamic Laws and the international legislation in effect.”

Government Practices

According to Amnesty International (AI) and other international human rights NGOs, the government convicted and executed dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges of moharebeh and anti-Islamic propaganda.  According to AI and CHRI, authorities executed Zaniar Moradi and Loghman Moradi, two Kurdish minority prisoners, at Rajai Shahr Prison on September 8 after they were convicted on charges of moharebeh and murder, despite concerns of AI, CHRI, and other human rights NGOs regarding the use of torture, forced confessions, and denials of access to legal counsel.  Prior to the executions, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran and the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions released a joint statement writing, “We urge the Government of Iran to immediately halt their executions and to annul the death sentences against them.  We are alarmed by information received that Zanyar and Loghman Moradi suffered human rights violations before and during their trial, including torture and other ill-treatment and denial of access to a lawyer.”

Media outlets reported that on September 3, authorities hanged three Baluchi prisoners whom the Zahedan Revolutionary Court had sentenced to death in November 2017 on charges of moharebeh for allegedly participating in a firefight with police forces that led to the death of a police officer.  According to HRANA, “the three wrote an open letter detailing mistreatment and torture at the hands of their interrogators.”

International media and human rights organizations reported that the government executed Mohammad Salas, a member of the Gonabadi Sufi Dervish Order, on June 18 for allegedly killing three police officers during clashes between Gonabadi Sufis and security forces in February.  Human rights organizations, including AI, CHRI, and HRANA, decried Salas’ conviction and execution, noting marked irregularities in his case and allegations of forced confession under police torture.  The authorities reportedly denied Salas access to a lawyer and dismissed defense witnesses who could have testified to the fact that Salas was already in custody at the time of the police officers’ deaths.  According to AI, “Mohammad Salas’ trial was grossly unfair.  He said he was forced under torture to make a ‘confession’ against himself.  This ‘confession,’ taken from his hospital bed, was…used as the only piece of evidence to convict him.  He was not allowed access to his chosen lawyer.”

Human rights organizations widely reported the detention of Zeinab Taheri, a human rights lawyer, who was defending Salas.  Authorities arrested Taheri one day after Salas was executed.  On June 19, the Prosecutor’s Office for Culture and Media summoned Taheri and detained her on charges of “disturbing the public opinion,” “spreading propaganda against the system,” and “publishing lies.”  Tehran prosecutor Jafari Dolatabadi subsequently said during a press conference that Taheri had “incited the public opinion and mobilized the counterrevolution against the judiciary,” and that “the hostile media used her remarks to published reports against the judiciary.”

Residents of provinces with large Sunni populations, including Kurdistan, Khuzestan, and Sistan and Baluchistan, reported continued repression by judicial authorities and members of the security services, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture in detention, as well as discrimination, including suppression of religious rights, lack of basic government services, and inadequate funding for infrastructure projects.  The March report by UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran Asma Jahangir highlighted the disproportionately large number of executions of Sunni Kurdish prisoners.  The report stated authorities often detained Sunni Kurds “on charges related to various activities such as environmental activism, eating in public during the month of Ramadan, working as border couriers engaged in smuggling illicit goods, or for celebrating the results of the referendum held in neighboring Iraqi Kurdistan,” among other political or security-related charges.

Human rights NGOs, including HRANA, reported throughout the year on the extremely poor conditions inside Ardabil Prison, including reports of Shia guards routinely torturing Sunni prisoners.  In March CHRI reported that Mohammad Saber Malek-Raeisi, a Baluchi Sunni Muslim, who had been imprisoned since 2009, was suffering from serious injuries as a result of repeated beatings by guards during the four years he has been held in Ardabil Prison.  According to CHRI, prison authorities severely beat and tortured Malek-Raeisi in December 2017 after he went on a hunger strike to protest conditions.  Since then, his mother reported him ill and unable to see in one of his eyes.

HRANA also reported increased pressure on Sunni inmates at Rajai Shahr Prison in Karaj and Dizal Abad Prison in Kermanshah.  According to HRANA, on August 7, approximately 30 MOIS agents and 50 Special Forces raided a ward at Rajai Shahr housing minority Sunni inmates, beating the prisoners and taking their belongings.  The security forces reportedly insulted the Sunni prisoners’ religious beliefs during the raid.  Authorities reportedly denied medical treatment to those injured from the beatings.  The Rajai Shahr incident was reportedly retribution for the inmates’ religious and political activities.

In February HRANA reported seven Sunni prisoners in Rajai Shahr Prison detained since 2009 continued to await a new trial after the Supreme Court rejected the death sentences handed down to them in 2015.  The prisoners denied engaging in violence and said the authorities arrested them because of their religious beliefs and activities, including attending religious meetings and disseminating religious material.

According to Baluchi rights activists, Baluchis faced government discrimination as both Sunni religious practitioners and an ethnic minority group.  Baluchi rights activists reported continued arbitrary arrests, physical abuse, and unfair trials of journalists and human rights activists.  Baluchi rights activists reported that authorities often pressured family members of those in prison to remain silent.  HRANA reported that on June 17, authorities arrested Sunni Baluchi civil rights activist Abdollah Bozorgzadeh for joining a gathering in support of the 41 “Iranshahr Girls,” whom a group of well-connected men reportedly raped in the southeastern city of Iranshahr, located in the predominately-Sunni province of Sistan and Baluchistan.  Upon his arrest, authorities transferred Bozorgzadeh to an IRGC-run Zahedan detention center, where Bozorgzadah said he was tortured.  In July CHRI reported that authorities arrested at least 10 Baluchi activists for protesting the alleged rapes.  At his sermon on June 15, Iranshahr’s Sunni Friday Prayer Leader Mohammad Tayyeb Mollazehi reportedly stated that a suspect in custody had confessed he and several other men had raped 41 women.  However, according to CHRI, officials denied either that the rapes happened or claimed elements of the case had been falsified.  According to Iran Wire, the country’s prosecutor general threatened legal action against the Sunni prayer leader because the alleged perpetrators belonged to some of the city’s most influential families, including connections to or membership in the IRGC, Basij, military, and police.

The government continued to incarcerate numerous prisoners on various charges related to religion.  According to the Iran Prison Atlas, a database of political prisoners compiled by the U.S.-based NGO United for Iran, at least 272 members of minority religious groups remained imprisoned for being religious minority practitioners.  Of the total number of prisoners in the database, at least 165 were imprisoned on charges of moharebeh, 34 for “insulting the Supreme Leader and Ayatollah Khomeini,” 21 for “insulting Islam,” and 20 for “corruption on earth,” a term according to the Oxford Dictionary of Islam meaning in Quranic usage “corrupt conditions, caused by unbelievers or unjust people, that threaten social and political wellbeing.”  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies reportedly continued to face intimidation and arrest.

Various media outlets and human rights organizations reported incidents of severe physical mistreatment of the Gonabadi Sufi minority.  According to CHRI, guards at the Great Tehran Penitentiary attacked and beat Gonabadi detainees on August 29.  Several of the inmates reportedly were badly injured, suffered broken bones, and were moved to solitary confinement.  HRANA specified that the guards attacked at least 18 dervishes with batons and electroshock weapons in response to the prisoners’ protests of the beating of female Sufis in Gharchak Prison.

International media and NGOs widely reported more than 300 Gonabadi Sufi dervishes were detained after police open fired on them during February 19-20 demonstrations in Tehran to protest the house arrest of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.  Authorities held Tabandeh, aged 91, under house arrest in Tehran since at least February and denied him access to urgently needed medical care.  According to HRW, Mohammed Raji, one of those arrested in February, died in police custody.  Authorities told Raji’s family on March 4 that he died from repeated blows to the head.  The family said that Raji was injured, but alive at the time of his arrest.  HRW stated that authorities refused to clarify the sequence and timing of events that led to Raji’s death.

According to CHRI and other human rights organizations, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced 20 of the detained Gonabadi Sufis to lengthy prison terms for crimes of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “disturbing public order,” “disobeying law enforcement agents,” and “propaganda against the state.”  Mostafa Abdi received the most severe sentence with 26 years in prison, 148 lashes, two years of internal exile in Sistan and Baluchistan Province, a two-year ban on social activities, and a two-year prohibition on traveling abroad.  In August HRW reported that authorities had sentenced at least 208 dervishes since May “to prison terms and other punishments that violate their basic rights.”  The courts delivered sentences that included prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups.  CHRI reported that on February 19 Iranian security forces arrested Reza Entessari and Kasra Nouri, reporters with the Sufi news website Majzooban-e-Noor, while they were covering the violent dispersal of protests of treatment of the Gonabadi dervishes in Tehran.

On March 3, according to CHRI, the Revolutionary Court of Tehran sentenced Mohammad Ali Taheri, founder of the spiritual doctrine Interuniversalism and the Erfan-e Halgheh group, to five years in prison for a second time, on charges of “spreading corruption on earth.”  This sentence followed the Supreme Court’s rejection of Taheri’s prior death sentence in December 2017.  According to press, the Supreme Court ordered Taheri retried, citing a faulty investigation.  The case of Taheri, imprisoned since 2011, drew widespread international condemnation, including from human rights organizations, NGOs, and the UN special rapporteur.

On August 19, according to CHRI, a court sentenced journalist and satirist Amir Mohammad Hossein Miresmaili to 10 years in prison for “insulting sacred tenets and the imams,” “insulting government and judicial officials,” “spreading falsehoods to disturb public opinion,” and “publishing immoral and indecent matters.”  Authorities had arrested him in April after he posted a tweet criticizing the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad and referencing a Shia imam.

On October 25, according to CHRI, the government arrested journalist Pouyan Khoshhal and charged him with “insulting the divinity of Imam Hossein and other members of the prophet’s blessed household” after he used the word “demise” instead of “martyrdom” in referring to Imam Hossein in an article.

There continued to be reports of arrests and harassment of Sunni clerics and congregants.  In February CHRI reported government officials banned Molavi Abdolhamid Ismaeelzahi , the country’s leading Sunni cleric and Friday prayer leader of Zahedan, from traveling outside of Zahedan.  According to a July Radio Farda report, Member of Parliament (MP) Mahmoud Sadeghi, along with 20 other legislators, called upon the intelligence minister to lift the travel ban imposed on “Iran’s most prominent Sunni clergyman.”  The MPs questioned the government’s reason for the travel restrictions and reiterated the right to freedom of movement.

On September 22, HRANA reported the Special Clerical Court of Hamedan arraigned Sunni preacher and activist Hashem Hossein Panahi, “presumably for participating in the funeral of executed political prisoner Ramin Hussein Panahi.”  After he delivered a sermon at the funeral, MOIS filed charges against Hashem Hossein Panahi with the Special Clerical Court, which is under the direct control of the supreme leader.  The charges included “propaganda against the regime” and “disturbing public opinion.”

In response to the September 22 terrorist attack on a military parade in Ahvaz, Khuzestan, a region with a sizeable Sunni Arab population and where international media report longstanding economic and social grievances have led to sporadic protests, international press and human rights organizations reported domestic backlash against Arab Sunnis.  AI and the Ahvaz Human Rights Organization reported the authorities arrested hundreds of Ahvazi political and minority activists in the aftermath of the September 22 attack.

CHRI reported that authorities detained Sunni rap artist Shah Baloch, whose real name is Emad Bijarzehi, on June 20 in the southeastern port city of Chabahar for singing about state oppression against ethnic and religious minorities in Sistan and Baluchistan Province.  According to CHRI, authorities did not permit Baloch access to legal counsel.

Human rights organizations and Christian NGOs continued to report authorities arrested Christians for their religious affiliation or activities, including members of unrecognized churches for operating illegally in private homes or on charges of supporting and accepting assistance from “enemy” countries.  Many arrests reportedly took place during police raids on religious gatherings and included confiscations of religious property.  News reports stated that authorities subjected arrested Christians to severe physical and psychological mistreatment, which at times included beatings and solitary confinement.

CHRI reported that on January 6 the Revolutionary Court in Tehran sentenced Shamiram Isavi, the wife of Victor Bet Tamraz, who formerly led the country’s Assyrian Pentecostal Church, to five years in prison.  The judge convicted her on charges of “acting against national security by organizing home churches, attending Christian seminars abroad, and training Christian leaders in Iran for the purpose of espionage.”  Authorities arrested Isavi and her husband in their home in Tehran on December 26, 2014, along with their son, Ramin Bet Tamraz, and 12 Christian converts.  In June 2016, the revolutionary court judge sentenced Victor Bet Tamraz and Christian converts Hadi Asgari and Kavian Fallah Mohammadi to 10 years in prison each, while convert Amin Afshar Naderi received a 15-year prison sentence.  In February 2018, the UN special rapporteurs on freedom of religion or belief, on the situation of human rights in Iran, on minority issues, and on the right to health issued a joint public statement expressing concern at the lengthy sentences for Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Naderi, as well as reports of their mistreatment in prison, and, broadly, the targeting of religious minorities, particularly Christian converts.  Authorities released Bet Tamraz, Asgari, Mohammadi, and Naderi on bail while they appealed their sentences.

According to international media and various NGOs, including the Christian World Watch Monitor (CWWM) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), on May 2, Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, Yasser Mossayebzadeh, Saheb Fadaie, and Mohammad Reza Omidi received notification that the appeals court upheld their 10-year prison sentences for “acting against national security” by “promoting Zionist Christianity” and running house churches.  Instead of utilizing the customary summons procedure, CWWM and CSW reported that authorities took Nadarkhani and the three other sentenced Christians to Evin Prison following a series of violent raids on their homes in late July, which included beatings and electroshock weapons.  According to NGOs, the authorities also sentenced Nadarkhani and Omidi to two years internal exile in the southern region of the country, far from their homes in the country’s north near the Caspian Sea.  As of May Omidi, Mossayebzadeh, and Fadaie still awaited the outcome of the appeal of their September 2016 sentence of 80 lashes for consumption of communion wine.  According to CSW, the government sentenced Fadaie to an additional 18 months and another Christian, Fatemaeh Bakhteri, to 12 months in prison for “spreading propaganda against the regime.”  Fadaie also received two years in internal exile in a remote area near the Afghanistan border after his prison sentence.

On November 16, according to NGOs and media reports, security forces arrested Christian converts Behnam Ersali and Davood Rasooli in separate raids and took them to unknown locations.  Six security agents arrested Ersali at his friend’s home in Masshad and two security agents arrested Rasooli at his home in Karaj.

Mohabat News reported the detention and abuse of Karen Vartanian, an Armenian Christian whom authorities initially arrested in December 2017 after participating in student protests at Arak University.  Vartanian faced a number of political charges, including “promoting Christianity and anti-Islamic activities.”  According to Mohabat News and local media, Vartanian reportedly experienced physical and psychological abuse, lost at least 15 kilograms (33 pounds) and suffered a heart attack as a result of beatings.

According to a December 5 article in World Watch Monitor, citing information from the NGO rights group Article 18, the government arrested 142 Christians across multiple cities in one month.  The authorities asked them to write down the details of their Christian activities and told them not to have any more contact with Christians or Christian groups.  The authorities released most of them after a few hours or days, but kept the suspected leaders in detention.

Activists and NGOs reported Yarsani activists and community leaders continued to be subject to detention or disappearance for engaging in awareness raising regarding government practices or discrimination.  In March the Kurdistan Human Rights Network (KHRN) reported authorities arrested Yarsani activist Seyyed Peyman Pedrood.  According to KHRN, Pedrood disappeared in late December 2017 after leaving home, and his family later received unofficial information that security forces had arrested and transferred him to an unknown location.

According to the BIC, approximately 90 Baha’is were in prison as of November.  The BIC stated that all arrests and detentions were directly linked to the individual’s professed faith and religious identity.  Charges brought against Baha’is included “insulting religious sanctities,” “corruption on earth,” “propaganda against the system,” espionage and collaboration with foreign entities, and actions against national security.  Charges also included involvement with the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education (BIHE), a university-level educational institution the government considered illegal.  According to the BIC, in many cases, the authorities made arrests in conjunction with raids on Baha’i homes, during which they confiscated personal belongings, particularly religious books and writings.

HRW reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in Shiraz, Karaj, and Isfahan on unknown charges in August and September.  According to Iran Press Watch (IPC), MOIS officials on September 15 and 16 detained six Baha’i environmental activists, Sudabeh Haghighat, Noora Pourmoradian, Elaheh Samizadeh, Ehsan Mahboub Rahvafa, Navid Bazmandegan and his wife Bahareh Ghaderi, on unknown charges in Shiraz.  Human rights organizations and media reported agents searched the home of Basmandegan and Ghaderi and took the couple to an unknown location away from their five-year-old daughter Darya, who suffered from cancer and required care post-treatment.

On November 23, BIC reported the government arrested more than 20 Baha’is in multiple cities in the provinces of Tehran, Isfahan, Mazandaran, and East Azerbaijan over the course of two weeks.  The government also sentenced up to a dozen Baha’is, including nine Baha’is in Isfahan, who received a combined sentence of more than 40 years in prison on charges of “membership in the unlawful administration of the perverse Baha’i sect for the purpose of action against internal security” and “engaging in propaganda against the regime of the Islamic Republic.”

CHRI reported the government detained Shiraz City Council member Mehdi Hajati for 10 days in September for defending the “false Baha’i faith” after he tweeted about his attempts to free two Baha’i detainees.  The judiciary subsequently placed Hajati under judicial surveillance and banned him from his seat on the council

According to CHRI, on April 23 authorities returned to Rajai Shahr Prison Afif Naeimi, one of the seven leaders of the Yaran, a former group that tended to the social and spiritual needs of the Baha’i community and that was formed with the knowledge and approval of the government.  He had been on medical furlough due to life-threatening ailments.  CHRI reported, however, that upon return to prison, his condition was still poor and the judiciary’s own medical experts had ruled him too ill to be incarcerated.  In 2008, authorities arrested the seven individuals and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for “disturbing national security,” “spreading propaganda against the regime,” and “engaging in espionage” before the sentences were reduced to 10 years each on appeal.  Since September 2017, authorities released the other six leaders – Mahvash Sabet, Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – upon completion of their sentences.  According to BIC, authorities targeted these individuals because of their religious affiliation.

In May BIC reported a series of arrests of Baha’is.  On May 1, authorities detained Baha’i Kaviz Nouzdahi at his home in Mashhad and took him to the city’s Vakilabad Prison.  BIC also reported that the next day MOIS agents arrested a man identified only as “Motahhari” at his home in Isfahan.  According to Iran Wire, on May 6, Ministry of Information agents conducted an orchestrated raid of the residences of four Baha’is, during which they arrested three Baha’is, Nooshin Afshar, Neda Sabeti, and Forough Farzaneh, and took them to an unknown location.  Authorities reportedly searched their homes and confiscated their mobile phones, computers, and religious books.  BIC reported that the May arrestees faced charges because of their religious beliefs.  In a May 25 statement, BIC said the “systematic nature” of the arrests in a number of provinces suggested “a coordinated strategy on the part of government authorities.”

According to CHRI, on July 22 an appeals court in Kurdistan upheld a one-year sentence for Zabihollah Raoufi, whom authorities accused of proselytizing his Baha’i Faith.  The court upheld Raoufi’s conviction on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security by promoting Baha’ism.”  According to Iran Wire, on October 31 the 70-year-old Raoufi reported to prison to start serving his sentence.

According to Iran Wire, on January 28 a court sentenced Fataneh Nabilzadeh, a Baha’i resident of Mashhad, to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda against the regime.”  MOIS officials had arrested Nabilzadeh in 2013 for administering tests to her son and another Baha’i student on behalf of the BIHE.

According to January reports by CWWM and CSW, authorities sentenced two Christians, Eskander Rezaie and Soroush Saraei, in Shiraz to eight years in prison for “action against national security,” proselytizing, and holding house church meetings.  Authorities also charged Saraei, the pastor of the Church of Shiraz, with “forgery” for providing letters for students who did not want to attend Islamic studies classes.  The advocacy group Middle East Concern reported both men appealed their sentences.  During the same court hearing, a Christian woman, Zahrar Nourouzi Kashkouli, received a one year prison sentence, for “being a member of a group working against the system.”

According to the World Watch Monitor website, Article 18 reported Christian convert Ali Amini remained in Tabriz Prison following his arrest by authorities in December 2017 and had his laptop and cell phone confiscated.  He remained in a Tabriz Prison as of February.

Many Baha’is reportedly continued to turn to online education at BIHE despite government censorship through use of internet filters, blocking of websites, and the arrests of teachers associated with the program.  Since the BIHE’s online and offline operations remained illegal, students and teachers continued to face the risk of arrest for participation.  BIHE instructor Azita Rafizadeh remained in prison serving a four-year sentence for teaching at the institution.  Rafizadeh’s husband, Peyman Koushk-Baghi, continued serving a five-year sentence.  According to Payam News, officials initially arrested Koushk-Baghi in March 2016 while visiting his wife at Evin Prison.  Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced them on charges of “membership in the illegal and misguided Baha’i group with the aim of acting against national security through illegal activities at the BIHE educational institute.”  CHRI reported that on January 3 Evin Prison authorities told Rafizadeh she would only be considered for furlough if she apologized for teaching online classes to members of her faith.  Authorities reportedly said she must sign a statement to repenting for her work and promising she would not work there again.

Christians, particularly evangelicals and converts from Islam, continued to experience disproportionate levels of arrests and detention, and high levels of harassment and surveillance, according to Christian NGO reports.  Numerous Christians remained imprisoned at year’s end on charges related to their religious beliefs.  Prison authorities reportedly continued to withhold medical care from prisoners, including some Christians, according to human rights groups.  According to human rights NGOs, the government also continued to enforce the prohibition on proselytizing.

According to Mohabat News, the Revolutionary Court of Bushehr on June 20 sentenced Christian convert Payam Kharaman and 11 other Christians to one year in prison on the charge of “propaganda” activities against the government and promotion of “Zionist Christianity” through house meetings, evangelism, and proselytizing.  Authorities initially arrested the 12 Christians in Bushehr in April 2016.  CWWM reported that on March 2 authorities arrested 20 Christians in a workshop near the city of Karaj when security forces raided the premises.  Among those detained, authorities reportedly permitted Christian convert Aziz Majidzadeh to contact his family in April; he informed them that he and the others were being held at Evin Prison awaiting formal charges.  He reportedly said his interrogators focused on activities related to his Christian faith.  Article 18 reported on May 20 that authorities had released Majidzadeh pending a full investigation and trial.

Various media outlets and NGOs reported that on June 25, authorities released Mohammadali Yassaghi, a Christian also known as Estifan, from prison following a hearing at the Revolutionary Court in Babolsar, in which the presiding judge dismissed the charges against him.  The authorities arrested Yassaghi on April 10 on accusations of “spreading propaganda against the establishment” and later transported him to Babol Prison in Mazandaran Province.  According to CSW, Yassaghi was a member of the Church of Iran and converted to Christianity more than 20 years ago.

International media reported that on March 6 government officials detained Shia cleric Hossein Shirazi, the son of Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi.  Both Hossein Shirazi and his father, a senior cleric in the Qom Seminary, were reportedly critical of the government.  Authorities detained Hossein Shirazi in Qom after he attended an Islamic theology class.  During a lecture in February, Hossein Shirazi reportedly likened the country’s principle of Velayat Faghih – or the rule of a single jurist – to the “regimes of pharaohs in Egypt.”  He also reportedly accused the country’s leaders of tyranny.  Ayatollah Sadegh Shirazi’s opponents have accused him of promoting “British Shiism” and receiving funds from Britain and Saudi Arabia.

In January HRANA reported that security forces arrested Shia cleric Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam, son of Ayatollah Mohammad Reza Nekounam, a senior cleric detained in October 2017.  According to HRANA, authorities also raided Mohammad Mehdi Nekounam’s home and seized all communication devices, including cell phones and laptops, without providing an arrest warrant.  Authorities arrested his father, Ayatollah Nekounam, in 2015 and sentenced him to five years in prison and an undisclosed number of lashes.  The court also stripped Ayatollah Nekounam of his right to clerical office.  The court reportedly said it would not disclose any details about either case to “protect” the status of the clergy.  Sources stated the arrests were related to Nekounam’s indirect criticism of other clerics.  Reportedly he indirectly criticized Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi’s opposition to fast internet services and also criticized an incident in Isfahan in which individuals threw acid on women to punish them for improper hijabs.  In an interview, Nekounam stated, “The one who throws acid [at others] is the most violent person.”  HRANA reported in January of Ayatollah Nekounam’s ailing health following a stroke in the Qom Prison, but said authorities denied him access to his medications.

There were continued reports of authorities placing restrictions on Baha’i businesses or forcing them to shut down after they had temporarily closed in observance of Baha’i holidays or of authorities threatening shop owners with potential closure, even though businesses could legally close without providing a reason for up to 15 days a year.  In November BIC reported that authorities shut down more than a dozen Baha’i businesses in Khuzestan Province after the owners closed their businesses temporarily in observance of two Baha’i holidays.  According to IPC, on July 28 authorities shut down a Baha’i-owned business in the city of Kashan.  HRANA reported that the “Kashan Office of Properties refused to issue a business permit for optician shop of Javad Zabihian, due to his Baha’i Faith.  The Office of Properties then shut down and sealed Mr. Zabihian’s business.”  According to HRANA, the Superior Administrative Court on August 16 denied a petition to open 24 shuttered Baha’i-owned businesses in Urmia.  From July 9 through mid-August 2017, authorities reportedly sealed the businesses for closing in observance of a Baha’i holy day.  In August HRANA reported three Baha’is, Sahba Haghbeen, Samira Behinayeen, and Payam Goshtasbi, were fired from their jobs in Shiraz in a “continued effort to put economic constraints on Iranian Baha’is.”  HRANA also reported that on May 10, the MOIS office in Maku summoned Shahin Dehghan, a Baha’i citizen, and informed him that he had 10 days to sell his business or it would be confiscated and he would be sent to prison.  According to BIC, the government continued to raid Baha’i homes and businesses and confiscate private and commercial property, as well as religious materials.

The government continued to hold many Baha’i properties it seized following the 1979 revolution, including cemeteries, holy places, historical sites, and administrative centers.  The government also continued to prevent Baha’is from burying their dead in accordance with their religious tradition.  According to HRANA, security forces in Kerman prevented the burial of a Baha’i from Kerman, Hussein Shodjai, who died on August 26, and forced his family to bury the deceased in the city of Rafsanjan.  The authorities’ demand contravened Baha’i burial laws, under which the distance from the place of death to the burial place should not exceed one hour, according to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the central holy book of the Baha’i Faith.  IPC also reported that on March 16 authorities sealed the Baha’i cemetery of Kerman (known as the Eternal Garden) without specific justification.

In August BIC reported continued instances of the desecration and destruction of Baha’i property and holy sites.  Many government offices, including the City Council, the governor’s office, and the deputy governor’s office refused to take any action.  In November CHRI reported local authorities relocated the buried body of a Baha’i woman without the permission of the family.

According to human rights organizations, Christian advocacy groups, and NGOs, the government continued to regulate Christian religious practices.  Official reports and the media continued to characterize Christian house churches as “illegal networks” and “Zionist propaganda institutions.”  Christian community leaders stated that if the authorities learned Armenian or Assyrian churches were baptizing new converts or preaching in Farsi, they closed the churches.  Authorities also reportedly barred unregistered or unrecognized Christians from entering church premises and closed churches that allowed them to enter.

Christian advocacy groups continued to state the government, through pressure and church closures, had eliminated all but a handful of Farsi-language church services, thus restricting services almost entirely to the Armenian and Assyrian languages.  Security officials monitored registered congregation centers to perform identity checks on worshippers to confirm non-Christians or converts did not participate in services.  In response, many Christian converts reportedly practiced their religion in secret.  Other nonrecognized religious minorities such as Baha’is and Yarsanis were also forced to gather in private homes to practice their faith in secret.

The government continued to curb Christian practices at cemeteries, and authorities confiscated properties owned by Christian religious organizations.  CHRI reported that on March 7 a group controlled by the supreme leader issued an eviction order for Sharon Gardens, a Christian retreat center occupying 2.5 acres of land in in the Valadabad District of Karaj, 32 miles west of the capital.  The center was owned by the country’s largest Christian Protestant organization, the Jama’at-e Rabbani Church Council, also known as the Iran Assemblies of God, since the early 1970s; the eviction reflected a 2015 revolutionary court order for its confiscation.

The government continued to monitor the statements and views of senior Shia religious leaders.  Shia religious leaders who did not support government policies or Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s views reportedly continued to face intimidation, arrest, and imprisonment on charges related to religious offenses.

Critics stated the government used extrajudicial special clerical courts to control non-Shia Muslim clerics, as well as to prosecute Shia clerics who expressed controversial ideas and participated in activities outside the sphere of religion, such as journalism or reformist political activities.

The government continued to require women of all religious groups to adhere to “Islamic dress” standards in public, including covering their hair and fully covering their bodies in loose clothing – a manteau (overcoat) and a hijab (headscarf) or, alternatively, a chador (full body length semicircle of fabric worn over both the head and clothes).  Although the government at times eased enforcement of rules for such dress, it also punished “un-Islamic dress” with arrests, lashings, fines, and dismissal from employment.  The government continued to crack down on other public displays it deemed counter to its interpretation of Shia Islam laws, such as dancing and men and women appearing together in public.  In June security agents arrested a female teenager, Maedeh Hojabri, for posting videos of herself dancing without a hijab on Instagram.  Authorities then aired on state television a video of Hojabri, who acknowledged breaking moral norms while insisting that she was not encouraging others to follow her example, according to a report by Radio Farda.  International media widely reported her arrest, as well as an outpouring of social media support for Hojabri from fellow citizens.  According to a February report by HRW, authorities arrested at least three women protesting the country’s dress code/hijab laws in January and February.  Officials arrested Nargess Hosseini on January 29 when she took off her headscarf in a public protest against the hijab laws.  They arrested Azam Jangravi on February 14 and Shaparak Shajarizadeh on February 21 in similar circumstances.  On June 13, authorities arrested Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights attorney who had represented the women, telling her husband that authorities were taking her to prison for a sentence she had received in absentia.  Authorities sentenced Hosseini in March to 24 months in prison, suspending 21 months of her sentence.  On social media, Shajarizadeh stated on July 9 that a court had sentenced her to 20 years in prison, suspending 18 years of the sentence.

HRW also reported that on July 27, state TV’s “20:30” program featured an interview with the sister of anti-hijab activist Masih Alinejad, denouncing Alinejad’s advocacy against compulsory hijab laws.  In a post on social media and in a New York Times op-ed piece, Alinejad stated that, despite her sister’s statements that she had appeared on the program of her own free will, authorities pressured her family to denounce her on state television.

Authorities reportedly continued to deny the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities access to higher education and government employment unless they declared themselves as Christian or Muslim, respectively, on their application forms.

Public and private universities continued to deny Baha’is admittance and to expel Baha’i students once their religion became known.  In September BIC and IPC reported that at least 60 Baha’is were banned from universities during the year due to their religious beliefs and despite passing the entrance exam “under the false pretenses that they had ‘incomplete files’ or that their names were not in the registration list.”  The report also stated that officials told many Baha’i students who passed the grueling National University Entrance Exam, known as “Konkur,” that they might be able to study, but that they would need to write a letter and disavow their faith in order to do so.

CHRI reported that from March to September authorities expelled at least 50 Baha’i students from universities because of their religious beliefs.  In July CHRI reported a Baha’i woman, Sarir Movaghan, was expelled from the Islamic Azad University in Isfahan.  Movaghan declared she was Baha’i on the university enrollment form and was accepted, but four years later and just before her final exams, she was expelled.  According to CHRI, the university contacted Movaghan in May and told her that, as a Baha’i, she should have known that she could not be at the university.  Many Baha’is reportedly did not try to enroll in state-run universities because of the Baha’i Faith’s tenet not to deny one’s faith.

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

According to Mazjooban Noor, the official website of the Gonabadi dervishes, authorities continued to dismiss Gonabadi dervishes from employment and bar them from university studies for affiliation with the Sufi order.  CHRI reported that authorities expelled Sepideh Moradi Sarvestani, a member of the Gonabadi dervishes, from Tehran’s Tarbiat Modares University on February 3 “for refusing to formally pledge not to engage in activities deemed unacceptable by officials.”

Members of the Sunni community continued to dispute statistics published in 2015 on the website of the Mosques Affairs Regulating Authority stating there were nine Sunni mosques operating in Tehran and 15,000 across the country.  Community members said the vast majority of these were simply prayer rooms or rented prayer spaces.  International media and the Sunni community continued to report authorities prevented any new Sunni mosques from being built in Tehran.  Sunnis reported the number of mosques in the country did not meet the demands of the population.

Because the government barred them from building or worshiping in their own mosques, Sunni leaders said they continued to rely on ad hoc, underground prayer halls, or namaz khane, to practice their faith.  Security officials continued to raid these unauthorized sites.  In August international media reported police dispersed Sunni worshipers who had gathered outside a prayer hall in Tehran’s eastern Resalat neighborhood.  Authorities barred the worshipers from entering the venue to hold communal prayers on Eid al-Adha.  The Sunni congregation had reportedly obtained an official permit from the Ministry of Interior and the Tehran governorate’s political deputy.

MOIS and law enforcement reportedly continued to harass Sufis and Sufi leaders.  Media and human rights organizations reported continued censorship of the Gonabadi order’s Mazar Soltani websites, which contained speeches by the order’s leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, and articles on mysticism.

International media and NGOs reported continued government-sponsored anti-Christian propaganda to deter the practice of or conversion to Christianity.  According to Mohabat News, the government routinely propagated anti-Christian publications and online materials, such as the book Christian Zionism in the Geography of Christianity, published in 2017.

According to members of the Sabean-Mandaean and Yarsan religious communities, authorities continued to deny them permission to perform religious ceremonies in public and to deny them building permits for places of worship.

Yarsanis reported continued discrimination and harassment in the military and school systems.  They also continued to report that the birth registration system prevented them from giving their children Yarsani names.  A March report by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran stated Yarsanis continued to face a range of human rights violations, including attacks on their places of worship, the destruction of community cemeteries, and arrests and torture of community leaders.  The report provided “accounts of individuals being fired after it is discovered that they are Yarsan, and of individuals being forcibly shaved (the moustache is a holy symbol for the Yarsan community) when they refused to pray, for example when undertaking military service.”

According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, five Jewish schools and two kindergartens continued to operate in Tehran, but authorities required their principals be Muslim.  The government reportedly continued to allow Hebrew language instruction but limited the distribution of Hebrew texts, particularly nonreligious texts, making it difficult to teach the language, according to the Jewish community.  The government reportedly required Jewish schools to remain open on Saturdays, in violation of Jewish religious law, to conform to the schedule of other schools.

According to Christian NGOs, government restrictions on published religious material continued, including confiscations of books about Christianity already on the market, although government-sanctioned translations of the Bible reportedly existed.  Government officials frequently confiscated Bibles and related non-Shia religious literature, and pressured publishing houses printing unsanctioned non-Muslim religious materials to cease operations.  Books about the Yarsan religion remained banned.  Books published by religious minorities, regardless of topic, were required to carry labels on the cover denoting their non-Shia Muslim authorship.

Sunni leaders continued to report authorities banned Sunni religious literature and teachings from religion courses in some public schools, even in predominantly Sunni areas.  Other schools, notably in the Kurdish regions, included specialized Sunni religious courses for the students.  Assyrian Christians reported the government continued to permit their community to use its own religious textbooks in schools after the government reviewed and authorized their content.  Unrecognized religious minorities, such as Yarsanis and Baha’is, continued to report they were unable to legally produce or distribute religious literature.

In July Sepanta Niknam, a Zoroastrian, was restored to his position on the Yazd City Council following a ruling that constitutionally recognized religious minorities could run in local elections.  According to CHRI, on July 21, by a two-thirds majority, the Expediency Council, the country’s highest arbiter of disputes between state branches, voted to amend the Law on the Formation, Duties, and Election of National Islamic Councils, thereby affirming the right of constitutionally recognized religious minorities to run in local elections.  In September 2017, local and international media reported that the Yazd Court of Administrative Justice called for the suspension of Niknam.  After being re-elected to the council in May 2017, the court forced him to step down after issuing a ruling that as a member of a religious minority, Niknam could not be elected to a council in a Muslim-majority constituency.  The ruling was in response to a complaint lodged by his unsuccessful Muslim opponent.

Sunnis reported continued underrepresentation in government-appointed positions in the provinces where they formed a majority, such as Kurdistan and Khuzestan, as well as an inability to obtain senior government positions.  In January CHRI observed that while there were 21 Sunni representatives in the 290-member parliament, no Sunni had served in a ministerial position since the founding of the Islamic Republic despite comprising a significant percent of the population.

Sunni activists continued to report that throughout the year, and especially during the month of Moharam, the government sent hundreds of Shia missionaries to areas with large Sunni Baluch populations to try to convert the local population.

International media quoted Jewish community representatives such as Siamak Morsadegh, the sole Jewish member of parliament, as stating that there continued to be government restrictions and discrimination against Jews as a religious minority, but that there was little interference with Jewish religious practices.  According to the Tehran Jewish Committee, there were 31 synagogues in Tehran, more than 20 of them active, and 100 synagogues throughout the country.  Jewish community representatives said they were free to travel in and out of the country, and the government generally did not enforce a prohibition against travel to Israel by Jews, although it enforced the prohibition on such travel for other citizens.

Government officials continued to employ anti-Semitic rhetoric in official statements and sanction it in media outlets, publications, and books.  During remarks on June 15, Supreme Leader Khamenei said, “the Zionist regime, which has a legitimacy problem, will not last… and through Muslim nations’ vigilance, be certainly destroyed.”  Government-sponsored rallies continued to include chants of “death to Israel” and participants accused other religious minorities, such as Baha’is and Christians, of collusion with Israel.  Local newspapers carried editorial cartoons that were anti-Semitic in nature, often focusing on developments in Israel or elsewhere in the region, including the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.  The May 15 edition of the newspaper Tasnim carried a cartoon that portrayed Israel as a snake intent on devouring Jerusalem.  On February 13, the website Javan published an article, entitled “The Use of Corrupt Jewish Women by Secret Spy Services to Trap Important World Figures,” that claimed that Jewish religious law allowed Jewish women to use their gender and femininity to gather intelligence for Mossad.

According to human rights activists, the government maintained a legal interpretation of Islam that required citizens of all faiths to follow strict rules based on the government’s interpretation of Shia jurisprudence, creating differentiation under the law between the rights granted to men and women.  The government continued to enforce gender segregation and discrimination throughout the country without regard to religious affiliation.

The government continued to maintain separate election processes for the five seats reserved for representatives of the recognized religious minority communities in parliament.

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Baha’is and those who advocated for their rights reported that Baha’is continued to be major targets of social stigma and violence, and that perpetrators continued to act with impunity or, even when arrested, faced diminished punishment following admissions that their acts were based on the religious identity of the victim.

There continued to be reports of non-Baha’is dismissing or refusing employment to Baha’is, sometimes in response to government pressure, according to BIC and other organizations monitoring the situation of Baha’is in Iran.  BIC continued to report instances of employment discrimination and physical violence committed against Baha’is based on their faith.  Baha’is reported there were continued incidents of destruction or vandalism of their cemeteries.

In October IPC reported “tens of thousands more [Baha’is] experience educational, economic and cultural persecution on a daily basis for merely practicing their faith.”  According to BIC, anti-Baha’i rhetoric increased markedly in recent years.  In August a BIC report noted the continued harassment, vilification, and psychological pressure children and adolescents known to be Baha’is experience in primary, middle, and high schools throughout the country.

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

According to CSW, Open Doors USA, and others, converts from Islam to Christianity faced ongoing societal pressure and rejection by family or community members.

Shia clerics and prayer leaders reportedly continued to denounce Sufism and the activities of Sufis in both sermons and public statements.

Sunni students reported professors routinely continued to insult Sunni religious figures in class.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. has no diplomatic relations with the country, and therefore, did not have opportunities to raise concerns directly with the government over its religious freedom abuses and restrictions.

The U.S. government continued to call for the government to respect religious freedom and continued to condemn its abuses of religious minorities in a variety of ways and in different international forums.  This included public statements by senior U.S. government officials and reports issued by U.S. government agencies, support for relevant UN and NGO efforts, diplomatic initiatives, and sanctions.  Senior U.S. government officials publicly reiterated calls for the release of prisoners held on grounds related to their religious beliefs.

In July the Secretary of State called attention to the situation of religious freedom in the country in a town hall speech on “Supporting Iranian Voices” and an opinion editorial appearing in USA Today.  In his op-ed, the Secretary of State said, “Hundreds of Sufi Muslims in Iran remain imprisoned on account of their beliefs, with reports of several dying at the hands of Iran’s brutal security forces.  The religious intolerance of the regime in Iran also applies to Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Baha’is, Zoroastrians, and other minority religious groups simply trying to practice their faiths.”  At the July U.S.-hosted Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, the U.S. and four other governments issued a statement on Iran.  In the statement, the governments said, “Many members of Iranian religious minorities – including Baha’is, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sunni and Sufi Muslims – face discrimination, harassment, and unjust imprisonment because of their beliefs….The Iranian regime continues its crackdown on Gonabadi Sufis.…Baha’is also face particularly severe ill-treatment.  As with many other minority communities, Iranian authorities reportedly harass, arrest, and mistreat Baha’is on account of their faith, and in May the Baha’i International Community reported an uptick in arbitrary arrests and raids across the country.…The Government of Iran continues to execute dissidents, political reformers, and peaceful protesters on charges brought because of their peaceful religious beliefs or activities.  Blasphemy, apostasy from Islam, and efforts to proselytize Muslims are punishable by death, contrary to Iran’s international human rights obligations….We strongly urge the Government of Iran to cease its violations of religious freedom and ensure that all individuals – regardless of their beliefs – are treated equally and can live out their lives and exercise their faith in peace and security.”

During a September press briefing, the Special Representative for Iran called for an end to religious persecution in Iran, stating:  “What we are demanding of the Iranian regime…stop persecuting civil society, please provide all Iranian citizens with due process regardless of their political and religious beliefs.”  In June a Department of State spokesperson condemned “the Iranian government’s execution of Mohammad Salas, a member of the long-persecuted Iranian Gonabadi Sufi Dervish community.”

The United States again supported an extension of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran in a vote at the UN Human Rights Council.  The United States also voted in December in the General Assembly in favor of a resolution expressing concern over Iran’s human rights practices, including the continued persecution of religious minorities.

Since 1999, Iran has been designated as a CPC under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.  On November 28, the Secretary of State announced the redesignation of Iran as a CPC and identified the existing sanctions as ongoing travel restrictions based on serious human rights abuses under section 221(a)(1)(C) of the Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012, pursuant to section 402(c)(5) of the Act.

Iraq

Executive Summary

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion and states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam.”  The constitution guarantees freedom of religious belief and practice for Muslims, Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but not for followers of other religions or atheists.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom from religious coercion and requires the government to maintain the sanctity of religious sites.  Institutional and societal restrictions on freedom of religion as well as violence against minority groups remained widespread, according to religious leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGO) focused on religious freedom.  NGO leaders said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Community leaders continued to state forced conversion was the de facto outcome of the national identity card law mandating children with only one Muslim parent, even children born as a result of rape, be listed as Muslim.  Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security forces closed some roads between the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) and areas subject to territorial disputes between the KRG and the country’s central government for much of the year, impeding the movement of Yezidis between Dohuk Province and the Sinjar area.  Most roads were reopened by year’s end.  Yezidis, Christian leaders, and NGOs reported harassment and abuses by the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a state-sponsored organization composed of more than 40 mostly Shia militias, which also includes Sunni and other minority units originally formed to combat ISIS.  Christians reported harassment and abuse at numerous PMF-operated checkpoints, restricting their movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain.  Christians in PMF-controlled towns reported harassment of Christian women by PMF members.  They also said elements of the central government in Baghdad were attempting to facilitate demographic change by providing land and housing for Shia and Sunni Muslims to move into traditionally Christian areas.  Representatives of minority religious communities said the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances, but some faced harassment and restrictions from local authorities.  Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.

According to Yazda, an NGO focused on Yezidi issues, more than 3,000 Yezidis still remained missing following ISIS’s assault on northern Iraq in 2014.  In November the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) and the United Nations Human Rights Office documented the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar, and cautioned that there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”

Although according to media and human rights organizations security conditions in many parts of the country improved somewhat from 2017, there were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued abductions, threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  On July 23, three gunmen, who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group, forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion, before police killed the attackers.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Louis Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime; others said the killers sought to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.  In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit such abuses.  Armed groups continued to target Sunnis for execution-style killings and the destruction of homes and businesses.  Christian leaders in the Ninewa Plain reported multiple instances of theft and harassment of Christians by the PMF.

The U.S. government continued to raise religious freedom concerns at the highest levels in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, speeches, coordination groups, and targeted assistance programs for stabilization projects.  Visits by the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator, representatives of the office of the Vice President, and other senior U.S. officials to minority areas reinforced the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador and other embassy and consulates general officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional government officials, members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and Shia, Sunni, and minority group representatives, to emphasize the need for the security, full inclusion, tolerance, and protection of the rights of religious minorities.  The Department of State issued a press statement on U.S. support for vulnerable minorities in Iraq on June 11, saying, “This Administration has made the protection of Iraq’s diversity of faiths and its threatened religious minorities a top and unceasing priority.  Those who survived genocide, crimes against humanity, and other atrocities, as well as those who perished as a result of these acts, deserve nothing less.”  The United States announced over $178 million in new U.S. foreign assistance to support ethnic and religious minorities in Iraq on October 16.  On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 40.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to 2010 government statistics, the most recent available, 97 percent of the population is Muslim.  Shia Muslims, predominantly Arabs but also including Turkoman, Faili (Shia) Kurds, and others, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the population, while Sunni Muslims are approximately 40 percent of the population.  Of Sunnis, Sunni Kurds constitute 15 percent, Sunni Arabs 24 percent, and Sunni Turkomans the remaining 1 percent.  Shia, although predominantly located in the south and east, are the majority in Baghdad and have communities in most parts of the country.  Sunnis form the majority in the west, center, and north of the country.

Christian leaders estimate there are fewer than 250,000 Christians remaining in the country, with the largest population – at least 200,000 – living in the Ninewa Plain and the IKR.  The Christian population has declined over the past 16 years from a pre-2002 population estimate of between 800,000 and 1.4 million persons.  Approximately 67 percent of Christians are Chaldean Catholics (an Eastern Rite of the Roman Catholic Church), and nearly 20 percent are members of the Assyrian Church of the East.  The remainder are Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, and Anglican and other Protestants.  There are approximately 2,000 registered members of evangelical Christian churches in the IKR, while an unknown number, mostly converts from Islam, practice the religion secretly.

Yezidi leaders report most of the 400,000 to 500,000 Yezidis in the country reside in the north, and approximately 360,000 remain displaced.  Estimates of the size of the Sabean-Mandean community vary.  According to Sabean-Mandean leaders, 10,000 remain in the country, mainly in the south with between 750 and 1,000 in the IKR and Baghdad.  Baha’i leaders report fewer than 2,000 members, spread throughout the country in small groups, including approximately 500 in the IKR.  The Shabak number between 350,000 and 400,000, three-fourths of whom are Shia and the rest Sunni; most are located in Ninewa.  Armenian leaders report a population of approximately 7,000 Armenian Christians.  According to Kaka’i (also known as Yarsani) activists, their community has approximately 120,000 to 150,000 members, traditionally located in the Ninewa Plain and in villages southeast of Kirkuk, as well as in Diyala and Erbil.  The Jewish representative in the KRG Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs (MERA) reports 70 to 80 Jewish families reside in the IKR, though he noted that some Jewish families do not openly acknowledge their religion for fear of persecution.  According to a Baghdad Jewish community leader, there are fewer than six adult members of the local Jewish community.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of December, nearly 1.8 million persons remained displaced within the country.  Population movements are multi-directional, with some persons fleeing their homes and others returning home.  According to the IOM, as of May, approximately 67 percent of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) population were Arab Sunni, 13 percent Kurdish Sunni, 8 percent Yezidi, 6 percent Turkoman Shia, 2 percent Arab Shia, 1 percent either Syriac, Chaldean, or Assyrian Christian, 2 percent Shabak Shia, and less than 1 percent Turkoman Sunni, Shabak Sunni, or Kurdish Shia.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution establishes Islam as the official religion of the state, and a “foundational source” of legislation.  It states no law may be enacted contradicting the “established provisions of Islam,” but it also states no law may contradict the principles of democracy or the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in the constitution.

The constitution protects the “Islamic identity” of the Iraqi people, although it makes no specific mention of Sunni or Shia Islam.  The constitution also provides for freedom of religious belief and practice for Christians, Yezidis, and Sabean-Mandeans, but it does not explicitly protect followers of other religions, or atheists.  According to the penal code, Jews may not hold jobs in state enterprises or join the military.  The law prohibits the practice of the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam.

The constitution states each individual has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and belief.  Followers of all religions are free to practice religious rites and manage religious endowment affairs and religious institutions.  The constitution guarantees freedom from religious coercion and states all citizens are equal before the law without regard to religion, sect, or belief.

Personal status laws and regulations prohibit the conversion of Muslims to other religions, and require administrative designation of minor children as Muslims if either parent converts to Islam, or if one parent is considered Muslim, even if the child is a product of rape.  Civil status law allows non-Muslim women to marry Muslim men, but it prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The following religious groups are recognized by the personal status law and thereby registered with the government:  Islam, Chaldean, Assyrian, Assyrian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Armenian Catholic, Roman Catholic, National Protestant, Anglican, Evangelical Protestant Assyrian, Seventh-day Adventist, Coptic Orthodox, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, and Jewish.  Recognition allows groups to appoint legal representatives and perform legal transactions such as buying and selling property.  All recognized religious groups have their own personal status courts responsible for handling marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues.  According to the government, however, there is no personal status court for Yezidis.

There are three diwans (offices) responsible for administering matters for the recognized religious groups within the country:  the Sunni Endowment Diwan, the Shia Endowment Diwan, and the Endowment of the Christian, Yezidi, and Sabean-Mandean Religions Diwan.  The three endowments operate under the authority of the Office of the Prime Minister to disburse government funds to maintain and protect religious facilities.

Outside of the IKR, the law does not provide a mechanism for a new religious group to obtain legal recognition.  The law prescribes 10 years’ imprisonment for anyone practicing the Baha’i Faith.  For the practice of unrecognized religious groups other than Baha’i – including Wahhabi Muslim, Zoroastrian, Yarsanism, and the Kaka’i faith – the law does not specify penalties; however, contracts signed by institutions of unrecognized religious groups are not legal or permissible as evidence in court.

In the IKR, religious groups obtain recognition by registering with the KRG MERA.  To register, a group must have a minimum of 150 adherents, provide documentation on the sources of its financial support, and demonstrate it is not anti-Islam.  Eight faiths are registered with the KRG MERA:  Islam, Christianity, Yezidism, Judaism, Sabean-Mandaeism, Zoroastrianism, Yarsanism, and the Baha’i Faith.

In addition to the Christian denominations recognized by the government, the KRG has registered 11 evangelical Christian and other Protestant churches:  Nahda al-Qadassa Church in Erbil and Dohuk, Nasari Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Kurd-Zaman Church in Erbil, Ashti Evangelical Church in Sulaimaniya, Evangelical Free Church in Dohuk, the Baptist Church of the Good Shepherd in Erbil, al-Tasbih International Evangelical Church in Dohuk, Rasolia Church in Erbil, as well as United Evangelical, Assemblies of God, and Seventh-day Adventist Churches in Erbil.  The KRG allows new Christian churches to register with a minimum of 50 adherents.

In the IKR, Christian groups may register separately with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders, an independent group formed by Christian church leaders, which includes six evangelical Protestant churches.  Registration with the Council of Iraqi Christian Church Leaders provides Christian churches and leaders with access to the KRG MERA and to the KRG’s Christian endowment.

The KRG MERA operates endowments that pay salaries of clergy and fund construction and maintenance of religious sites for Muslims, Christians, and Yezidis, but not for the other six registered religions.

The law requires the government to maintain the sanctity of holy shrines and religious sites and guarantee the free practice of rituals for recognized religious groups.  The penal code criminalizes disrupting or impeding religious ceremonies and desecrating religious buildings.  The penal code imposes up to three years’ imprisonment or a fine of 300 dinars (26 cents) for such crimes.

By law, the government provides support for Muslims outside the IKR desiring to perform the Hajj and Umrah, organizing travel routes and immunization documents for entry into Saudi Arabia.  The Sunni and Shia endowments accept Hajj applications from the public and submit them to the Supreme Council for the Hajj.  The council, attached to the Prime Minister’s office, organizes a lottery process to select pilgrims for official Hajj visas.  Lottery winners pay differing amounts to the government for their visas prior to Hajj depending on their mode of travel:  3.5 million dinars ($3,100) for Hajj travel by land, and five million dinars ($4,400) for travel by air.  In the IKR, the KRG MERA organizes Hajj and Umrah travel, carrying out a lottery to choose the pilgrims for official Hajj visas allotted to the IKR.

The constitution guarantees minority groups the right to educate children in their own languages.  While it establishes Arabic and Kurdish as official state languages, it makes Syriac, typically spoken by Christians, and Turkoman official languages only in the administrative units in which those groups “constitute density populations.”  In the IKR, there are 56 Syriac and 21 Turkoman language schools.  The constitution provides for a Federal Supreme Court made up of judges, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, and legal scholars.  The constitution leaves the method of regulating the number and selection of judges to legislation that requires a two-thirds majority in the Council of Representatives (COR) for passage.

The constitution provides citizens the right to choose which court (civil or religious) will adjudicate matters of personal status, including marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, and endowments.  Islam takes precedence when one of the parties to the dispute is from an unrecognized faith.  The law states civil courts must consult the religious authority of a non-Muslim party for its opinion under the applicable religious law and apply the religious authority’s opinion in court.  In the IKR, the Personal Status Court adjudicates personal disputes between Muslims, and the Civil Status Court handles all other cases.

New national identity cards do not denote the bearer’s religion, although the online application still requests this information.  The only religions that may be listed on the national identity card application are Christian, Sabean-Mandean, Yezidi, Jewish, and Muslim.  There is no distinction between Shia and Sunni Muslim, or a designation of Christian denominations.  Individuals practicing other faiths may only receive identity cards if they self-identify as Muslim, Yezidi, Sabean-Mandean, Jewish, or Christian.  Without an official identity card, one may not register one’s marriage, enroll children in public school, acquire passports, or obtain some government services.  Passports do not specify religion.

The law provides constitutional guarantees for the reinstatement of citizenship to individuals who gave up their citizenship for political or sectarian reasons; however, this law does not apply to Jews who emigrated and gave up their citizenship under a 1950 law.

Civil laws provide a simple process for a non-Muslim to convert to Islam, but the law forbids conversion by a Muslim to another religion.

The law in the IKR formally recognizes the Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and Sabean-Mandean faiths, and promotes equal political, cultural, societal, and economic representation of all minority groups.  It forbids “religious, or political, media speech individually or collectively, directly or indirectly that brings hate and violence, terror, exclusion, and marginalization based on national, ethnic, or religious or linguistic claims.”

The law reserves nine of the COR’s 329 seats for members of minority communities:  five for Christian candidates from Baghdad, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Erbil, and Dohuk; one for a Yezidi; one for a Sabean-Mandean; one for an ethnic Shabak; and one for a Faili Kurd from Wasit.  Usually one of the COR rapporteur positions is designated for a Christian MP and the other a Turkoman.  The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament (IKP) reserves 11 of its 111 seats for ethnic minorities:  five for Chaldeans, Syriacs, and Assyrians; five for Turkomans; and one for an Armenian.

Islamic education, including study of the Quran, is mandatory in primary and secondary schools, except in the IKR.  Non-Muslim students are not required to participate in Islamic studies.  The government provides Christian religious education in public schools in some areas where there are concentrations of Christian populations, and there is a Syriac curriculum directorate within the Ministry of Education.

The antiterrorism law of November 2005 defines terrorism as “Every criminal act committed by an individual or an organized group that targeted an individual or a group of individuals or groups or official or unofficial institutions and caused damage to public or private properties, with the aim to disturb the peace, stability, and national unity or to bring about horror and fear among people and to create chaos to achieve terrorist goals.”  Anyone found guilty under this law is sentenced to death.

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

Government Practices

International and local NGOs said the government continued to use the antiterrorism law as a pretext for detaining individuals without due process.  Observers reported the current antiterrorism law did not allow for the right to due process and a fair trial.  Sunni leaders said authorities referenced the law in their arbitrary detentions of young Sunni men on suspicion of ISIS links but provided no corroborating evidence.

According to international human rights organizations, some Shia militias, including some under the PMF umbrella, committed abuses and atrocities and were implicated in several attacks on Sunni civilians, allegedly to avenge ISIS crimes against Shia.  Following the return of central government control in Kirkuk in late 2017, Kurds, Turkomans, Kaka’i, Christians, and other minorities faced discrimination, displacement, and in some cases, violence from PMF and Iraqi security forces.  Media outlets carried numerous reports of Shia PMF groups invading, looting, and burning the houses of Kurds, Sunni Turkomans, Sunni Arabs, and other ethnic minorities in Kirkuk Governorate.  Kurds faced similar violence in Khanaqin, a majority Kurdish city in Diyala Governorate that also passed from KRG to central government control in 2017.  Analysts stated that discrimination continued to stoke ethno-sectarian tensions in the disputed territories throughout the year.  In August four Kurds, including a Peshmerga, were beheaded in Khanaqin by unknown attackers.  The Kaka’i community in Daquq, Kirkuk Governorate, continued to suffer harassment and intimidation, which Kaka’i civil society groups said accelerated under PMF occupation of the area.

The religious status of children resulting from rape became a more prominent issue because of the number of minority children resulting from gender-based violence perpetrated by ISIS.  Yezidi community leaders reported that Yezidi captives of ISIS who were repeatedly raped and bore children were forced to register those children as Muslims and convert to Islam themselves to obtain ID cards, passports, and other governmental services.  Yezidi sources reported the number of these children range from several dozen to several hundred.  They said societal stigma made it difficult to obtain accurate numbers.  According to Christian leaders, in some cases Christian families formally registered as Muslim but privately practicing Christianity or another faith were forced to choose to register their child as a Muslim or to have the child remain undocumented.  Remaining undocumented would affect the family’s eligibility for government benefits such as school enrollment and ration card allocation for basic food items, which depends on family size.  Larger families with legally registered children received higher allotments than those with undocumented children.

Representatives of minority religious communities said that, while the central government did not generally interfere with religious observances and even provided security for places of worship and other religious sites, including churches, mosques, shrines, and religious pilgrimage sites and routes, minority groups continued to face harassment, including sexual assault, and restrictions from local authorities in some regions.  Christian religious leaders continued to publicly accuse the Iranian-backed Shabak Shia PMF militia 30th Brigade, controlled by Iraqi parliament member Hunain Qado and his brother Waad, of harassment and sexual assaults on Christian women in Bartalla and elsewhere in Hamdaniya District.  The chair of the municipal council of Bartalla made public court documents from several cases involving militiamen charged with theft, harassment, and sexual harassment.  Shabak Sunni leaders in Hamdaniya made similar allegations.

According to Christian and other minority community leaders, Shabak parliamentarians, including Qado, with the support of some other Shia elements within the central government in Baghdad, had directed the 30th Brigade to harass Christians to drive out the area’s dwindling Christian population and allow Shabak and other Shia Muslims to settle in the area’s traditionally Christian town centers.  Christians in Tal Kayf made similar claims that the nominally Christian but majority Sunni Arab PMF 50th “Babylon” Brigade actively sought to prevent and disrupt the return of the displaced Christian community to facilitate the settlement of Sunni Arab and Shia Shabak populations in that town.

The Ninewa provincial government ordered that all district governments comply with a 2017 federal law granting land to the families of mostly Shia Muslim PMF martyrs of the war against ISIS as compensation for their loss.  The order included those districts with Sunni and non-Muslim majorities.  In September Hamdaniya District Mayor Essam Behnam issued an order suspending such grants in the historically Christian majority district, citing the constitution’s prohibition of forced demographic change.  Throughout the year, Behnam successfully resisted political pressure at both the federal and provincial levels to issue such land grants in Hamdaniya.  Iraq’s National Investment Commission, under the presidency of the Council of Ministers, approved the building of large housing development projects on government-owned land in the outskirts of Bartalla.  Pointing to a surplus of houses in Christian town centers, Christian community leaders alleged that virtually all the future occupants of this housing would be Shabak and Arab Muslims not native to Bartalla.

Some Yezidi and Christian leaders continued to report harassment and abuse by KRG Peshmerga and Asayish forces in the KRG-controlled portion of Ninewa; some leaders said the majority of such cases were motivated by politics rather than religious discrimination.  According to various NGOs, central government, and KRG sources, KRG security forces and ISF blocked major roads between the IKR and central government-controlled Iraq, including roads serving minority communities such as the roads between Dohuk and Sinjar, al Qosh and Tal Kayf, and Sheikhan and Mosul.  The closure of these roads forced minorities to take long, circuitous detours, restricted their access to markets for their goods, and left them vulnerable to harassment and extortion at numerous checkpoints.  After lengthy negotiations, the KRG and GOI opened most of these roads during the year, including the al Qosh-Tal Kayf and Shaykhan-Mosul roads in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December.

In June elements of the PMF Imam Ali Brigade refused to allow the Yezidi Sinjar District Council to return to Sinjar City from its temporary location in Mosul, even with an official letter from the Office of the Prime Minister.  In October a combination of PMF and popular protest again prevented the Yezidi mayor of Sinjar and the district council from returning to Sinjar.  Christians reported continued harassment, abuse, and delays at numerous checkpoints operated by various PMF units, impeding movement in and around several Christian towns on the Ninewa Plain, including the Shabak Brigade in Qaraqosh, Bartalla, and Karamles, and the 50th “Babylon” Brigade in Batnaya and Tal Kayf.

According to multiple sources, some government forces and militia groups forced alleged ISIS sympathizers or family members of suspected members from their homes in several governorates.  For example, there were reports the PMF militia group Kataib Hizballah kidnapped and intimidated local Arab Sunni residents in Diyala and Babil Governorates and prevented Arab Sunni IDPs from returning to their places of origin.

The KRG continued to actively support and fund the rescue of captured Yezidis and provide psychosocial support services at a center in Dohuk Province.  According to the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi affairs, since 2014 3,322 Yezidis kidnapped by ISIS had been rescued or released, but 3,015 Yezidis were still missing as of October.  Rescued captives reported being sold multiple times and subjected to forced conversions to Islam, sexual exploitation, and violence.  The Iraqi Independent Human Rights Commission reported in August that 600 Turkomans kidnapped by ISIS, including more than 120 children, remained missing, none of whom had been reported rescued by the end of the year.  A Turkoman NGO, however, stated in December that more than 1300 Turkomans were still missing and said it had evidence that ISIS had trafficked Turkoman women to Chechnya, Turkey, and Syria.  The KRG MERA also reported that 250 Christians were rescued, leaving an estimated 150 missing.

In October the KRG MERA director general for Yezidi Affairs reported the KRG had paid more than $7 million in ransom and payments to middlemen to secure the release of approximately 2,000 Yezidis from ISIS since 2014.  In July the Ninewa Provincial Council established two offices, one in Mosul and the other in Sinjar, responsible for investigating the fate of Yezidis still missing or held captive by ISIS.  Yezidi groups said the presence of armed affiliates of the PKK, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and PMF militias in Sinjar continued to hinder the return of IDPs.

According to Yazda, a global Yezidi organization, Yezidis in the IKR were discriminated against when they refused to self-identify as Kurdish; only those Yezidis who considered themselves Kurdish could obtain senior positions in the IKR leadership.  In the IKR, those not identifying as Kurdish said actions such as obtaining a residency card or a driver’s license were challenging.  The KRG continued to offer support and funding to some non-Muslim minorities, but other minorities in the IKR, including evangelical Christians, said they continued to face difficulties in changing their registration from Muslim to Christian if they were converts, or engaged in in proselytizing.

In some parts of the country, non-Muslim religious minorities, as well as Sunni and Shia in areas where they formed the minority, continued to face harassment and restrictions from authorities.  In July ISF forces and local police forcibly entered Mar Gorgees Syriac Catholic Church in Bartalla, cut the internet network of the church and adjacent cultural center, and destroyed the church’s internet server equipment.  While authorities accused the church of unauthorized distribution of an IKR-based internet service to the Christian community in Ninewa Province, Syriac Catholic Church leaders said the action represented an attack on the church, and they accused the security forces of acting on behalf of a rival, politically connected internet provider.

The KRG MERA reduced the number of mosques delivering weekly Friday sermons from 3,000 to 2,000 by combining mosques located in the same neighborhoods.  MERA Spokesman and Director of General Relations Mariwan Naqshbandy said MERA was formulating a policy to produce and distribute pre-approved content for Friday sermons in MERA-funded mosques to prevent the spread of extremism.  The KRG MERA banned eight imams from delivering Friday sermons, citing extremist ideology and incitement to violence.  The imams continued to receive MERA salaries and were ordered to undergo a rehabilitation course to regain permission to preach in MERA-approved mosques.  MERA also banned 10 books by well-known Islamic scholars because they encouraged violence and extremism.  MERA also introduced a mandatory training program for new imams that included instruction on religious pluralism and tolerance and against extremist preaching and hate speech.

According to the international human rights NGO Heartland Alliance, KRG law protecting the rights of religious freedom was undermined by vague wording and did not provide implementation mechanisms or penalties for violations.

In September Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Dawood Matti Sharf said the central government had not opened an investigation into the alleged ISF and PMF destruction of the second century tomb in Qaraqosh of religious notable Youhana al-Delimi, despite a lawsuit filed by the archbishop in 2017.

Advocacy groups and religious minority representatives reported increased emigration.  Estimates, including those cited by several Christian parliamentarians (MPs), the daily number of Christian families leaving the country, including the IKR, ranged from 10 to 22.  A director of an Assyrian NGO reported that four Syriac language schools closed in Dohuk due to lack of students.  Some Yezidis and Christians maintained their own militias.  Some of these received support from Baghdad through the PMF, while others received assistance from KRG Peshmerga units.  Some representatives of religious minority groups, such as Yezidi and Sabean-Mandean MPs, stated they must have a role in their own security and requested government support to create armed groups from their own communities; others asked to join regular law enforcement units.  Other minority leaders in the Ninewa Plain expressed hope that the Ministry of Interior would hire minorities to serve in local police forces to absorb and replace the minority militias in the region.  Some leaders conducted recruitment drives to demonstrate the considerable interest among minority communities in joining police units, including among current members of minority militias; however, no local police positions were available at year’s end.

One of the remaining members of the Jewish community in Baghdad described the prevalence of anti-Semitic rhetoric from both Muslim and Christian leaders.  Although the sermons did not advocate for violence against the Jewish community, the community member expressed concern that more priests were including anti-Semitic rhetoric in their sermons, comparable to the anti-Semitic rhetoric often heard from some Muslims.  He presented pictures of the continued desecration of the Jewish cemetery in the Shia-majority Sadr City section of Baghdad.  The small community did not file any reports on the desecration with local authorities due to reported fear of retribution.  Despite Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to speak out in favor of the return of Jews in a June 2 response to a follower’s question, the member of the Jewish community said Jews continued to avoid publicly self-identifying for fear of violence.

A group of IKR- and Ninewa Plain-based religious leaders from established apostolic Christian churches sent a letter to the IKR MERA director general of Christian affairs stating MERA made it too easy for new Christian groups to become established in the IKR.  The letter accused the newcomers of damaging the churches’ relationship with the Muslim community by proselytizing, and demanded MERA provide the names of adherents submitted by the new churches.  MERA refused to change the requirement for new churches to register but complied with the apostolic churches’ request to compile a list of adherents of evangelical and other Protestant churches.  Apostolic church leaders said the list would allow them to remove from their rolls the names of former members now attending other churches so the apostolic churches would not be blamed for any proselytizing performed by former members now belonging to evangelical or other Protestant churches.

NGOs continued to state constitutional provisions on freedom of religion should override laws banning the Baha’i Faith and the Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam; however, during the year, there were no court challenges lodged to invalidate them and no legislation proposed to repeal them.  According to a December article on the website Al Monitor, Deputy Justice Minister Hussein al-Zuhairi stated during a dialogue with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that the Baha’i Faith was not a religion, emphasizing the government’s commitment to legislation prohibiting the Baha’i Faith.

The KRG and the central government continued to provide increased protection to Christian churches during the Easter and Christmas holidays.  Followers of the Baha’i and Yezidi faiths reported the KRG allowed them to observe their religious holidays and festivals without interference or intimidation.  Provincial governments also continued to designate these as religious holidays in their localities.

Government policy continued to require Islamic instruction in public schools, but non-Muslim students were not required to participate.  In most areas of the country, primary and secondary school curricula included three classes per week of Islamic education, including study of the Quran, as a graduation requirement for Muslim students.  Christian religious education was included in the curricula of at least 150 public schools in Baghdad, Ninewa, and Kirkuk.  Private Islamic religious schools continued to operate in the country, but had to obtain a license from the director general of private and public schools and pay annual fees.

In the IKR, private schools were required to pay a registration fee of 750,000 to 1.5 million dinars ($660 to $1,300) to the Ministry of Education or Ministry of Higher Education, depending on the type of school.  To register with the KRG, private schools needed to provide information on the school’s bylaws, number of students, size, location, facility and safety conditions, financial backing, and tax compliance, and undergo an inspection.  The Catholic University in Erbil continued to operate with full accreditation from the KRG Ministry of Higher Education and remained open to students of all faiths.

The government continued not to require non-Muslim students to participate in religious instruction in public schools, but some non-Muslim students reported pressure to do so from instructors and classmates.  Reports continued that some non-Muslim students felt obliged to participate because they could not leave the classroom during religious instruction.  Christian and Yezidi leaders outside the IKR reported continued discrimination in education and lack of minority input on school curricula and language of instruction.  By year’s end, schools still had not universally adopted the 2015 Ministry of Education curriculum incorporating lessons of religious tolerance.  Many Christians who spoke the Syriac language said it was their right to use and teach it to their children as a matter of religious freedom.  Seeking to establish private Christian schools, the Chaldean church in Basrah said local authorities mandated the inclusion of Islamic religious instruction in their curricula for Muslim students.

The KRG Ministry of Education continued to fund religious instruction in schools for Muslim and Christian students.  The ministry also continued to fund Syriac-language public elementary and secondary schools, which was intended to accommodate Christian students.  The curriculum did not contain religious or Quranic studies.  The KRG MERA and Ministry of Education partnered with Harvard University to develop a religious studies curriculum that would present information on all recognized faiths from a nonsectarian, academic perspective to replace the existing religion classes.  The curriculum was still under development at year’s end.

The central government extended by one year the contracts of several hundred Christian employees who faced violence in Baghdad in 2010.  They were allowed to relocate from the south to the IKR and transfer their government jobs from the central government to the KRG, while the central government continued to pay their salaries.

There were reports of KRG authorities discriminating against minorities, including Turkomans, Arabs, Yezidis, Shabaks, and Christians, in territories claimed by both the KRG and the central government in northern Iraq.  For example, courts rarely upheld Christians’ legal complaints against Kurds regarding land and property disputes.  The director general of Christian affairs in the KRG MERA said that of 59 long-pending property dispute cases between Christians and Kurds, the KRG courts had only ruled on five cases, although in four of the five they ruled in favor of Christian plaintiffs.  In one such case in the Nahla Valley area of Dohuk , a court sentenced Kurds convicted of taking Christian-owned land to a three-month suspended sentence, a token fine, and a requirement the Kurds make a written pledge they would not encroach on the land again.  The KRG MERA director general, however, said authorities made no attempt to follow up on the case, and some of the Kurds continued to occupy land the court ruled belonged to the Christian community.  A land dispute dating from 2003 when the KRG seized 11,000 hectares (27,000 acres) of farmland near Ankawa owned by 220 Christian farmers for the construction of the Erbil International Airport remained unresolved.

Christian leaders reported the KRG continued to provide land and financial support for construction of new and renovation of existing structures for use as educational facilities, although budget cuts halted some projects.  The KRG spent approximately 2.5 billion dinars ($2.2 million) on the construction of an Armenian Apostolic church in the Ankawa neighborhood of Erbil, and another 500 million dinars ($439,000) on a community center for the Assyrian Church of the East.  The KRG said in 2017 that it planned to allocate land for a Jewish cultural center in Erbil, a Baha’i religious and cultural center near Erbil, and a Zoroastrian temple in Sulaimaniya.  According to KRG MERA Director of Co-Existence Amir Othman, his ministry passed its recommendation for lands to the Ministry of Municipalities, which reviews such recommendations and allocates appropriate public land parcels, but by year’s end, no land had been allocated for any of the three projects.  The Zoroastrian representative in MERA said Ministry of Municipalities officials had refused to implement the government directives for religious reasons.

While there remained no legal bar to ministerial appointments for members of religious minorities, in practice there were few non-Muslims in the Council of Ministers (COM) or the KRG COM, a situation unchanged from the previous year.  Members of minority religious communities continued to hold senior positions in the national parliament and central government, although minority leaders said they were still underrepresented in government appointments, in elected positions outside the COR, and in public sector jobs, particularly at the provincial and local levels.  Minority leaders continued to say this underrepresentation limited minorities’ access to government-provided economic opportunities.  The Federal Supreme Court’s nine members included Sunni and Shia Muslims and one Christian.  Although there are no reliable statistics, minorities stated they believed they continued to be underrepresented in the ranks of police, senior military, and in intelligence and security services.

Some Sunni Muslims continued to speak about what they perceived as anti-Sunni discrimination by Shia government officials in retribution for the Sunnis’ favored status and abuses against Shia during the Saddam Hussein regime.  Sunnis said they continued to face discrimination in public sector employment as a result of de-Baathification, a process originally intended to target loyalists of the former regime.  Sunnis and local NGOs said the government continued the selective use of the de-Baathification provisions of the law to render many Sunnis ineligible for choice government positions, but it did not do so to render former Shia Baathists ineligible.  Some Sunnis said Sunnis were often passed over for choice government jobs or lucrative contracts from the Shia-dominated government because the Sunnis were allegedly accused of being Baathists who sympathized with ISIS ideology.

Although the IKP has 11 seats reserved for ethnic minority candidates, the law does not restrict who may vote in quota seat races.  Citing reports of Kurds voting for minority parties that align with major Kurdish parties, some members of the IKR’s minority voters said these votes undermined the intended purpose of the nine minority quota seats and diluted the voice of minorities in government.  Minority political party leaders said they were unsuccessful in their campaign to amend the law to restrict voting in quota seat races to voters of the same ethnicity of the candidate.

Human rights NGOs and Yezidi leaders stated KRG authorities discriminated against Yezidis by closing the Dohuk-Sinjar road and continuing to restrict commercial traffic after opening the road to passenger traffic in December.  Yezidi activists reported the deaths of several Yezidi women in Sinjar because of lack of access to medicine and medical care, primarily due to the road closure.  Since the October 2017 withdrawal of Peshmerga from the Sinjar area, it was possible, although not necessarily safe, to access Sinjar from central government-controlled areas.  KRG security forces, ISF, and the PMF had closed the road between the neighboring Christian towns of Telskuf and Batnaya, slowing the return of IDPs.  A local priest in Telskuf said KRG security forces refused requests from humanitarian organizations to pass through their roadblock to conduct relief and reconstruction work in Batnaya.  Authorities reopened the Telskuf-Batnaya road in October and the Dohuk-Sinjar road in December, but both roads remained closed to commercial traffic at year’s end.

Christians said they continued to face discrimination that limited their economic opportunities, such as “taxation” on their goods transported from Mosul into the Ninewa Plain by the PMF Shabak Brigade.  Sabean-Mandeans and Christians continued to report fear of importing and distributing alcohol and spirits despite receiving permits.  The legal ban on alcohol consumption by Muslims, according to local sources, prevented Muslim store owners from applying for permits allowing them to carry and sell alcohol.  Community sources reported Muslim businessmen sometimes used Christians as front men to apply for these permits and operate the stores.

On March 21, the tomb of a Kaka’i religious leader was destroyed by an explosion in Daquq, south of Kirkuk.  A local Kaka’i NGO said members of the PMF were responsible.

Kaka’i leaders said the central government’s Shia Endowment had forcibly taken over several places of Kaka’i worship in Kirkuk and converted them into mosques.

In observance of World Religion Day on January 21, the then speaker of parliament hosted 350 government officials, ethnic and religious leaders, and the international community in a celebration to urge interfaith dialogue and promote religious pluralism.  Although representatives from several religious minorities welcomed the event, they said it was unlikely discrimination against their communities would end anytime soon.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

Mass graves containing victims of ISIS continued to be found.  According to KRG MERA’s Office of Yezidi Affairs, a total of 87 mass graves containing the bodies of over 2,500 Yezidis had been found in Sinjar District and other predominantly Yezidi areas of Ninewa Province since 2014.  On November 6, UNAMI and the United Nations Human Rights Office released a report documenting the existence of 202 mass graves in the provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk, Salah al-Din, and Anbar and cautioned there may be “many more.”  The UN offices stated they believed the graves each held anywhere from eight to as many as “thousands” of bodies.  On November 6, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said, “These graves contain the remains of those mercilessly killed for not conforming to [ISIS’s] twisted ideology and rule, including ethnic and religious minorities.”  Estimates available to the UN ranged from 6,000 to more than 12,000 victims buried in these graves.

According to the KRG MERA director general of Christian affairs, ISIS abducted 150 Christians from the Batnaya, Qaraqosh, and Tal Kayf areas in 2014; their fate remained unclear at year’s end.

In April Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa, Syria rescued a young Christian woman kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 from Qaraqosh.  She said she was sold four times to different ISIS fighters, each of whom raped her and subjected her to torture and other forms of mistreatment.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On July 23, three gunmen who KRG authorities said had links to a terrorist group forcibly entered a government building in downtown Erbil.  Unable to gain entry to the Erbil governor’s office, they then killed a Christian employee whom authorities believed was targeted because of his religion before police killed the attackers.

In February several gunman shot and killed a Christian man in front of his house in Baghdad.  According to Christian sources, the victim had received threats to stop working in the alcohol business near a Muslim neighborhood.  In March local media reported the killing of a Christian family in Baghdad.  Some Christian leaders, including Chaldean Catholic Cardinal Sako, said they considered the killing a hate crime.  Others said the killers wanted to force Christian owners of prime real estate to surrender their property.

There were continued reports of societal violence, mainly by sectarian armed groups, in many parts of the country, but few reports of religious violence in the IKR.  Non-Muslim minorities reported continued threats, pressure, and harassment to force them to observe Islamic customs.  Kaka’i activists and religious leaders reported harassment and discrimination by the PMF in Kirkuk and Diyala, who identified Kaka’i men by their distinctive mustaches.  Sabean-Mandean leaders continued to report threats, abuses, and robberies.  In regular Friday sermons, Shia religious and government leaders urged PMF volunteers not to commit these abuses.

During May court proceedings, a judge demanded the Zoroastrian representative in the IKR MERA swear on the Quran before testifying.  She refused and asked to swear on a copy of the Gathas, the hymns of Zarathustra, but the judge did not allow it.

In June media continued to report political parties, criminal networks, and some militia groups seized more than 30,000 Christian properties in Baghdad, as well as areas of Anbar, Babil, Basrah, Diyala, and Wasit with impunity, despite pledges by the prime minister’s office to open investigations into the seizures.

In December, in response to the central government’s announcement that Christmas would be an official Iraqi holiday, prominent Sunni cleric and self-proclaimed “Grand Mufti” of Iraq Abdul-Mehdi al-Sumaidaie issued a fatwa that Muslims should not take part in New Year celebrations or congratulate Christians during Christmas.  Both the central government and the KRG Sunni Endowments rejected his fatwa and posted criticisms of it online.

Christians in the south and in PMF-controlled towns on the Ninewa Plain, as well as Sabean-Mandeans in Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan Governorates, reported they continued to avoid celebrating their religious festivals when they coincided with Islamic periods of mourning, such as Ashura.  There were continued reports that non-Muslim minorities felt pressured by the Muslim majority to adhere to certain Islamic practices, such as wearing the hijab or fasting during Ramadan.  Non-Shia Muslims and non-Muslim women continued to feel societal pressure to wear hijabs and all-black clothing during Muharram, particularly during Ashura, to avoid harassment.  According to representatives of Christian NGOs, some Muslims continued to threaten women and girls, regardless of their religious affiliation, for refusing to wear the hijab, for dressing in Western-style clothing, or for not adhering to strict interpretations of Islamic norms governing public behavior.  Outside the IKR, numerous women, including Christians and Sabean-Mandeans, said they opted to wear the hijab after continual harassment.  According to media and other sources, extensive security efforts helped to ensure that there were no violent incidents disrupting the large Shia commemorations of Ashura in Najaf and Karbala.

Minority religious leaders continued to report pressure on minority communities to cede land rights to their businesses unless they conformed to a stricter observance of Islamic precepts.

Leaders of non-Muslim communities said corruption, uneven application of the rule of law, and nepotism in hiring practices throughout the country by members of the majority Muslim population continued to have detrimental economic effects on non-Muslim communities and contributed to their decision to emigrate.  Sunni Muslims reported continued discrimination based on a public perception the Sunni population sympathized with terrorist elements, including ISIS.

In November the Catholic Patriarchs of the East held a four-day conference in Baghdad to bring attention to the challenges threatening the survival of Christian communities in the region.  Chaldean Patriarch Cardinal Sako, who hosted the meeting, said the patriarchs wanted to encourage “families to stay in our homeland keeping up our faith, identity, ethics, traditions, and language.”  This was the first time the conference was held in the country.  Catholic rites representatives included Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Beshara al-Rahi, Melkite Greek Catholic Patriarch Youssef Absi, Syriac Catholic Patriarch Ignace Joseph III Younan, the representative of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem Monsignor William Hanna Shomali, and Cardinal Sako, who delivered the opening speech.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. government continued to address at the highest levels a full range of religious freedom concerns in the country through frequent meetings with senior government officials, including Prime Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi and his predecessor former Prime Minister Haider Abadi, and through speeches and U.S. embassy coordination groups promoting religious and ethnic minority community stabilization and humanitarian assistance.

On December 11, President Trump signed the Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability Act.  The act promotes justice for the victims and survivors of those minority communities, particularly Yazidis and Christians, targeted by ISIS.  Embassy efforts centered on identifying the most pressing concerns of religious minorities – insecurity, lack of jobs, and road closures – and obtaining government and KRG commitments to assist these concerns.  Efforts included agreeing to recruit minorities in two Emergency Response Battalions, one for Sinjar and one for the Ninewa Plain, and reopening roads connecting persecuted religious communities to economic and urban centers.  The embassy’s interagency coordination group on minority stabilization also engaged with Yezidis, the KRG, central government, and other organizations and groups to coordinate efforts to ensure exhumations of Yezidi mass graves were performed to international standards.  U.S. government humanitarian assistance efforts, including in areas with religious minority populations, centered on providing tents, food, medicine, and medical supplies.

The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate officials continued to meet regularly with national and regional Ministries of Education, Justice (which includes the functions of the former Ministry of Human Rights), Labor, and Social Affairs, and the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights.  They also met with members of parliament, parliamentary committees, and minority group representatives serving in government positions to emphasize the need for full inclusion of religious minorities and protection of their rights.  On January 15, the Ambassador hosted an event to observe Religious Freedom Day that promoted religious pluralism and reconciliation.  A wide range of representatives from the country’s many religious communities attended, including the Chaldean Catholic Church, Syrian Church, Assyrian Catholic Church, Coptic Church, as well as members of the Yezidi, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, and Islamic faiths (both Sunnis and Shia).  On January 16, the embassy convened an interfaith dialogue with a former participant of two U.S.-sponsored exchange programs that focused on the promotion of religious diversity.  On October 16, the embassy hosted the Deputy Secretary of State for a roundtable with representatives of Iraq’s minority religious communities.

The U.S. government continued to develop, finance, and manage projects to support all religious communities, with special emphasis on assistance to IDPs and returnees.  As part of the continued commitment by the Vice President, Secretary of State, and the USAID Administrator to support ethnic and religious minorities, the United States announced over $178 million in U.S. foreign assistance to support these vulnerable communities in Iraq in October.  This brought total U.S. assistance for this population to nearly $300 million since fiscal year 2017, implemented by both the Department of State and USAID.  These efforts, implemented in close partnership with local faith and community leaders, included USAID’s Genocide Recovery and Persecution Response program totaling $133 million, funding of approximately $37 million to clear explosive remnants of war, $8.5 million for social, economic, and political empowerment of minority communities, and $2 million for the preservation of historic and cultural sites.  In July USAID also appointed a Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs, based in Erbil, to oversee U.S. assistance for Iraq’s minority communities.

Senior advisors to the Vice President accompanied the Ambassador to the Ninewa Plain to discuss with community leaders how the United States could improve support to endangered minorities recovering from ISIS’ genocide campaign against them.  In separate visits, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and the USAID Administrator visited the Ninewa Plain and met with Christian, Yezidi, and Shabak leaders to assure them of the U.S. government’s commitment to preserve and support religious diversity through increased support to minority communities.  The Ambassador, senior embassy officers, Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah, and the USAID Administrator’s Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs made regular visits to minority areas to meet with minority community leaders, religious leaders, and local and provincial authorities to underscore U.S. support for their communities and assess the needs and challenges they continued to face.

U.S. officials in Baghdad, Basrah, and Erbil also continued to hold regular discussions with government officials, endowment leaders, and UN officials coordinating international assistance to IDPs and recent returnees to address problems identified by religious groups related to the distribution of assistance.

The Ambassador and the Consuls General in Erbil and Basrah met leaders of minority religious groups and civil society groups to address their concerns, particularly regarding security and protection.  Embassy officials met religious leaders on a regular basis to discuss broader religious freedom issues and to demonstrate U.S. interest in and support for resolving issues with the provision of assistance.  In particular, they met with Yezidi, Christian, Shabak, Turkoman, Jewish, Sabean-Mandean, Kaka’i, Baha’i, Zoroastrian, and other religious and minority leaders to promote reconciliation within their communities and to advocate for religious minority needs with the government.

Laos

Executive Summary

The constitution provides citizens with “the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion.”  The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith – and generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups to operate legally.  A decree issued in 2016 with the stated intent of clarifying rules for religious practice defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities.  Under the decree, any religious group must register with the Ministry of Home Affairs (MOHA) and meet administrative requirements on an annual basis.  The decree includes provisions on how groups operate, establish houses of worship, and travel for religious purposes.  The government continued to disseminate implementing instructions and held several workshops to discuss the decree with provincial and local authorities.  Religious leaders said that the 2016 decree helped to delineate religious rights, but established requirements that were more onerous, unrealistic, and used to restrict religious practices.  According to some religious leaders, officials in urban areas and in some districts had a better understanding of laws that govern religious activities and promoted the concept of religious freedom more than in the past.  Conflicts and other incidents that restrict religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas.  A representative from the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs said that the 2016 decree had “not reached all areas.”  Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.  There were reports of authorities warning citizens not to convert to Christianity, forbidding members to gather for religious services, and pressuring members of minority religions to renounce their faith.  Christian groups also reported longstanding problems registering and constructing churches in some areas, as well as with obtaining permission to travel within the country.  Reportedly, Christians who congregated in homes and other unregistered facilities for religious purposes were sometimes harassed by authorities.  Christians said authorities allowed them to conduct Christmas services in their churches or at their pastors’ homes, provided they did not preach against the government and law and they invited local officials to attend to guarantee “order and security.”

According to government and religious group sources, tensions continued in rural areas between animists and growing Christian communities.  Burial ceremonies were a point of contention, with some reports of animists and Buddhists interfering with Christian burials or not allowing Christians to be buried in public cemeteries.

U.S. embassy officials regularly raised specific religious freedom cases with the government and continued encouraging open dialogue and resolution of conflicts, including those associated with implementing the 2016 decree.  Embassy officials attended a government-organized workshop that discussed laws promoting religious freedom and encouraged the government to continue holding these workshops.  The embassy maintained regular contact with officials in MOHA and the Lao Front for National Construction (LFNC), a mass organization of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party responsible for some administration of religious organizations, and discussed the challenges faced by religious groups and government plans to improve religious freedom.  Embassy officials were also in regular contact with religious leaders and laypersons from a wide variety of denominations and faiths to understand better the problems they faced in practicing their faiths.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 7.2 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to the 2015 national census (the most recent figures available), 64.7 percent of the population is Buddhist, 1.7 percent Christian, 31.4 percent has no religion, and the remaining 2.1 percent identify as other or having a nonlisted religion.  Theravada Buddhism is the dominant religion of the ethnic or “lowland” Lao, who constitute 53.2 percent of the overall population.  According to the LFNC and MOHA, the remainder of the population comprises at least 48 ethnic minority groups, most of which practice animism and ancestor worship.  Animism is predominant among Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, and the Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups.  Among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animist beliefs are incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice, particularly in rural areas.  Roman Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Baha’is, Mahayana Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) members, and followers of Confucianism together constitute less than 3 percent of the population.  According to the international Christian rights NGO Aid to the Church in Need’s 2018 Religious Freedom Report, Christians comprise 3.2 percent of the population.  The Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) estimates its membership at 200,000 and the Catholic Church estimates its at 55,000.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the right and freedom to believe or not believe in any religion and states citizens are equal before the law regardless of their beliefs or ethnic group.  The government officially recognizes four religious umbrella groups – Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.  It generally requires other religious groups to affiliate with one of these four groups in order to operate legally.  The constitution also states the government respects and protects all lawful activities of Buddhists and followers of other religions, and “mobilizes and encourages Buddhist monks and novices as well as the priests of other religions to participate in activities that are beneficial to the country and people.”  It prohibits all acts that create division between religious groups and classes of persons.

Decree 315, enacted in 2016, upholds “respect for the religious rights and freedom” of both believers and nonbelievers.  The decree’s stated purpose is to set the principles, regulations, and laws concerning the governance and protection of religious activities for clergy, teachers of religion, believers, and religious groups in order to preserve and promote national culture, increase solidarity among members of religious groups, and “preserve and develop the nation.”  The decree clarifies rules for religious practice, extends registration requirements to Buddhist groups, which had previously had a de facto exemption, and defines the government as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities.  The decree reiterates the constitutional priority that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and by instructing believers to be good citizens.

The decree requires any religious group operating in the country to register with MOHA.  The government encourages other religious groups seeking official recognition to affiliate with one of the four umbrella groups.  Government-recognized Christian denominations are limited to the Catholic Church, the LEC, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  All other Christian denominations wishing to be recognized are encouraged to register as part of the LEC instead of receiving separate recognition.

Under the decree, religious groups must present information on elected or appointed officeholders to national, provincial, and district and village-level MOHA offices for review and certification.  Religious groups operating in multiple provinces must obtain national MOHA approval; groups operating in multiple districts are required to obtain provincial level approval; and groups operating in multiple villages are required to obtain district level approval.  If a group wishes to operate beyond its local congregation, it must obtain approval at the corresponding level.  A religious activity occurring outside a religious group’s property requires village authority approval.  Activities in another village require approval from district authorities, from provincial authorities for activities in another district, and from national authorities for activities in another province.  Religious groups must submit annual plans of all activities, including routine events, in advance for local authorities to review and approve.

The decree states nearly all aspects of religious practice – such as congregating, holding religious services, travel for religious officials, building houses of worship, modifying existing structures, and establishing new congregations in villages where none existed – require permission from a provincial, district-level, and/or central MOHA office.  The decree empowers MOHA to order the cessation of any religious activities or beliefs not in agreement with policies, traditional customs, laws, or regulations within its jurisdiction.  It may stop any religious activity threatening national stability, peace, and social order, causing serious damage to the environment, or affecting national solidarity or unity between tribes and religions, including threats to the lives, properties, health, or reputations of others.  The decree also requires MOHA to collect information and statistics on religious operations, cooperate with foreign countries and international organizations regarding religious activities, and report religious activities to the government.

All houses of worship must register under the law and conform to applicable regulations.  Any maintenance, restoration, and construction activities at religious facilities must receive MOHA approval from all levels.  Local authorities may provide opinions regarding building, care, and maintenance of religious facilities, present their findings to their respective provincial governors and city mayors for consideration, and subsequently ask MOHA to review and approve activities conducted in religious facilities.

The Decree on Associations, No. 238, passed in late 2017, allows government to control and/or prohibit the formation of associations and includes measures to criminalize unregistered associations and allow for prosecution of their members.

Individuals entering the clergy for more than three months require approval from district and village authorities, agreement from the receiving religious establishment, and agreement from a guardian or spouse, if applicable.  For a period of less than three months, the village authority, as well as a guardian or spouse, if applicable, must approve.  The shorter period stipulations are particularly relevant to Buddhists, as every Buddhist male is expected to enter the monkhood at least once in his life, often for fewer than three months.

The Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) and MOHA must approve the travel abroad of clergy and religious teachers for specialized studies.  Generally, students going abroad for any kind of study (including religious studies) require approval from the MOES.  Religious organizations conducting religious activities overseas must receive approval from the appropriate geographical MOHA level.

According to the LFNC Law as amended in April, the LFNC may educate and meet with religious leaders, clergy, teachers, and members to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, reduce ethnic and religious tensions, and “contribute to the development of the nation.”  LFNC officials may listen to opinions and concerns of religious communities in order to work with police or other authorities to investigate and resolve problems.

The government controls written materials for religious audiences.  The decree regulates the importation and printing of religious materials and production of books, documents, icons, and symbols of various religions.  The Ministry of Culture and MOHA must approve religious texts or other materials before they are imported.  MOHA may require religious groups to certify the imported materials are truly representative of their religions, to address issues of authenticity, and to ensure imported materials comport with values and practices in the country.  The law prohibits the import or export of unapproved printed or electronic religious materials.

The decree states the government may continue to sponsor Buddhist facilities, incorporate Buddhist rituals and ceremonies in state functions, and promote Buddhism as an element of the country’s cultural and spiritual identity and as the predominant religion of the country.

The decree requires Buddhist clergy to have identification cards, and clergy of other religions are required to have certificates to prove they have received legitimate religious training.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with a reservation that Article 18 on freedom of religion shall not be construed as authorizing or encouraging any activities to directly or indirectly coerce or compel an individual to believe or not to believe in a religion or to change his or her religion or belief, and that all acts that create division and discrimination among ethnic groups and religious groups are incompatible with the article.

Government Practices

Reports continued of authorities, especially in isolated villages, arresting, detaining, and exiling followers of minority religions, particularly Christians.  The central government said it continued efforts to offer protections to religious groups as stipulated in the law, but stated this was a challenge in isolated areas.

In August a pastor with close connections to Christians throughout the country reported that district authorities in Mahaxsai District in Khammoune Province told a group of Christians to stop worshipping and then tried to extort money from them.  When the group did not give them any money, the authorities arrested the group leader and detained him for five days.

In September authorities detained seven members of the LEC for a week at a district jail in Champassack Province.  Before they were taken to jail, the village chief forced the LEC members into a vehicle belonging to the jail and reportedly drove them around the village, warning other villagers not to follow the LEC faith.  One of the detainees said local authorities released them in part because MOHA organized a workshop on Decree 315 in the same province that week.  The detainees were released after the workshop ended.

The advocacy group Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF) reported that on November 18 three police officers in Keovilia village, Vilabouly District, Savannakhet Province, arrested three men and one elderly woman for being Christian.  The report identified the woman as “Grandma Bounlam” and the three men by the surnames Duangtha, Khampan, and Ponsawan.  The officers who made the arrests were identified by their surnames as Don, a police major stationed at Vilabouly District, and two officers stationed in Vang District, Pim and No.  According to HRWLRF, the police held the men in handcuffs and feet stocks.  Police released the four, but evicted them from their homes and confiscated their property.  According to HRWLRF, police threatened them with unspecified criminal charges if they did not renounce Christianity.

Radio Free Asia and HRWLRF reported that in December five other Christians were arrested in Non Soung Village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, including one pastor who had come from another village to help celebrate Christmas.  Radio Free Asia quoted an anonymous local who said that Christians were subject to restrictions and “are not allowed to teach from the Bible or to spread their religion to others because Christianity is the religion of the Europeans and Americans.”

According to Radio Free Asia, HRWLRF reported police in Nakanong village, Phin District, Savannakhet Province, arrested three church leaders and four other Christians on December 29 for conducting an “illegal” church service and held them for several days before releasing them.  HRWLRF reportedly said authorities also demolished the church stage, cut the power line, destroyed the sound system, and seized three mobile phones.

In some cases, church members reportedly were arrested for practicing their faith but charged with another crime.  In Houaphanh Province, three members of the LEC were arrested for traveling without proper documentation and were charged with illegally entering a forest.

According to Christian media outlet World Watch Monitor, in January local officials in Luang Prabang forced a Christian and his family to move to another part of the city and fined them the equivalent of $400.  According to a local source, the “family book” identification document of the family, necessary to move about freely, was kept by the local chief.  The family could not return to collect the book without incurring additional fines of up to $1200, the fine given to anyone who chooses to become a Christian in that area, according to the source.

Some local officials pressured Christians to renounce their faith or encouraged them to move elsewhere.  For example, in Huaython village in Luang Prabang Province, local officials told approximately 20 families belonging to the LEC to renounce their faith because they should not believe in a “foreign religion.”  One family renounced their religion and local authorities gave them approximately 50,000 Lao kip ($6) as a reward.  In Sone District in Houaphanh Province, district officials told nine families they would have to move to another province if they did not renounce their Christian faith.  Eight of the nine families opted to move to Bokeo Province.

A representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Church said village authorities in Khammouane Province forced Church members to sign a pledge, promising they would not gather for religious services.  According to the representative, the village authorities said that Church members could believe in a religion but could not gather to worship.

Leaders of the recognized minority religious groups said they were aware of fewer incidents of abuse of villagers who had converted to Christianity than in previous years; in most cases, those who were arrested were fined and released.  In some cases local officials reportedly threatened Protestants with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply with orders issued by the local authorities either to stop practicing their faith or not to join in community activities.

In discussing Decree 315 and other laws, religious leaders said officials in urban areas and in some districts had a strong understanding of laws governing religious activities, but conflicts and other incidents that restricted religious freedom remained prevalent in rural areas.  MOHA and LFNC officials continued to acknowledge some local officials were incorrectly applying regulations, were creating their own regulations contrary to national law, or simply were unaware of all provisions in Decree 315.  A representative from the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs said that Decree 315 had “not reached all areas.”

Religious officials said that while Decree 315 helped delineate religious rights, the decree established requirements many religious groups felt were onerous, unrealistic, and used to restrict religious practices.  According to some minority religious groups, both local and central government officials referred to the constitution, Decree 315 (or its predecessor, Decree 92), and social harmony as reasons for continuing to restrict and monitor religious activity, especially the activities of new or small Christian organizations among minority ethnic group members.

Religious groups said they were concerned the government had not yet implemented the decree fully in practice.  If the government attempted to enforce all aspects of the decree, one church official said, “We won’t be able to do anything.”  Baha’i representatives said the decree was a positive development and reflected the government’s “sincerity” to promote religious freedom.  They also said the decree was not overly restrictive, but needed more clarity.  They recommended the government devote more resources to implementing it at the district level.

A number of nonprofit associations (NPAs) and some religious groups called for the repeal of the Decree on Associations No. 238, which they said had the potential to restrict operations of nonprofit organizations.  While the decree pertains to NPAs, Voice of the Martyrs, an international Christian NGO, stated local Christians were concerned authorities could use the decree to shut down religious activity and religious expression.  Mission Network News said the decree threatened Christians’ right to meet.  There were no reports from other local religious groups the decree had been used to regulate religious activity.

Some minority religious groups, including the Catholic Church, LEC, Baha’i Faith, and Seventh-day Adventists, successfully met the annual administrative requirements outlined in Decree 315, such as providing information on the number of members, religious texts, and plans for services during the year.  Other groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, were still waiting for the government to approve their registration applications at year’s end.  A MOHA official stated the registration process was not easy and said that during the review process MOHA consulted with other religious groups to discuss the registration application in an attempt to minimize conflicts between established and new religious groups.  The MOHA official said some Christian groups questioned whether another group wishing to register was Christian.

The LEC, the second largest religious group after Buddhists, continued to serve as an umbrella group for all registered Christian denominations other than Catholics and Seventh-day Adventists, as religious leaders reported applications for recognition of new Christian groups were too difficult.  Several unregistered religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, continued their efforts to register independently from the LEC due to differences in doctrinal beliefs; their applications remained pending at year’s end.

Although the law prohibits members of religious groups not registered with MOHA or the LFNC from practicing their faith, members of several groups reportedly did so quietly without interference.

Religious leaders reported various incidents throughout the country related to obtaining travel permission.  Some religious officials were detained even with proper travel authorization; most cases were resolved within hours of occurrence.  An official with the Seventh-day Adventist Church said if a member of the Church needed to travel to another province, he or she must submit an application to MOHA in advance and needed approval at the national and provincial levels, and it could take up to 20 days to get approval.  An official at MOHA said it tried to approve travel plans within 10 days, and encouraged religious groups to submit annual travel plans.

In March an official with the Catholic Church in Vientiane said the LFNC reportedly gave his local church permission to hold a religious service on April 1 for Easter.  Local authorities, however, stopped a church official who was traveling on March 31 to participate in the service and told him he could only travel on April 1.

Religious leaders said the Christmas season presented challenges, especially involving detention of Christians traveling without permission to attend religious events outside of their normal locales.  Members of the LEC said they submitted travel plans for the Christmas season to all appropriate levels of government but did not receive all the required approvals.

According to Radio Free Asia, in December an LFNC official from Xiengkhouang Province said authorities allowed Christians to conduct Christmas services in their churches or at their pastors’ homes provided they did not preach against the government and law and they invited local officials to attend to guarantee “order and security.”  Radio Free Asia also reported that, according to a Christian in Vientiane, Christians conducted Christmas services in the capital with government authorities present for “security and protection.”

According to Muslim community leaders, Muslims continued to worship at the two active mosques in Vientiane, the only mosques in the country.  According to the Muslim Association, its leaders met regularly with LFNC and MOHA officials and maintained an effective working relationship with the government.  The government permitted individuals from Thailand to conduct Islamic lessons.

While animists generally reported little governmental interference, the government continued to discourage animist practices it deemed outdated, dangerous, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives beneath homes.

Representatives of Baha’i communities in urban areas, including Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Luang Prabang, reported local authorities generally were “comfortable” with Baha’i practitioners and did not interfere with or restrict their activities.

Christian religious leaders said authorities continued to enforce a ban on proselytizing in public.  Some religious groups, including the Church of Jesus Christ, said they relied on word-of-mouth to attract new members.  Authorities continued to enforce rules requiring programs or activities conducted outside houses of worship receive prior approval from local or higher officials.

The government strictly enforced a prohibition on proselytizing by foreigners.  Several religious groups said they welcomed foreign members to visit the country but needed to be cautious about the kinds of activities foreigners engaged in.  The Church of Jesus Christ had an agreement with MOHA that allowed two missionaries in the country but the missionaries were allowed only to teach English and could not engage in religious discussions.

Authorities continued to control imports of religious materials but several religious groups said they could find most religious texts and documents online so they did not need government permission.  MOHA officials said they coordinated with religious groups to review imported materials to help ensure they were in line with the organization’s beliefs.

Several religious groups reported problems with building places of worship.  An official with the LEC said there were approximately 600 LEC churches throughout the country.  He said the LEC had more than 1,000 “unofficial” churches where worship services were conducted in homes, in part due to the difficulties of obtaining building permits from local authorities.  An official with the Catholic Church said it had encountered challenges building churches as well.  During the year, the Church asked for permission to build churches in several villages but only received vague responses.  The LFNC Religious Affairs Department continued to urge that designated church structures replace house churches whenever possible.  Local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal and told villagers they needed a permit to worship at home, although Christian groups said local authorities in many areas considered group worship in homes illegal even with a permit.  Religious group representatives said the building permit process began at the local level and then required district, provincial, and ultimately central-level LFNC and MOHA permission.  Christian groups said the government would not issue permits to build new churches, and local officials used the process to block construction of new churches.  There were reports, however, of authorities permitting the construction of new churches, for example in the city of Vang Vieng and in Attapeu Province.

Many religious leaders said they continued to experience lengthy delays in obtaining permits for church construction, and generally received no response to requests.  Some religious leaders said that Decree 315 had neither clear guidelines nor clear timelines for construction of religious buildings.  A Christian religious official said the government used bureaucratic delays to halt construction as long as possible in order to keep minority religious groups from expanding.  According to the director general of the National Assembly’s Ethnic and Religious Affairs Department, many of the delays involved legal matters concerning construction, or in some cases, a cluster of Christian families in a village wished to build two or three churches in their village, which would result in more churches than authorities believed necessary for the number of Christians.

At year’s end, the Catholic Church continued to discuss plans with the LFNC to reacquire land adjoining the Sacred Heart Cathedral in central Vientiane that the Church previously owned before the Communist Party came to power in 1975.  The Catholic Church has tried to reacquire the land since 2001.  In November 2017, the government announced plans to build a school on that land with funding from China and did not inform the Church of these plans.

According to MOES, there was no Buddhist curriculum taught as religion in any public schools.  The government, however, promoted the teaching of Buddhist practices in public schools as part of national culture.  Mandatory cultural sessions included lessons taught in Buddhist temples and, in order to advance to the next grade level, educational authorities required all students pray in Buddhist temples.  Christian students reported discomfort with the requirement.  MOES said it allowed parents to remove their children from the classes if they were dissatisfied with the program.  In several provinces, however, lessons in Buddhism remained mandatory to pass to the next grade level.  This was especially true in areas where temples provided education because the government was unable to support a public school.  A number of private schools affiliated with various religious groups existed throughout the country and accepted students from any religious denomination.

With advance permission and a requirement there be no open proselytizing, government authorities permitted Lao and expatriate Christians to organize a public, open-air religious music event for the second year in a row.  The Vientiane International Gospel Music Festival took place November 2-4 at the Vientiane Center shopping mall, with performances by local and foreign artists and bands.  LEC officials said, however, the government told the organizers it would be the last time they received a permit to hold the festival.  The LEC officials also said that the word “gospel” was not translated into Lao and only appeared in English-language materials.

A Christian pastor said that in limited cases, provincial government officials continued to ask religious leaders not to report grievances to foreigners to avoid unwanted publicity.  He added the LEC did not want to embarrass the government or jeopardize its relatively strong relationship so the Church often chose not to publicize incidents related to religious freedom.  One religious official said the government blamed religious groups for publicizing grievances and giving the country a bad reputation.  According to religious groups, in some instances local authorities continued efforts to keep individuals who had been arrested, banished, punished, marginalized, or had otherwise been the victim of abuses due to their religious beliefs out of sight of international observers.

An official with the Catholic Church said government officials who are Catholic were promoted at a slower rate than their Buddhist counterparts and needed to take precautions to not be seen attending church services.  Other religious groups noted it was hard for their members to join the government or advance to higher-level positions, or to become village chiefs.  Religious groups stated they were aware of no openly non-Buddhist or non-animist government officials in higher-level posts at the provincial or national levels, although a Baha’i official said there were three Baha’i village chiefs.

Religious officials said that during the year, a man with mental health issues caused disruptions in a village.  Local authorities blamed minority religious groups for the disruptions, claiming the man was a member of both the LEC and the Seventh-day Adventists, even though he was not a registered member of either church.  Other religious officials said local authorities at times used religion as a scapegoat for domestic violence or other issues within a family.

In dealing with local conflicts regarding religious problems, officials at MOHA reported they first waited for local authorities to resolve an issue before getting involved.  One MOHA official said the ministry did not have the resources to respond to every conflict.

The LFNC and MOHA stated they continued to visit areas where religious freedom abuses had reportedly taken place to instruct local officials on government policy and law.  LFNC and MOHA officials said they frequently traveled out of the capital to encourage religious groups to practice in accordance with the country’s laws and regulations.  They also hosted training workshops for local officials to explain officials’ obligations under the constitution and the right to believe or not to believe in religion.  During these sessions, central authorities provided training to provincial LFNC and MOHA officials on Decree 315 and other laws governing religion and held workshops with local officials and religious leaders that reviewed the basic tenets of Buddhism, Christianity, the Baha’i Faith, and Islam.  With support from an international NGO, MOHA held seven workshops in six different provinces during the year with nearly 400 officials in attendance, including a four-day workshop on religious freedom in Bolikhamxai Province in October.  The LFNC offered seven workshops in four provinces with more than 250 participants.  The government directly funded one workshop, and religious groups contributed some funding for the workshops.  Officials said the workshops provided a forum for MOHA and LFNC to explain the different aspects of Decree 315 and hear about the challenges that minority religious groups encounter under it and other provisions of the law.

In collaboration with the LFNC, an international NGO continued to conduct training for provincial and district officials and local religious leaders throughout the year.  The training was designed to help the officials and religious leaders understand the law and each other better.

In October the National Assembly organized a three-day workshop that included officials from the four recognized religions and assembly members from all 18 provinces.  The religious organizations presented their beliefs, administration, and contributions to the country, while MOHA and MOPS discussed aspects of the new decree.  Assembly members also had the opportunity to ask questions of the religious officials.

The officially recognized religious groups and the government continued to print and distribute the decree and its implementation guidelines.

The Church of Jesus Christ organized study tours to Utah for government officials.  These and similar trips required approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Christian sources reported religious tensions occurred in villages and rural areas, particularly in response to the growth of Christian congregations or disagreements over access to village resources.  One religious official said persons living in villages were often unaware of Decree 315 and village leaders did not encourage religious freedom.  The LEC noted continued conflicts in the southern part of the country where church officials said local residents continued to see their church as an unwelcome “foreign religion.”  Some religious leaders said misunderstandings continued to occur, which they said were due to low education levels in remote parts of the country.  In some cases, villagers threatened to expel Christians from the village if they did not renounce their faith, or offered them payment to renounce their religion.  In many villages, disputes of all kinds (including religious disputes) resolved by a committee without getting police or other government officials involved.  Christian group leaders said this process often resulted in compromises, such as encouraging Christians to support local Buddhist or animist ceremonies without participating in them.

Christians said burial practices remained an issue throughout the year.  Some animists continued to be concerned about the Christian practice of burying their dead within the village boundary or nearby confines, believing that the deceased’s spirit would bring disharmony to the village and conflict with the village spirits because the body was not cremated.  In some rural areas, Christians said they were not allowed to use public cemeteries and were not given land for separate cemeteries, so they had to resort to burying their dead on farms or in backyards.

According to an official from a Christian church, conflicts between animists and Christians continued, with reports of family feuds that resulted in damaged or destroyed animist relics.  Older animists said they opposed their younger family members adopting non-animist beliefs and threatened them via various means, including government intervention.

Several private preschools and English-language schools received support from religious groups abroad of various denominations.  Many boys received instruction in religion and other subjects in Buddhist temples, which continued to play a traditional schooling role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable.  Two Buddhist colleges and two Buddhist secondary schools provided religious training for children and adults.  Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, conducted religious education for children and youth.  Baha’i groups conducted religious training for children and adult members.  The Catholic Church operated a seminary in Khammouane Province for students with high school diplomas.  The Muslim community offered limited educational training.

Some members of ethnic groups associated with the United States during the Vietnam War era said they felt abandoned by the United States and had rejected Christianity, which they viewed as an American religion, and in many cases in subsequent years had returned to their animist roots.  This sentiment reportedly continued to cause problems in remote areas where these ethnic communities placed additional pressure on Christians to renounce their religion, including from their own families and neighbors.

Several religious groups noted they provided donations after a dam collapsed in Attapeu Province in July, resulting in severe flooding and the displacement of residents.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

U.S. embassy officials regularly advocated with a range of government officials for religious freedom and the reform of relevant laws and decrees, including those associated with implementing the 2016 decree, to ensure they were consistent with international human rights standards.  In frequent exchanges with MOHA, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly’s Department of Ethnic and Religious Affairs, and the LFNC Religious Affairs Department, embassy officials discussed the need for swift and appropriate resolution of specific cases of harassment, cumbersome registration procedures, and trends in abuses of religious freedom.  Embassy officials regularly followed up on developments with religious leaders and government officials.

In October the embassy sponsored the director general of the Religious Affairs Department at the LFNC to join a three-week program in the United States on interfaith dialogue and religious freedom.  Also in October an embassy official attended a four-day workshop on religious freedom in Bolikhamxai Province, organized by MOHA.  Embassy officials encouraged the government to continue holding these workshops.

Embassy officials regularly met with representatives from different religions and advocacy groups to address religious equality concerns and to gain a better understanding of the issues faced by minority religious groups.

Libya

Executive Summary

The interim constitution states Islam is the state religion and sharia the principal source of legislation.  It accords non-Muslims the freedom to practice their religion and bans discrimination based on religion.  The activities of non-Muslims remained curtailed by legal prohibitions on the distribution or publication of information aimed at changing Libya’s “social structure,” which were used to prohibit circulation of non-Islamic religious materials, missionary activity, or speech considered “offensive to Muslims.”  Human rights activists said freedom of conscience for converts to Christianity, atheists, and Sunni Muslims who deviated from Salafist interpretations of Islam was not respected in practice, particularly in areas of the country controlled by Salafist groups.  The internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) remained in office, but it did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the South and East.  The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a heightened risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape than other migrants and refugees.  In the West, the Tripoli-based Rada Special Deterrence Force (SDF), a GNA-aligned Salafist armed group integrated into the Ministry of Interior by GNA decree in May, was involved in several arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law.  Some detainees reported they were tortured and abused.  In February the SDF arrested a woman it accused of practicing sorcery.  According to a Refugees International Field Report, an Ethiopian Christian woman said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.”  According to the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than others.  Domestic human rights activists continued to report a restrictive environment, including efforts designed to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country.  In Tripoli some militias associated with the GNA reportedly imposed restrictions on women’s dress and movement and punished men for behavior they deemed un-Islamic.  A draft constitution issued by the Libyan Constitutional Drafting Assembly in 2017, not yet passed by the House of Representatives and put to a referendum, would prohibit non-Muslims from serving in high offices of state.

The East operated under a separate, unrecognized governmental administration, with security provided by the “Libyan National Army” (LNA) and LNA-aligned Salafist armed groups.  Nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including in Benghazi, parts of Tripoli, and Derna, where there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards.  According to the Christian rights advocacy group Open Doors USA, Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings.  Salafist and Islamist groups aligned with the GNA and the unrecognized government in the East took on law enforcement functions.  U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations that included Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM), and ISIS continued to operate within the country.  Human Rights Watch reported that on January 23, an unidentified armed group or groups detonated two car bombs in front of the Baya’at al-Radwan Mosque in Benghazi as worshippers were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 34 males, including three children, and wounding more than 90 others.  In December the Reuters news service reported local authorities said they had exhumed from a mass grave near Sirte the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians executed by ISIS in 2015.

According to international media, former Muslims faced intense social and economic pressure to renounce their faith to return to Islam.  Sources also reported converts to other religions, as well as atheists and agnostics, were threatened with violence or dismissal from employment because of their beliefs.  According to an atheist from Benghazi, he had to reaffirm publicly faith in Islam (which contradicted his private beliefs) due to threats against his person by coworkers and Salafist militia groups.

The U.S. Embassy to Libya continued to operate from Tunis, Tunisia.  The U.S. government continued to raise issues of religious freedom in conversations with the GNA, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other interlocutors.  U.S. officials raised these issues in the context of confronting violent extremist groups such as ISIS, as well as condemning acts of physical mistreatment of religious minorities in detention; destruction of religious property; and calling for ending discrimination in the religious education curriculum, particularly discrimination against religious minorities.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.7 million (July 2018 estimate).  According to reports by the International Organization for Migration, 12 percent of the population (approximately 804,000 persons) are migrants.  Sunni Muslims represent 97 percent of the population, and the remaining 3 percent includes Ibadi Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Baha’is, Ahmadi Muslims, and Buddhists.  Many members of the Amazigh ethnic minority are Ibadi Muslims.  Human Rights Watch reported in 2017 that, according to the Libyan Tamazight Congress, an organization that advocates on behalf of the Amazigh community, Ibadi Muslims account for between 4.5 and 6 percent of the population.  Nearly all non-Muslim residents in the country are foreigners.

Estimates of the number of Christians in the country vary.  According to the Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List Country Profile (which covers 2018), there are 37,900 Christians in the country.  In 2015 Open Doors USA estimated 150 to 180 of these were Libyan nationals who converted from Islam.

Foreign Christian communities consist almost exclusively of sub-Saharan African migrants and Filipino foreign workers, with smaller numbers of Egyptian migrants and a small number of other foreign residents of European nationality.  According to Christian groups in Tripoli, most of the Egyptian Christians are Copts.  Most sub-Saharan African and Filipino migrants are Catholic, and the Catholic diocese of Tripoli estimates its followers include 5,000 sub-Saharan and 3,000 Filipino individuals.  Estimates on the numbers of other Christian groups vary.  According to Open Doors USA, these include Anglicans, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and nondenominational Christians.

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

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The 2011 Constitutional Declaration functions as the interim constitution.  It states Islam is the state religion and sharia is the principal source of legislation, but it accords Christians and Jews the freedom to practice their religions and guarantees state respect for their personal status laws.  Christian and Jewish familial religious matters, such as divorce and inheritance, are governed according to the mandates of the religious community to which the individual belongs.  The interim constitution also states “there shall be no discrimination among Libyans on the basis of religion or sect” with regard to legal, political, and civil rights.  Religious minority communities other than Christians and Jews, however, are not accorded equal rights under the law.  The GNA remains bound by the constitutional declaration until a new constitution is passed by the House of Representatives and a public referendum held.  The laws governing religious practice predate the internal conflict and provide a national legal framework for religious freedom.

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

The GNA and the East each have a Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA).  The MEIAs administer mosques, supervises clerics, and has primary responsibility for ensuring all religious practices conform to state-approved Islamic norms.  Religious instruction in Islam is required in public and private schools.  Attendance at religious instruction is mandatory for all students with no opt-out provisions.

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

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

Government Practices

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

The internationally recognized GNA remained in office, but did not exercise control over large parts of the country, including in the East and South.

The United Nations Development Program reported the judicial system was functioning, albeit at different levels depending on the location of the courts within the country.  Human Rights Watch, however, said key institutions, “most notably, law enforcement and the judiciary,” were dysfunctional or had stopped working in most parts of the country.  The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) reported courts in the areas controlled by the GNA continued to sentence defendants to corporal punishment in accordance with its interpretation of sharia, including flogging for adultery and amputations for theft; however, according to UNSMIL, the government did not routinely carry out these punishments in practice.

According to international NGOs working in the country, a variety of groups – revolutionary brigades, tribal militias, and local strongmen – provided security in and around courts.  The GNA incorporated several of these armed groups into the Ministry of Interior, but observers said the GNA’s control over these groups remained limited.  Christian groups operating in the country identified the SDF as among the Islamic militant groups involved in the harassment of Christians.  The GNA’s response to instances of violence against members of minority religious groups was limited to condemnations of acts of violence.  For instance, in September, the GNA condemned clashes that broke out between armed groups in Tripoli that caused the displacement of thousands of non-Libyan migrants in the capital.

The SDF, while formally a counterterrorism force, also engaged in other functions including policing on moral and religious issues.  According to human rights activists, SDF continued to be involved in a number of arrests and detentions of individuals whom it accused of violating Islamic law.  Detainees reported torture and abuse at the hands of the SDF while being held in official and extrajudicial detention facilities.  Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who said that in 2017, the SDF detained him at Mitiga Airport Prison facility in Tripoli for two weeks.  The man said he was flogged twice a day during his detention.

According to media reports, on February 22, the SDF arrested a Moroccan woman, Ghizlane Soukane, in Tripoli, on charges of practicing sorcery and magic.  There was no update on her whereabouts or the status of her case at year’s end.

The National Committee for Human Rights in Libya reported that in October, following the committee’s intervention, an Egyptian Coptic resident, Kirlus Hani Abdulmalik, was released from detention at the SDF-run Mitiga Airport Prison facility.  Abdulmalik, a pharmacist, was detained since December 2016 without charge, reportedly because SDF forces believed it was illegal for Abdulmalik to practice medicine and provide treatments to Libyans because he was non-Muslim.

On February 26, the Office of Islamic Endowments and Islamic Affairs in Misrata, a regional affiliate of the GNA’s MEIA, arrested Abdulaziz al-Siawi, a member of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s Shura Council, for explicitly calling for terrorist operations in Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, in response to those governments’ anti-Muslim Brotherhood policies.  Earlier in February a surreptitiously recorded video was released of a December 2017 Friday sermon al-Siawi delivered at the Mosque of Al-Sheikh Mohammad in Misrata in which he said “Let me say [clearly] that I want to call for terrorism.”  On March 2, members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, together with members of the Council of Elders and Shura, which is headed by Ibrahim bin Ghashir, demonstrated at the courtyard of the Sheikh Amhamed Mosque against the decision of the GNA to prohibit al-Siawi from delivering sermons.  Authorities subsequently released al-Siawi.

The GNA relied on armed groups to provide security and administer some detention centers for migrants and refugees in the country, where, according to multiple international human rights organizations, Christians said they faced a higher risk of physical assault, including sexual assault and rape, than other migrants and refugees.  According to the Refugees International Field Report published in April, a 23-year-old Ethiopian Christian woman identified as Sara said she and other Christians hid their crosses from police in the detention center where they were being held “because the Libyan police working in that place didn’t appreciate Christians.”  In the same report, a 26-year-old Christian refugee from South Sudan identified as David, who was held in a detention center in central Tripoli, said guards provided better treatment to migrants from majority-Muslim Morocco than to others.

In September seven Christian migrants who, along with 173 others were repatriated to Nigeria on August 30, told Black Christian News Network One they had been detained in Osama Prison in Zawiya.  One of the men said guards hung him in chains overnight and left him to die.  In the morning they took his body to a shallow grave in the forest, but, upon discovering he was still alive, brought him back to the prison, and put him in solitary confinement.  Authorities returned the men to Nigeria following the intervention of the International Organization for Migration.

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

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

In August the Ministry of Education issued a decree suspending admission to special religious schools, including the Religious Academy in Tajoura.  During the suspension, the ministry conducted a review of the curriculum at these schools to ensure its interpretation of the Quran and Islamic hadith did not contain hateful or incendiary language toward other religions.  Former Grand Mufti of Libya Al-Sadiq Abdulrahman al-Ghiryani and Salafist religious figures condemned the suspension, which remained in place at year’s end.  The Ministry of Education worked with the U.S. embassy to promote religious tolerance in the country through the dissemination of new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.  The curricula aimed to replace previous material containing discriminatory language directed at non-Muslims.

Government officials at airports throughout the country continued to prevent women from traveling alone outside the country without a male guardian, although there was no law or government regulation restricting such travel.  NGOs with local staff reported women often had male relatives accompany them to the airport and carried written permission from their male guardians to enable them to leave the country.

According to human rights activists, the role of Islam in policymaking remained a major point of contention among supporters and opponents of political Islam, Salafist groups, and those who wished for a greater separation between religious practice and political issues.  The draft constitution would maintain sharia as “the source of legislation.”  The draft constitution would also ban non-Muslims from key offices of state including the presidency, legislature, and prohibit non-Muslims from being appointed cabinet ministers.

Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors

During the year, nonstate actors and militias continued to operate and control territory throughout the country, including Benghazi and parts of Tripoli.  In Derna, prior to the LNA operations to take the city, there were numerous reports of armed groups restricting religious practices, enforcing compliance with sharia according to their interpretation, and targeting those viewed as violating their standards.

Multiple sources state Islamic militant groups and organized crime groups targeted religious minorities, including Christian migrants, converts to Christianity, and foreign residents for physical attacks, sexual assaults, detentions, kidnappings, and killings.  Christian groups operating in the country identified the LNA-aligned Madkhali Salafist groups operating in Benghazi as among the Islamic militant groups involved in harassment of Christians.  Academic studies and media describe the Madkhali movement as a form of very strict Salafism.

According to a Christian group operating in the country, Christian residents continued to report abuse at the hands of militant Muslim groups, including members of the former Libya Shield Force affiliated with the Libyan Dawn battalion, whose physical mistreatment of detainees included floggings, exposure to cold weather, and other abuses; they also reportedly threatened Christians with execution by beheading.  Christian residents reported similar abuses by other groups, including the Benghazi Revolutionary Brigades (BRB), a jihadist Salafist militia coalition.  Christian groups pointed to the example of a Coptic Christian man who, in 2017, was repatriated to Egypt after the BRB kidnapped him and held him for 18 days.  He was released after payment of a ransom.

Human Rights Watch reported that on January 23, an unidentified armed group or groups detonated two car bombs in front of the Baya’at al-Radwan Mosque in Benghazi as worshippers were leaving after evening prayers, killing at least 34 males, including three children, and wounding more than 90 other individuals.  According to spokespersons for the two main hospitals for emergency and trauma services in Benghazi, the majority of victims were civilians.

In December Reuters news service reported local authorities said they had exhumed from a mass grave near Sirte the bodies of 34 Ethiopian Christians executed by ISIS.  According to Reuters, in April 2015 a video posted on social media appeared to show ISIS members shooting and beheading the Christians, who were migrant workers.

Reuters also reported the government returned to Egypt the bodies of 20 Coptic Christians in May.  Reuters reported that in January 2015 a video released online appeared to show ISIS members beheading the individuals, together with one Ghanaian Christian, on a beach near Sirte and burying them in a mass grave.

The Christian Science Monitor reported in January that the Madkhali movement grew more influential.  The Christian Science Monitor said Madkhali units associated with LNA-affiliated groups functioned as informal police forces.  The newspaper said in January members of the Madkhali movement patrolled the streets of Tripoli to stop crime and what they viewed as “vice” contrary to Islam and to disrupt ISIS cells and attacks.

The MEIA of the nonrecognized governmental administration in the East exercised its ability to issue fatwas.  According to local human rights activists in Benghazi, followers of the Madkhali movement exercised influence over academic institutions, in addition to overt control of MEIA.

On November 12, Mousa Abdalsalam Taieb, Director of Cultural and Religious Conversion Affairs for MEIA in the East, issued a circular calling for takfir (a pronouncement that someone is an unbeliever [kafir] and no longer a Muslim) as the penalty for individuals who celebrated the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday; cooked a porridge traditionally prepared for this holiday; or engaged in ritual praise of Mohammed.  Sources noted all of these practices were part of traditional Islamic practice in the country.

According to Human Rights Watch, the 2017 MEIA religious edict by the “eastern interim government” based in Tobruk remained in effect against Ibadi Muslims, accusing the group of deviance and following an infidel doctrine.

According to Libyan academic researchers, the General Administration for Criminal Investigation in Benghazi continued to conduct investigations of citizens for denigrating Islam and for converting others to Christianity, and proselytizing on social media.

According to human rights activists and political analysts, the MEIA in the East continued to provide texts for Friday services to imams, often including political and social messages.  According to media reports, the LNA continued to appoint several imams with Salafist beliefs in areas of its control throughout the East.

U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations, including Ansar al-Sharia, AQIM, and ISIS, continued to operate within the country, although there were no reports during the year of explicitly religiously motivated attacks.  Sources indicated Ansar al-Sharia maintained connections with extremists in other parts of the country, including AQIM.  Following expulsion from Sirte in December 2016, ISIS was believed to be largely confined to nonpopulated areas outside of major cities, as well as to ungoverned regions in the South.

On June 28, the LNA took control of the eastern city of Derna from the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna (SCMD), an umbrella organization consisting of Salafist groups opposed to ISIS, including Ansar al-Sharia.  According to human rights activists, when SCMD controlled Derna, it restricted the freedom of Sunni Muslims to worship or engage in what SCMD considered heterodox religious expression.

In October Ali al-Subaiy, a former Libya Islamic Fighting Group member and an unsuccessful candidate for the House of Representatives seat for the Hayy al-Andalus Neighborhood of Tripoli, gave an interview on the Turkey-based Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Channel 9 television station.  Al-Subaiy called Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs” and called for “offensive jihad” against Jews and Christians.  In September al-Subaiy said in an interview on the same channel that “history informs us that [the Jews] are treacherous and deceitful.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Multiple sources, including international media, and the Arab Organization for Human Rights – Libya (AOHRL) continued to report a restrictive social environment for religious freedom throughout the country.  This included intense social and economic pressure on former Muslims to return to Islam.  NGOs and a UN agency stated Salafist interpretations of sharia increasingly contributed to this restrictive environment.  Religious minorities said converts to other religions, as well as atheists, agnostics, and other nonreligious persons, were threatened with violence or dismissal from employment because of their beliefs or lack of belief.  An atheist from Benghazi said he faced discrimination and had to publicly reaffirm faith in Islam (which contradicted his private beliefs) due to threats against his person by coworkers and Salafist militia groups.

Sources said Christians who converted from Islam practiced their faith in semi-secrecy.  Open Doors USA stated Christian citizens who were former Muslims faced violence and intense pressure from their families and communities to renounce their faith.  Christians said they felt pressure to refrain from missionary activities because of security threats and social pressure from the local community.  Catholic authorities also stated Christian migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were more likely to experience discrimination or extortion than Muslims from the same region.

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

According to Human Rights Watch, in late 2017 unidentified individuals attacked two historic Sufi mosques in Tripoli.  Unidentified individuals set fire to the Sufi mosque, Zawiyat Sheikha Radiya, causing extensive damage, and destroyed the Sidi Abu Gharara Mosque.  There were no reported arrests related to the attacks by year’s end.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Following the U.S. embassy evacuation from Tripoli and suspension of operations in July 2014, U.S. diplomats have operated out of Tunis, Tunisia, making periodic trips into the country when security conditions permitted.  The U.S. government discussed religious freedom on a number of occasions with a variety of local and national leaders, particularly in the context of confronting violent extremist groups such as ISIS.  Embassy officials frequently met with human rights activists, including the National Commission for Human Rights in Libya and the AOHRL, to address religious freedom issues.  The U.S. government also condemned acts of physical mistreatment of religious minorities in detention and destruction of religious property.  The U.S. embassy partnered with the Ministry of Education to disseminate new civil education curricula for grades four to nine that promote inclusivity and tolerance.

Macau

Executive Summary

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


The Basic Law of the Macau Special Administrative Region (SAR) grants residents freedom of religious belief, freedom to preach and participate in religious activities in public, and freedom to pursue religious education.  The law also protects the right of religious assembly and the rights of religious organizations to administer schools, hospitals, and welfare institutions and to provide other social services.  The law states the government does not recognize a state religion and explicitly states all religious denominations are equal before the law.  The law stipulates religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.  Falun Gong continued to hold rallies and protests of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) treatment of Falun Gong practitioners in Mainland China.

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

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

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 606,000 (July 2018 estimate).  The latest SAR yearbook does not provide an estimate for Buddhists but states they are numerous and that individuals often practice a mixture of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Chinese folk religions.  Other sources say the majority of the population practices Buddhism or Chinese folk religions.  The SAR Government Information Bureau estimates there are approximately 30,000 Roman Catholics, of whom more than half are foreign domestic workers and other expatriates, and more than 8,000 Protestants.  Protestant denominations include the Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian Churches.  Evangelical Christian and independent local nondenominational churches, some of which are affiliated with Mainland churches, are also present.  Various reports estimate the Muslim population at 5,000 to 10,000.  Smaller religious groups include Baha’is, who estimate their membership at above 2,000, and a small group of Falun Gong practitioners, with some estimates at 20 to 50 persons.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

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

Under the Basic Law, the Macau SAR government, rather than the central government of the People’s Republic of China, safeguards religious freedom in the SAR.

The law states the Macau SAR government does not recognize a state religion and stipulates all religious denominations are equal before the law.  The law further provides for freedom of religion, including privacy of religious belief, freedom of religious assembly, freedom to hold religious processions, and freedom of religious education.

Religious groups are not required to register in order to conduct religious activities, but registration enables them to benefit from legal status.  Religious groups register with the Identification Bureau, providing the name of an individual applicant and that person’s position in the group, identification card number, and contact information, as well as the group’s name and a copy of the group’s charter to register.  To receive tax-exempt status or other advantages, religious groups register as charities with the Identification Bureau by submitting the same information and documents as are required to register.

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

Schools run by religious organizations may provide religious education under the law.  No religious education is required in public schools.

By law, religious groups may develop and maintain relations with religious groups abroad.  The Catholic Church in Macau, in communion with the Holy See, recognizes the pope as its head.  The Vatican appoints the bishop for the diocese.

Government Practices

Falun Gong members continued to hold rallies and set up informational sites at public venues without incident.  In July Falun Gong practitioners held a rally to protest the CCP’s persecution of Falun Gong members on the Mainland and a candlelight vigil to commemorate deceased practitioners.

Some religious groups reported they retained their ability to conduct charitable activities on the Mainland by working through official channels and officially recognized churches.  There were reports that Mainland students could not attend local seminaries.

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

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

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

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


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

Morocco

Executive Summary

According to the Moroccan constitution, Islam is the religion of the state, and the state guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly.  The constitution also says the state guarantees to everyone the freedom to “practice his religious affairs.”  The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  It also prohibits political parties founded on religion and political parties, parliamentarians, and constitutional amendments that denigrate or infringe on Islam.  Moroccan law penalizes the use of enticements to convert a Muslim to another religion and prohibits criticism of Islam.  According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religion were Jews.  Local Christian and Shia leaders reported the government detained and questioned some Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs and contacts with other Christians and Shias.  Christian and Shia Muslim citizens also stated their fear of government and societal harassment led to their decision to practice their faiths discreetly.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  On April 3, a group calling itself the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the National Council of Human Rights (CNDH) to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize rights for Christian citizens such as freedom to worship, celebrate civil marriages, establish and operate cemeteries, use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school.  In May human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two citizens who had converted to Christianity the necessary documents to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  Foreign clergy, because of fear of being criminally charged with proselytism, said they discouraged the country’s Christian citizens from attending their churches.  Although the law allows registration of religious groups as associations, some minority religious groups reported the government rejected their registration requests.  The authorities continued to introduce new religious textbooks during the school year following a review they said was aimed at removing extremist or intolerant references.  The Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA) continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify and monitor imams (morchidines) and female Muslim spiritual guides (morchidates) who have accounts on social media to ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.  The government restricted the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  On June 14, Minister of State for Human Rights Mustafa Ramid stated in an interview that “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion.  On June 19, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens on national television, but he said throughout history, Morocco has allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religious affairs freely.  In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).  The government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez from September 10 to 12, where King Mohammed VI delivered remarks underscoring the tradition of coexistence in Morocco between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

According to the Assabah newspaper, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador received death threats, which the government investigated and reported were unfounded allegations.  According to media reports, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts, Christian citizens face pressure from non-Christian family and friends to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith.  They also reported the government did not respond to complaints about frequent societal harassment.  Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm.  According to an interview with TelQuel magazine, however, Baha’i citizens reported they did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.  Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

The Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and other U.S. government officials promoted religious freedom and tolerance in visits with key government officials, members of religious minority and majority communities, religious leaders, activists, and civil society groups, where they highlighted on a regular basis the importance of protection of religious minorities and interfaith dialogue.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 34.3 million (July 2018 estimate) and more than 99 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim.  Less than 0.1 percent of the population is Shia Muslim, according to U.S. government estimates.  Groups together constituting less than 1 percent of the population include Christians, Jews, and Baha’is.

According to Jewish community leaders, there are an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 Jews, approximately 2,500 of whom reside in Casablanca.  Some Christian community leaders estimate there are between 2,000 and 6,000 Christian citizens distributed throughout the country; however, the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report estimates there are 25,000 Christian citizens.  Moroccan Shia Muslim leaders estimate there are several thousand Shia citizens, with the largest proportion in the north.  In addition, there are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 foreign-resident Shia from Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.  Leaders of the Ahmadi Muslim community estimate their numbers at 600.  Leaders of the Baha’i community estimate there are 350-400 members throughout the country.

Foreign-resident Christian leaders estimate the foreign-resident Christian population numbers at least 30,000 Roman Catholics and several thousand Protestants, many of whom are recent migrants from sub-Saharan Africa or lifelong residents of the country whose families have resided and worked there for generations but do not hold Moroccan citizenship.  There are small foreign-resident Anglican communities in Casablanca and Tangier.  There are an estimated 3000 foreign-residents who identify as Russian and Greek Orthodox, including a small foreign-resident Russian Orthodox community in Rabat and a small foreign-resident Greek Orthodox community in Casablanca.  Most foreign-resident Christians live in the Casablanca, Tangier, and Rabat urban areas, but small numbers of foreign Christians are present throughout the country, including many who are migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

According to the constitution, the country is a Muslim state, with full sovereignty, and Islam is the religion of the state.  The constitution guarantees freedom of thought, expression, and assembly, and says the state guarantees every individual the freedom to practice his religious affairs.  The constitution states the king holds the Islamic title “Commander of the Faithful,” and he is the protector of Islam and the guarantor of the freedom to practice religious affairs in the country.  The constitution prohibits the enactment of laws or constitutional amendments infringing upon its provisions relating to Islam, and also recognizes the Jewish community as an integral component of society.  According to the constitution, political parties may not be founded on religion and may not denigrate or infringe on Islam.

The constitution and the law governing media prohibit any individual, including members of parliament normally immune from arrest, from criticizing Islam on public platforms, such as print or online media, or in public speeches.  Such expressions are punishable by imprisonment for two years and a fine of 200,000 dirhams ($21,000).

The law penalizes anyone who “employs enticements to undermine the faith” or convert a Muslim to another faith, and provides punishments of six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  It also provides the right to a court trial for anyone accused of such an offense.  Voluntary conversion is not a crime under the law.  The law permits the government to expel summarily any noncitizen resident it determines to be “a threat to public order,” and the government has used this clause on occasion to expel foreigners suspected of proselytizing.

By law, impeding or preventing one or more persons from worshipping or from attending worship services of any religion is punishable by six months to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  The penal code states any person known to be Muslim who breaks the fast in public during the month of Ramadan without an exception granted by religious authorities is liable to punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 200 to 500 dirhams ($21 to $52).  Owners have discretion to keep their restaurants open during Ramadan.

The High Authority for Audiovisual Communications established by the constitution requires all eight public television stations to dedicate five percent of their airtime to Islamic religious content and to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer five times daily.

Sunni Muslims and Jews are the only religious groups recognized in the constitution as native to the country.  A separate set of laws and special courts govern personal status matters for Jews, including functions such as marriage, inheritance, and other personal status matters.  Rabbinical authorities, who are also court officials, administer Jewish family courts.  Muslim judges trained in the country’s Maliki-Ashari Sunni interpretation of the relevant aspects of sharia administer the courts for personal status matters for all other religious groups.  According to the law, a Muslim man may marry a Christian or Jewish woman; a Muslim woman may not marry a man of another religion unless he converts to Islam.  Non-Muslims must formally convert to Islam and be permanent residents before they can become guardians of abandoned or orphaned children.  Guardianship entails the caretaking of a child, which may last until the child reaches 18, but it does not allow changing the child’s name or inheritance rights, and requires maintaining the child’s birth religion, according to orphanage directors.

Legal provisions outlined in the general tax code provide tax benefits, land and building grants, subsidies, and customs exemptions for imports necessary for the religious activities of recognized religious groups (Sunni Muslims and Jews) and religious groups registered as associations (some foreign Christian churches).  The law does not require religious groups to register to worship privately, but a nonrecognized religious group must register as an association to conduct business on behalf of the group or to hold public gatherings.  Associations must register with local Ministry of Interior (MOI) officials in the jurisdiction of the association’s headquarters in order to conduct financial transactions, hold bank accounts, rent property, and address the government in the name of the group.  An individual representative of a religious group neither recognized nor registered as an association may be held liable for any of the group’s public gatherings, transactions, bank accounts, property rentals, and/or petitions to the government.  The registration application must contain the name and purpose of the association; the name, nationality, age, profession, and residential address of each founder; and the address of the association’s headquarters.  The constitution guarantees civil society associations and nongovernmental organizations the right to organize themselves and exercise their activities freely within the scope of the constitution.  The law on associations prohibits organizations that pursue activities the government regards as “illegal, contrary to good morals, or aimed at undermining the Islamic religion, the integrity of the national territory, or the monarchical regime, or which call for discrimination.”

Many foreign-resident Christian churches are registered as associations.  The Roman Catholic, Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, and Anglican Churches maintain different forms of official status.  The Russian Orthodox and Anglican Churches are registered as branches of international associations through the embassies of Russia and the United Kingdom, respectively.  The Protestant and Catholic Churches, whose existence as foreign-resident churches predates the country’s independence in 1956, as well as the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches, maintain a special status recognized by the government.

By law, all publicly funded educational institutions must teach Sunni Islam in accordance with the teachings and traditions of the Maliki-Ashari school of Islamic jurisprudence.  Foreign-run and privately funded schools have the choice of teaching Sunni Islam or of not including religious instruction within the school’s curriculum.  Private Jewish schools may teach Judaism.

According to the constitution, only the High Council of Ulema, a group headed and appointed by the king with representatives from all regions of the country, is authorized to issue fatwas, which become legally binding only through the king’s endorsement in a royal decree and subsequent confirmation by parliamentary legislation.  If the king or parliament decline to ratify a decision of the Ulema, the decision remains nonbinding and unenforced.

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

Government Practices

The government at times reportedly detained and questioned Moroccan Christian and Shia citizens about their beliefs.  According to press reports, in April police in Rabat detained a Christian citizen for 24 hours after finding Christian literature in his backpack.  In May and June human rights organizations and media reported local authorities denied two Christian converts the necessary documentation to register to marry because of their religious beliefs.  The couple hosted a small symbolic wedding ceremony in a human rights organization’s headquarters in Rabat in June, but the couple stated they feared being accused of fornication, which is punishable under the penal code, because they did not have a government-issued marriage certificate.  According to activists and members of the religious minority community, authorities also detained and questioned several Shia Muslims for hours about their religious beliefs and about members of their religious community.  According to activists, during these instances, police did not document the detention and, according to media reports, denied such events transpired.

According to press reports, a group called the Moroccan Christian Coordinating Group met with the CNDH on April 3 to submit a petition calling for the government to recognize a series of rights for Christian citizens including freedom of worship, celebration of civil marriages, establishment and operation of cemeteries, being able to use biblical names for children, and the right of children to decline Islamic classes at school, as well as the legal normalization of Christian churches.  CNDH informed the group that CNDH welcomed official complaints where violations of human rights occurred.  CNDH was not aware of a government response to the petition.

Press also reported that on November 22, the Court of Appeals in Taza upheld a Court of First Instance ruling in favor of a defendant who was acquitted of “shaking the faith of a Muslim,” a crime under the penal code, after he reportedly handed a book explaining the Bible to another individual.  The appeals court ruling mentioned the ICCPR, which guarantees “the freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs.”

Nonregistered religious groups reported receiving varying treatment by authorities; however, during the year, there were no reports of authorities prohibiting these groups from practicing their religion in private.  A number of religious groups reported they cooperated with authorities and occasionally informed them of planned large gatherings, for which authorities sometimes provided security.

According to religious leaders and legal scholars, the government’s refusal in past years to allow Shia Muslim groups to register as associations continued to prevent these groups from gathering legally for public religious ceremonies.  There were no known Shia mosques.  Shia representatives reported they had not attempted to register during the year.

According to representatives of the Moroccan Association for Religious Rights and Freedoms, on May 3 government authorities refused to accept the application for registration of their association under the determination the association aimed to undermine Islam.

A Christian group applied to register as an association in December 2018; it was awaiting a response from MOI at year’s end.

The government allowed the operation of registered foreign-resident Christian churches.  Church officials reported Christian citizens rarely attended their churches, and they did not encourage them to do so to avoid official accusations of proselytizing.  According to some reports from activists, authorities at times pressured Christian converts to renounce their faith by informing the converts’ friends, relatives, and employers of the individuals’ conversion.  According to community leaders, Christian citizens said authorities made phone or house calls to demonstrate they monitored Christian activities.  Foreigners attended religious services without restriction at places of worship belonging to officially recognized churches.

According to media reports, on June 20, the Collective for Democracy and Liberties cancelled a long-planned seminar on individual rights, including “sexual rights” and religious freedom, immediately before it was scheduled to begin.  A statement from the Ministry of Justice explained the Ministry of Interior had informed the seminar organizers they lacked the appropriate registration to hold the event.  Assabah reported the Head of Government Saadeddin El Othmani, Minister of State for Human Rights Ramid, Minister of Justice Mohamed Aujjar, and Secretary-General of the Party of Progress and Socialism Mohamed Nabil Benabdallah withdrew from participating in the seminar after cabinet and party members were reportedly ordered not to participate in any meetings encouraging sectarianism.  According to a Telquel article, Minister Aujjar said that after reviewing the agenda for the seminar, he cancelled his participation because “speaking about individual liberties does not bother [him], but it is a difficult question to assume politically.”

In an interview on June 14, Minister Ramid stated “freedom of belief does not pose a short-term threat to the state but is certainly a long-term danger” to national cohesion.  On June 19, Minister Aujjar denied the existence of Christian, Baha’i, and Ahmadi citizens, but said throughout history Morocco had allowed Jewish citizens and visiting Christians from Europe and Africa to practice their religions freely.  The Moroccan Christians Coordinating Group issued statements rejecting Minister Aujjar’s denial that they, whose numbers they maintained exceed those of Morocco’s recognized Jewish population, exist.

According to a human rights association, on November 26, it hosted a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities.  During the event, leaders of human rights organizations said they were beginning to follow the issue more closely; however, limited information was available and official data on Moroccan religious minorities was not available.

The ban on the import, production, and sale of the burqa imposed in 2017 remained in effect.  The MOI cited security concerns as justification for the ban.  The ban did not prevent individuals from wearing burqas or making them at home for individual use.  Authorities, however, continued not to allow police and army personnel in uniform to wear a hijab.

The MEIA remained the principal government institution responsible for shaping the country’s religious sphere and promoting its interpretation of Sunni Islam.  It employed 1852 morchidines and 804 morchidates in mosques or religious institutions throughout the country.  The morchidates taught religious subjects and provided counsel on a variety of matters, including women’s legal rights and family planning.  It continued to provide government-required, one-year training to imams, training an average of 150 morchidines and 100 morchidates a year.  It also continued to train foreign imams, predominantly from sub-Saharan Africa.  The training sessions fulfilled the requirement for religious leaders to acquire a certificate issued by the High Council of Ulema to operate in the country.  The High Council of Ulema also continued to host continuing training sessions and capacity-building exercises for the religious leaders.

According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere with the topics the religious leaders chose to address during sermons; however, religious leaders were required to abide by the guidelines outlined in the MEIA-issued Guide of the Imam, Khatib, and the Preacher when they operated in the country.

The MEIA monitored Quranic schools to prevent what the ministry considered inflammatory or extremist rhetoric and ensure teaching followed approved doctrine.  The government required mosques to close to the public shortly after daily prayer times to prevent use of the premises for what it termed “unauthorized activity,” including gatherings intended to promote extremism.  Construction of new mosques, including those constructed using private funds, required authorization from the MEIA.

The MEIA continued to guide and monitor the content of sermons in mosques, Islamic religious education, and the dissemination of Islamic religious material by broadcast media, actions it said were intended to combat violent extremism.

The government continued to restrict the distribution of non-Islamic religious materials, as well as some Islamic materials it deemed inconsistent with the Maliki-Ashari school of Sunni Islam.  Its policy remained to control the sale of all books, videotapes, and DVDs it considered extremist.  According to media reports, in September the government requested regional MEIA representatives identify morchidines and morchidates with accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google Plus social media to monitor and ensure only official religious positions were conveyed through these personal accounts.

MOI and MEIA authorization continued to be a requirement for the renovation or construction of churches.  In October the St. John’s Anglican Church in Casablanca began the construction of a community center with approval from government authorities.  The government also gave the Anglican Church approval to renovate and expand the church upon completion of its community center.

The government permitted the display and sale of bibles in French, English, and Spanish.  A limited number of Arabic translations of the Bible were available for sale in a few bookshops for use in university religion courses.  Authorities confiscated bibles they believed were intended for use in proselytizing.

During the year, the government organized four national and regional training sessions on instruction based on “values” and “respect for religious principles.”  The government also introduced 13 new textbooks on the subjects of religion and legal sciences at the primary, junior and high school levels following a review by the MEIA and the Ministry of Education to remove extremist or intolerant references and promote moderation and tolerance.  As of year’s end, the government was also drafting an educational charter mandating traditional education be based on “values” and the “respect for religious and legal studies.”  Modifications to textbooks continued through the end of the year.

Jewish and Christian citizens stated elementary and high school curricula did not include mention of the historical legacy and current presence of their groups in the country.  The government continued to fund the study of Jewish culture and heritage at state-run universities.

The government continued to disseminate information about Islam over dedicated state-funded television and radio channels.  Television channel Assadissa (Sixth) programming was strictly religious, consisting primarily of Quran and hadith (authoritative sayings and deeds ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad) readings and exegesis, highlighting the government’s interpretation of Islam.

According to observers, the government tolerated social and charitable activities consistent with Sunni Islam.  For example, the Unity and Reform Movement, the country’s largest registered Islamic social organization, continued its close relationship with the Party of Justice and Development, the largest party in the governing coalition, and continued to operate without restriction, according to media reports.  The Justice and Charity Organization (JCO), a Sunni Islamist social movement that rejects the king’s spiritual authority, remained banned but largely tolerated.  It remained the largest social movement in the country despite being unregistered.  The JCO continued to release press statements, hold conferences, manage internet sites, and participate in political demonstrations.  The government occasionally prevented the organization from meeting and restricted public distribution of JCO’s published materials.

The monarchy continued to support the restoration of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, efforts it stated were necessary to preserve the country’s religious and cultural heritage and to serve as a symbol of tolerance.  Since 2012, an estimated 170 Jewish cemeteries across 40 provinces have been restored.  According to the government, the MEIA did not interfere in the operations or the practices in synagogues.

The Prison Administration (DGAPR) said it authorized religious observances and services provided by religious leaders for all prisoners, including religious minorities.

Two adoul (notaries), typically religious men, are needed to perform marriages.  In January the School of Islamic Thought and Testimonies convinced the Supreme Scientific Council to amend the law so the king could permit women to become adoul.

During the annual commemoration of the anniversary of the king’s reign, the king bestowed honors on the heads of the Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and other Christian churches in recognition of their contributions to religious tolerance in Moroccan society.

In May the Archives of Morocco signed a cooperation agreement with the USHMM, to facilitate the sharing of documentation on Jewish history in Morocco.  The delegation met with country’s leaders to discuss continuing collaboration between the museum and the country’s National Archives to promote religious tolerance and awareness.

On September 10-12, the government hosted the second International Conference on Intercultural and Interfaith Dialogue in Fez in collaboration with the International Organization of La Francophonie.  According to media reports, at the conference King Mohammed VI delivered remarks describing the tradition of coexistence in the country between Muslims and Jews and openness to other religions.

On September 26, Head of Government El Othmani delivered a message from the king at a UN roundtable table on “The Power of Education in Preventing Racism and Discrimination:  The Case of Anti-Semitism” in New York on the margins of the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly.  The message highlighted the country’s preservation of its synagogues and noted the importance of “shedding light not only on humanity’s glorious moments, but also its darkest hours.”  It stated, “Anti-Semitism is the antithesis of freedom of expression.  It implies a denial of the other and is an admission of failure, inadequacy and an inability to coexist.”

In November the Ministry of Culture, in partnership with the Essaouira-Mogador Association, opened the Bayt Al Dakyra (House of Memory), a research center built from the remains of an old synagogue in Essaouira.  On December 11-12, UNESCO and the Aladdin Project in partnership with Mohammed V University, a public university in Rabat, hosted an international conference in Marrakech titled, “The Importance of History Teaching in Education: The Case of the Holocaust and Great Tragedies of History and 75 Years after the Holocaust, Honoring the Righteous in the Muslim World.”  The organizers paid tribute to the “Muslim Righteous” from Morocco and other countries that helped Jews during the Second World War and discussed the importance of education for highlighting the different phases and experiences of coexistence in the region.  Public officials from Mohammed V University, the Ministry of Education, the Archives of Morocco, and other public institutions participated in the conference.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Some activists in minority religious communities reported the government did not respond to complaints about societal harassment.  According to a report in Assabah, in July Christian citizens in the city of Nador reported facing intimidation, including one death threat.  The MOI investigated the claims and reported they were unfounded.

Representatives of minority religious groups, especially Christian, Shia Muslim, and Baha’i citizens, said fear of societal harassment, including ostracism by converts’ families, social ridicule, employment discrimination, and potential violence against them by “extremists,” were the main reasons leading them to practice their faiths discreetly.  According to the 2017-2018 Moroccan Association of Human Rights Report, the only non-Muslim citizens who could freely practice their religious rituals were Jews.

There were reports from the media, activists, community leaders, and Christian converts that Christian citizens faced social pressure to convert to Islam or renounce their Christian faith from non-Christian family and friends.  Young Christians who still lived with their Muslim families did not reveal their faith because they believed they might be expelled from their homes unless they renounced Christianity.

Members of the Baha’i Faith said they were open about their faith with family, friends, and neighbors, but they feared extremist elements in society would try to do them harm.  According to an interview with TelQuel, however, some Baha’i citizens did not feel they were treated differently from the average Moroccan.

Shia Muslims said in some areas, particularly in large cities in the north, they did not hide their faith from family, friends, or neighbors, but that many avoided disclosing their religious affiliation in areas where their numbers were smaller.

Jewish citizens said they lived and attended services at synagogues in safety.  They said they were able to visit religious sites regularly and to hold annual commemorations.  On November 13-18, the Moroccan Community Abroad Council and the Israelite Community of Morocco Council cohosted a conference on Moroccan Judaism.  The public conference convened primarily Moroccan-born Jews residing in Canada, France, and Israel, with the leadership of the local Jewish community and Moroccan civil society groups.

Media continued to report women had difficulty finding employment in some private businesses, as well as with the army and police, if they wore a hijab or other head covering.  When women who wore a hijab did obtain employment with the police, army, and in some private businesses, they reported employers either encouraged or required them to remove their headscarves during working hours.

In December interfaith academics and an unregistered religious freedom organization coordinated a seminar on religious minorities and interfaith dialogue between Islamic schools of thought in Marrakech.

Muslim citizens continued to study at private Christian and Jewish schools, reportedly because these schools maintained a reputation for offering superior education.  According to school administrators, Muslim students continued to constitute a significant portion of the students at Jewish schools in Casablanca.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The U.S. Charge d’Affaires, other embassy and consulate general officials, and visiting U.S. government officials met with government officials, including from MOI and MEIA, to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including the rights of minority communities.  Embassy and consulate general officials met members of religious minority and majority communities throughout the country.  The embassy also fostered and supported programs designed to highlight religious tolerance.

In October embassy officials attended one of a series of public seminars on the Holocaust and of the historical legacy of Moroccan Jews, hosted at a university in Rabat.  The USHMM and Mimouna, its local Islamic NGO partner, developed the curriculum they presented at the seminar.  In November embassy officials also attended the conference on Moroccan Judaism cohosted by the Council of the Moroccan Community Abroad and the Council of the Israelite Communities of Morocco.  On November 26, an embassy official attended a conference in Rabat on the situation of the country’s religious minorities.  On December 14, the Charge d’Affaires hosted a lunch for representatives of the Jewish community to discuss recent developments related to religious freedom and the preservation of the country’s Jewish history.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion but prohibits discrimination based on religion and protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  According to the law, offending Islam or any Abrahamic religion is a criminal offense.  There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.  In January the government issued a new penal code which significantly increased penalties for blasphemy and criminalized groups that promote a religion other than Islam.  Proselytizing in public is illegal.  In April Hassan Al-Basham, who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2016 for blasphemy and disturbing religious values in his comments on social media, died in prison.  Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based outside the country had previously reported he had won an appeal on medical grounds to commute his sentence, but reportedly a court later overturned it.  The Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs (MERA) monitored sermons and distributed approved texts for all imams.  Religious groups continued to report problems with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  Nonregistered groups, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ) and others, remained without permanent, independent places of worship.  Non-Muslim groups said they were able to worship freely in private homes and government-approved houses of worship, although space limitations continued to cause overcrowding at some locations.  The MERA continued to require religious groups to request approval before publishing or importing religious texts or disseminating religious publications outside their membership.  According to religious observers, in practice the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval, and non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

Members of religious minorities reported conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.  The Protestant-run interfaith group Al-Amana Center and the MERA continued to host programs to introduce Protestant seminary students to Islam.

At various times throughout the year, embassy officers met with government officials to encourage the government to continue to support religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue.  In November the Ambassador hosted a lunch for various religious minority community leaders to express continued U.S. support for religious freedom and offer a forum for exchanging best practices.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 4.6 million (July 2018 estimate).  Citizens constitute 55 percent of the population.  The government did not publish statistics on the percentages of Omani citizens who practice Ibadhi, Sunni, and Shia forms of Islam.  Estimates from academic and religious community sources of the percentage of citizens who are Ibadhi Muslims (Ibadhi Islam is the historically dominant religious group in the country and distinct from Shia and Sunni Islam) range between 45 percent, according to many sources, and 75 percent, according to government estimates.  Academic sources estimate Shia Muslims comprise 5 percent of citizens and live mainly in the capital area and along the northern coast, while another 5 percent are Hindus and Christians, mainly extended families of naturalized citizens of South Asian origin.  According to academic sources, the remainder of the citizen population is Sunni Muslim.

Academic sources state the majority of non-Muslims are foreign workers from South Asia.  Noncitizen religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Baha’is, and Christians.  Christians are centered in the major urban areas of Muscat, Sohar, and Salalah and include Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, members of the Church of Jesus Christ, and Protestants.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law declares Islam to be the state religion and declares that sharia is the basis for legislation.  It protects the right of individuals to practice other religions as long as doing so does not “disrupt public order or contradict morals.”  The Basic Law prohibits discrimination based on religion.  According to the Basic Law, the sultan must be a Muslim.

There is no provision of the law specifically addressing apostasy, conversion, or renunciation of religious belief.

In January the government passed a new penal code, which increases the maximum prison sentence for “insulting the Quran” and “offending Islam or any [Abrahamic] religion” from three to 10 years.  The law also penalizes anyone who, without obtaining prior permission, “forms, funds, [or] organizes a group…with the aim of undermining Islam…or advocating other religions” with up to seven years’ imprisonment.  “Holding a meeting” outside government-approved locations to promote another religion is also criminalized with a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment.  Under the new code, Abrahamic religions are protected from blasphemy, but the new code does not mention non-Abrahamic faiths in this context.  Using the internet in a way that “might prejudice public order or religious values” is also a crime, with a penalty of between one month and one year in prison and a fine of not less than 1,000 Omani rials ($2,600).

All religious organizations must register with the government.  The law does not specify rules, regulations, or criteria for gaining ministerial approval.  Groups seeking registration must request meeting and worship space from one of the sponsor organizations recognized by the MERA.  New non-Muslim religious groups unaffiliated with a previously recognized sponsor must gain approval from the MERA before they can register.  Muslim groups must register, but the government – as benefactor of the country’s mosques – serves as their sponsor.  For non-Muslim groups, the ministry recognizes the Protestant Church of Oman (a partnership between the Reformed Church of America and the Anglican Church), Catholic Church in Oman, Al-Amana Center (an interdenominational organization affiliated with the Reformed Church of America that promotes Muslim-Christian understanding), Hindu Mahajan Temple, and Anwar Al-Ghubaira Trading Company in Muscat (Sikh) as official sponsors.  The sponsors are responsible for recording and submitting to the ministry the group’s religious beliefs and the names of its leaders.  The MERA must also grant its approval for new Muslim groups to form.

All individuals who deliver sermons in recognized religious groups must register with the MERA.  The licensing process for imams prohibits unlicensed lay members from preaching sermons in mosques, and licensed imams must follow government-approved sermons.  Lay members of non-Muslim groups may lead prayers if they are specified as leaders in their group’s registration application.

The law restricts collective worship by non-Muslim groups to houses of worship on land specifically donated by the sultan for the purpose of collective worship.

The law prohibits public proselytizing by all religious groups, although the government authorizes certain “Islamic propagation centers.”

The law states the government must approve construction and/or leasing of buildings by religious groups.  In addition, new mosques must be built at least one kilometer (0.6 miles) from existing mosques.

Islamic studies are mandatory for Muslim students in public schools from kindergarten through 12th grade.  Non-Muslim students are exempt from this requirement if they notify school administrators they do not wish to attend such instruction.  The classes take a historical perspective on the evolution of Islamic religious thinking, and teachers are prohibited from proselytizing or favoring one Islamic group over another.  Many private schools provide alternative religious studies courses.

Civil courts adjudicate cases according to the nonsectarian civil code.  The law states Shia Muslims may resolve family and personal status cases according to Shia jurisprudence outside the courts, and they retain the right to transfer their cases to civil courts if they cannot find a resolution within the Shia religious tradition.  The law allows non-Muslims to seek adjudication of matters pertaining to family or personal status under the religious laws of their faith or under civil law.

Citizens may sue the government for violations of their right to practice religious rites that do not disrupt public order; there have been no known cases of anyone pursuing this course in court.

Birth certificates issued by the government record an individual’s religion.  Other official identity documents do not do so.

Foreigners on tourist visas who are not clergy may not preach, teach, or lead worship.  Visa regulations permit foreign clergy to enter the country to teach or lead worship under the sponsorship of registered religious groups, which must apply to the MERA for approval before the visiting clergy member’s entry.

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

Hasan Al-Basham, a former diplomat who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2016 for what NGOs based outside the country reported were charges of “using the internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values” in his comments on social media, died in prison in April.  NGOs based outside the country had previously reported he had won an appeal on medical grounds to commute his sentence, but, according to the NGOs, in November 2017, a court reinstated the original verdict and authorities took Al-Basham back into custody.  The semigovernmental Oman Human Rights Commission, which followed the case closely, stated he lost his appeal and was subsequently imprisoned in accordance with the law.

According to international human rights advocacy organizations, on June 13, in connection with Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s Eid al-Fitr amnesty, authorities released writer and online activist Abdullah Habib.  He had served three months of a six-month sentence for violating the Information Technology Crimes Act by “using internet technology … to prejudice public order or religious values” and the penal code for “insulting an Abrahamic religion.”  In April the Muscat Appeals Court suspended the remaining two and one-half years of his sentence but prohibited him from traveling outside the country during that time.  According to the media advocacy group PEN America, during his imprisonment, authorities denied Habib regular access to his medication.

According to religious leaders, the MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics.  Imams were required to preach sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters, which the government distributed monthly, with outlines of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams.  Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring.  The government-appointed grand mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside of the designated government parameters.

Religious groups continued to report issues with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, the MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration, and reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim.  Observers said the precise process remained vague, although there were reports the MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group.  According to the MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.

The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship, but church leaders said the government was working with the group to reach a solution.  Other religious minority groups reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, despite representing a significant population in Oman, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations.  Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship.  According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.

The MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis.  For example, several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country.  According to the media, in May during Ramadan, the MERA organized an event entitled “The Quran speaks to you” to inform non-Muslims about Islam.

Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership.  Religious groups did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship.  The government also continued to require religious groups to notify the MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to the MERA.  Religious minority leaders said that in practice the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval and that non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all religious sites in the country.

Although the Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation, in practice the civil code continued to have precedence over sharia, consistent with the replacement of sharia courts by civil courts in 1999 with passage of the Judicial Authority Law.  Under this law, judicial outcomes reached under sharia jurisprudence could not contradict civil statutes.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

There is no law stating religious affiliation is tied to custody, but according to legal contacts, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings.

The government, through the MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), an annual periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Government Practices

Hasan Al-Basham, a former diplomat who had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in 2016 for what NGOs based outside the country reported were charges of “using the internet in what might be prejudicial to religious values” in his comments on social media, died in prison in April.  NGOs based outside the country had previously reported he had won an appeal on medical grounds to commute his sentence, but, according to the NGOs, in November 2017, a court reinstated the original verdict and authorities took Al-Basham back into custody.  The semigovernmental Oman Human Rights Commission, which followed the case closely, stated he lost his appeal and was subsequently imprisoned in accordance with the law.

According to international human rights advocacy organizations, on June 13, in connection with Sultan Qaboos bin Said’s Eid al-Fitr amnesty, authorities released writer and online activist Abdullah Habib.  He had served three months of a six-month sentence for violating the Information Technology Crimes Act by “using internet technology … to prejudice public order or religious values” and the penal code for “insulting an Abrahamic religion.”  In April the Muscat Appeals Court suspended the remaining two and one-half years of his sentence but prohibited him from traveling outside the country during that time.  According to the media advocacy group PEN America, during his imprisonment, authorities denied Habib regular access to his medication.

According to religious leaders, the MERA continued to monitor sermons at mosques to ensure imams did not discuss political topics.  Imams were required to preach sermons within politically and socially acceptable parameters, which the government distributed monthly, with outlines of acceptable topics along with standardized and approved Friday sermons for Ibadhi and Sunni imams.  Mosques under the purview of the Diwan (Royal Court), such as the Grand Mosque in Muscat, were not subject to this monitoring.  The government-appointed grand mufti, the senior Ibadhi cleric in the country, remained the only imam able to speak publicly outside of the designated government parameters.

Religious groups continued to report issues with opaque processes and unclear guidelines for registration.  While no published rules, regulations, or criteria existed for new religious groups to receive ministerial approval, the MERA reportedly considered a group’s size, theology, belief system, and availability of other worship opportunities before granting registration, and reportedly employed the same criteria whether the group was Muslim or non-Muslim.  Observers said the precise process remained vague, although there were reports the MERA consulted with existing religious communities before ruling on the application of a new religious group.  According to the MERA, there was no limit on the number of religious groups it could register.

The Church of Jesus Christ remained without a registration sponsor or a permanent place of worship, but church leaders said the government was working with the group to reach a solution.  Other religious minority groups reported they did not have permanent independent places of worship as recognized groups, despite representing a significant population in Oman, primarily of expatriate workers.

Non-Muslims who worshipped in private homes continued to say the government did not interfere with Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, and other religious groups in their regular private worship services despite continuing legal prohibitions on worship outside of government-approved locations.  Non-Muslim minority groups continued to report overcrowding at their places of worship.  According to some religious leaders, space limitations also caused overcrowding at some private homes used for non-Islamic worship.

The MERA approved major religious celebrations for non-Muslim groups in commercial or public areas on a case-by-case basis.  For example, several Hindu groups held large religious celebrations in indoor and outdoor venues throughout the country.  According to the media, in May during Ramadan, the MERA organized an event entitled “The Quran speaks to you” to inform non-Muslims about Islam.

Religious groups said that, consistent with the government’s censorship policy mandating prior review of any published material, religious groups continued to need MERA approval to publish texts in the country or disseminate religious publications outside their membership.  Religious groups did not attempt, however, to share material with members of the public outside their places of worship.  The government also continued to require religious groups to notify the MERA before importing religious materials and to submit a copy to the MERA.  Religious minority leaders said that in practice the ministry did not review all imported religious material for approval and that non-Muslims were often able to import literature without government scrutiny.

The government provided land for all religious sites in the country.

Although the Basic Law states sharia is the basis for legislation, in practice the civil code continued to have precedence over sharia, consistent with the replacement of sharia courts by civil courts in 1999 with passage of the Judicial Authority Law.  Under this law, judicial outcomes reached under sharia jurisprudence could not contradict civil statutes.

The government continued to fund the salaries of some Ibadhi and Sunni imams, but Shia or non-Muslim religious leaders were privately funded.

There is no law stating religious affiliation is tied to custody, but according to legal contacts, judges often considered the religiosity of a Muslim parent during custody hearings.

The government, through the MERA, continued to publish Al-Tafahum (Understanding), an annual periodical whose purpose, according to the government, was to broaden dialogue within Islam and promote respectful discussion with other faiths.

According to religious minority leaders, the Royal Oman Police collected religious affiliation information from expatriates applying for work visas.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Although not prohibited by law, according to some minority religious leaders, conversion from Islam was viewed extremely negatively within the Muslim community.  Several Arabic-language Omani newspapers featured cartoons depicting anti-Semitic imagery when criticizing the Israeli government.  Social media commentary regarding the Israeli government, especially after the October visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman, sometimes took an anti-Semitic tone.

The interfaith Al-Amana Center, which was founded and supported by the Reformed Church in America, a Protestant denomination, continued to sponsor programs to promote interreligious dialogue and understanding between Christians and Muslims.  It hosted ongoing immersion courses in conjunction with the MERA to introduce Islam to Protestant seminary students from different denominations.  The center also worked closely with the MERA to promote interfaith dialogue.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officers met with MERA officials to encourage the government to continue its outreach efforts promoting religious tolerance and interfaith dialogue, and discussed its efforts to counter violent extremism related to religion.  Embassy officers also raised concerns about overcrowding at minority religion places of worship and encouraged the MERA to find a solution for religious groups seeking officially sanctioned space for worship.

In November the Ambassador hosted a lunch with leaders of religious minority communities to encourage those communities to engage with each other and to listen to each other’s experiences working with the government.  The Ambassador attended a Hindu religious event and engaged with Hindu community members, and hosted Jewish holiday services at his residence.  Embassy officers met with minority religious groups and supported efforts to promote interfaith understanding across all religious groups.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

According to the 1992 Basic Law of Governance, the country’s official religion is Islam and the constitution is the Quran and Sunna (traditions and practices based on the life of the Prophet Muhammad).  The legal system is based largely on sharia as interpreted within the Hanbali School of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence.  Freedom of religion is not provided under the law.  The government does not allow the public practice of any non-Muslim religion.  The law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  The law criminalizes “the promotion of atheistic ideologies in any form,” “any attempt to cast doubt on the fundamentals of Islam,” publications that “contradict the provisions of Islamic law,” and other acts including non-Islamic public worship, public display of non-Islamic religious symbols, conversion by a Muslim to another religion, and proselytizing by a non-Muslim.  In March UN experts said 15 Shia were convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism and were facing execution after legal processes that human rights organizations deemed lacking in fair trial guarantees and transparency.  In January the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  A December report by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism expressed concern at the “systemic repression against the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shia population lives.”  Charges announced by the government during the year for prominent clerics, religious scholars, and academics, reportedly detained in September 2017, include alleged connections to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) or MB-affiliated groups.  The government continued to censor or block some religion-related content in the media, including social media and the internet.  The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (CPVPV, commonly known outside the country as the “religious police”) monitored social behavior to encourage obedience to laws and regulations protecting “public morals.”  Many observers noted a continued decreased public presence of CPVPV officers in major cities, with the exception of Mecca and Medina, and fewer reports of CPVPV harassment.  On March 4, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.  On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.  Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  In addition, terms such as “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.

Embassy, consulate general, and other U.S. government officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority Muslim and non-Muslim religious practices and beliefs.  In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Islamic Affairs (MOIA), and other relevant ministries and agencies, senior embassy and consulate officials continued to raise and discuss reports of abuses of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detentions, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  Embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained and imprisoned individuals and discuss religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia Muslims and citizens who no longer considered themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia 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.  Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the country’s total population at 33 million (July 2018 estimate), including more than 12 million foreign residents.  Between 85 and 90 percent of the approximately 20 million citizens are Sunni Muslims.

Shia Muslims constitute 10 to 12 percent of the citizen population.  Approximately 80 percent of Shia are “Twelvers” (Shiites who recognize 12 imams) and are primarily located in the Eastern Province.  Nakhawala, or “Medina Shia,” are also Twelvers and reside in small numbers in the western Hejaz region.  Estimates place their numbers at approximately 1,000.  Twelver Shia adhere to the Ja’afari School of jurisprudence.  Most of the remaining Shia are Sulaimani Ismailis, also known as “Seveners” (those who branched off from the Twelvers to follow Isma’il ibn Ja’afar as the Seventh Imam).  Seveners number approximately 500,000 and reside primarily in Najran Province, where they constitute the majority of the province’s inhabitants.  Another branch of Sevener Shia, the Bohra Ismailis, number approximately 2,000, most of whom are of Yemeni or South Asian origin.  Pockets of Zaydis, members of another branch of Shia Islam, numbering a total of approximately 20,000, reside primarily in the provinces of Jizan and Najran along the border with Yemen.

Foreign embassies indicate the foreign population in the country, including many undocumented migrants, is mostly Muslim.  According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, of the country’s total population (including foreigners), there were approximately 25.5 million Muslims, 1.2 million Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics); 310,000 Hindus; 180,000 religiously unaffiliated (including atheists, agnostics, and individuals who did not identify with any particular religion); 90,000 Buddhists; 70,000 followers of folk religions; and 70,000 adherents of other religions.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The Basic Law of Governance establishes the country as a sovereign Arab Islamic state in which Islam is the official religion.  The Basic Law says sharia is the “foundation of the Kingdom” and states the country’s constitution is the Quran and the Sunna.  The Basic Law contains no legal recognition or protection of freedom of religion.  Conversion from Islam to another religion is grounds for the charge of apostasy, which is legally punishable by death, although courts have not carried out a death sentence for apostasy in recent years.

Blasphemy against Islam may also be legally punishable by death, but courts have not sentenced individuals to death for blasphemy in recent years.  Punishments for blasphemy may include lengthy prison sentences and lashings.  Criticism of Islam, including expression deemed offensive to Muslims, is forbidden on the grounds of preserving social stability.

The 2017 counterterrorism law criminalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the King or Crown Prince.”  By year’s end, authorities had not yet issued new implementation regulations, and the implementation regulations of the 2014 counterterrorism law remained in effect.  Those regulations criminalize “calling for atheist thought in any form, or calling into question the fundamentals of the Islamic religion.”  The right to access legal representation for those accused of violating the counterterrorism law is limited; according to the law, “the Public Prosecutor may, at the investigative stage, restrict this right whenever the interests of the investigation so require.”  There is no right to access government-held evidence.

The Basic Law states the duty of every citizen is to defend Islam, society, and the homeland.  Non-Muslims must convert to Islam before they are eligible to naturalize.  The law requires applicants for citizenship to attest to being Muslim and to obtain a certificate documenting their religious affiliation endorsed by a Muslim religious authority.  Children born to Muslim fathers are deemed Muslim by law.

The country is the home of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites.  The government prohibits non-Muslims from entering central Mecca or religious sites in Medina.  Muslims visit the cities on the annual Hajj pilgrimage and on the Umrah pilgrimage.  The government has stated that caring for the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is a sacred trust exercised on behalf of all Muslims.  The country’s sovereign employs the official title of “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques,” in reference to the two cities.  The government also establishes national quotas for foreigners and issues permits to Muslim residents (including its own nationals) to participate in the Hajj.

Clerics are vetted and employed by the MOIA.  Only government-employed clerics are permitted to deliver sermons, which must be vetted by MOIA in advance.

Since 2016 Saudi-based clerics traveling abroad for proselytization activities must first obtain the permission of MOIA.  The stated purpose of the regulation is to limit the ability of religious scholars to travel, particularly those the government regards as having questionable credentials, and to prevent the appearance of interference, or actual interference, by Saudi-based clerics in the domestic affairs of other states.

Public school students at all levels receive mandatory religious instruction based on Sunni Islam according to the Hanbali School of jurisprudence.  Private schools are not permitted to deviate from the official, government-approved religious curriculum.  Private international schools are required to teach Saudi students and Muslim students of other nationalities an Islamic studies course, while non-Muslim, non-Saudi students sometimes receive a course on Islamic civilization, or else “free time” in place of the curriculum designed for Saudi students; both courses amount to one hour of instruction per week.  Private international schools may also teach courses on other religions or civilizations.

The CPVPV is a semiautonomous government agency with authority to monitor social behavior and report violations of moral standards consistent with the government’s policy and in coordination with law enforcement authorities.  A 2016 decree limited the CPVPV’s activities to only providing counseling and reporting individuals suspected of violating the law to the police.  CPVPV field officers do not wear uniforms, but are required to wear identification badges and legally may only act in their official capacity when accompanied by regular police.  The CPVPV’s purview includes discouraging and reporting public and private contact between unrelated men and women (gender mixing); practicing or displaying emblems of non-Islamic faiths or failing to respect Islam; “immodest” dress, especially for women; displaying or selling media contrary to Islam, including pornography; producing, distributing, or consuming alcohol; venerating places or celebrating events inconsistent with approved Islamic practices; practicing “sorcery” or “black magic”; and committing, facilitating, or promoting acts, publications, or thoughts considered lewd or morally degenerate, including adultery, homosexuality, and gambling.  The CPVPV reports to the king through the Council of Ministers, and the Ministry of Interior (MOI) oversees its operations on the king’s behalf.

The judicial system is based on laws largely derived from the Quran and the Sunna, developed by fatwas issued by the 21-person Council of Senior Scholars (CSS) that reports to the king, and other royal laws and ordinances.  The Basic Law states governance is based on justice, shura (consultation), and equality according to sharia and further identifies the Quran and the Sunna as the sources for fatwas.  The law specifies a hierarchical organization and composition of the CSS, the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings (ifta), and the Office of the Mufti, together with their functions.  The Basic Law recognizes the CSS, supported by the Permanent Committee for Scholarly Research and Religious Rulings, as the supreme authority on religious matters.  The CSS is headed by the grand mufti and is composed of Sunni religious scholars and jurists, 18 of whom are from the Hanbali school of jurisprudence, with one representative of each of the other Sunni schools (Malaki, Hanafi, and Shafi’i).  There are no Shia members.  Scholars are chosen at the king’s discretion and serve renewable four-year terms, with many serving for life.

The country’s legal architecture does not derive from a common law system, and judges are not bound by legal precedent.  In the absence of a comprehensive criminal code, rulings and sentences can diverge widely.  Criminal appeals may be made to the appellate and Supreme courts, although appellate decisions sometimes result in a harsher sentence than the original court decision.  Government universities provide training in all four Sunni schools of jurisprudence, but with a focus on the Hanbali school.

In legal cases involving accidental death or injury, compensation differs according to the religious affiliation of the plaintiff.  In the event a court renders a judgment in favor of a plaintiff who is a Jewish or Christian male, the plaintiff is entitled to receive 50 percent of the compensation a Muslim male would receive; other non-Muslims may only receive one-sixteenth the amount a male Muslim would receive.

Judges have been observed to discount the testimony of Muslims whom they deemed deficient in their knowledge of Islam, and to favor the testimony of Muslims over the testimony of non-Muslims.  Under the government’s interpretation of the Quran, judges may place the value of a woman’s testimony at half that of a man’s in certain cases.

The Basic Law requires the state to protect human rights in accordance with sharia.  The Human Rights Commission (HRC), a government entity, is tasked with protecting, enhancing, and ensuring implementation of international human rights standards “in light of the provisions of sharia,” and regularly follows up on citizen complaints.  There are no formal requirements regarding the composition of the HRC; during the year, the commission had approximately 28 members from various parts of the country, including two Shia members.

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

Government Practices

There were reports of prison authorities abusing Shia prisoners, including one incident leading to death.  Online media and NGOs reported in March that Ahmed Attia, a Shia activist deported to the country from Bahrain in January, reportedly suffered memory loss as a result of physical abuse while in detention in Dammam prison.  Shia Rights Watch (SRW) also reported the March 13 death of 61-year-old Haj Ali Jassim Nazia as a result of physical abuse in prison.

Some human rights organizations stated convictions of Shia on security charges, including several carrying the death penalty, stemming from 2017-18 clashes were motivated by sectarianism, while the government stated the individuals were investigated, prosecuted, and sentenced as a result of security-related crimes and in accordance with the law.  On March 15, UN experts said 15 individuals convicted of spying for Iran and financing terrorism were facing imminent execution after their sentences were referred to the Royal Court for ratification by the king.  The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced the 15 individuals, all of whom were Shia, to death in December 2016 and further court rulings in July and December 2017 upheld the sentences.  Human rights organizations widely decried the legal process as not heeding international standards for fair trial guarantees and transparency.  At the end of the year, the government had not carried out the sentences.

International NGOs stated they were unable to obtain any information on the status of Ahmad al-Shammari, who had reportedly been sentenced to death for charges related to apostasy in April 2017, and was believed still to be incarcerated.  It was unknown whether any appeals in his case remained pending.

On January 4, the SCC sentenced prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Mohammed al-Habib to seven years in prison after the Public Prosecution’s objection to his 2017 acquittal.  The ruling overturned a previous verdict issued by the SCC in July 2017, acquitting al-Habib of the charges of inciting sedition and sectarianism, incitement against the rulers, and defaming religious scholars.  According to human rights groups, authorities detained al-Habib in response to his public statements urging the government to address anti-Shia sectarianism, including in the educational curriculum, and criticizing government clerics who had espoused anti-Shia views.

In August the public prosecutor announced charges against six Shia activists, including female activist Israa al-Ghomgham, from the Eastern Province arrested between September 2015 and April 2016 based on the Islamic law principle of ta’zir, in which the judge has discretion over the definition of what constitutes a crime and over the sentence.  The charges include “instigating riotous gatherings” in Qatif, “joining a terrorist organization linked to an enemy state,” “chanting anti-government slogans,” and “providing moral support for those rioting and instigating sectarian strife.”  According to HRW, the SCC in the Qatif region was the venue for the defendants’ trial.  There were no updates on the case at year’s end.

Up to 34 individuals, all believed to be Shia, faced the possibility of execution as they awaited implementation orders for death sentences already confirmed by the Supreme Court for their roles in protests in the Qatif area of the Eastern Province in 2011 and 2012, according to human rights organizations.  Up to nine of these persons – including Ali al-Nimr (the nephew of Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in 2016), Dawood al-Marhoon, Abdullah al-Zaher, Abdulkareem al-Hawaj, and Mujtaba al-Sweikat – may have been minors at the time they committed the acts for which they were convicted; however, the government disputed these claims, noting the courts and sharia system use the hijri (lunar/Islamic) calendar for age computations.  Human rights organizations said many of the convictions were based on confessions extracted through prolonged solitary confinement and torture.  Many of these individuals alleged authorities tortured them during pretrial detention and interrogation.  Local Shia activists and international human rights groups questioned the competence, independence, and impartiality of the judiciary, and noted that the underlying charges were inconsistent with international principles of freedom of assembly, expression, and association.

The government continued to imprison individuals accused of apostasy and blasphemy, violating Islamic values and moral standards, insulting Islam, black magic, and sorcery.

On June 7, police arrested Vishnu Dev Radhakrishnan, an Indian national and employee of the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (also known as Saudi Aramco) for “cybercrime pertaining to blasphemy and spreading messages against the Kingdom through social media.”  Radhakrishnan allegedly sent messages on Twitter criticizing the Prophet Mohammed.  On September 13, a court sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment and a 150,000 riyal ($40,000) fine.

Raif Badawi remained in prison at the end of the year based on his 2013 conviction for violating Islamic values, violating sharia, committing blasphemy, and mocking religious symbols on the internet.  Originally sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes in 2013, a court increased Badawi’s sentence on appeal to a 10-year prison term and 1,000 lashes.  By year’s end, the government had not carried out the remaining 950 lashes.

At year’s end, the status of Ahmad al-Shammari’s appeal of his death sentence following his 2017 conviction on charges related to apostasy was unknown.  According to media reports, Shammari allegedly posted videos to social media accounts in which he renounced Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.

In September the SCC opened trials against some clerics, academics, and members of the media for alleged association with the MB.  The accused included prominent Muslim scholars Salman al-Odah, Awad al-Qarni, and Ali al-Omari.  The three were arrested in September 2017.  The public prosecutor reportedly sought the death penalty against them.  The public prosecutor leveled 37 charges against al-Odah, the vast majority of which were connected to his alleged ties with the MB and Qatari government, and his public support for imprisoned dissidents.  In reviewing some of the specific charges, HRW noted, “The initial charges are mostly related to his alleged ties to the MB and other organizations supposedly connected to it.”  None referred to specific acts of violence or incitement to acts of violence, according to a HRW statement on September 12.  The 30 charges against al-Omari included “forming a youth organization to carry out the objectives of a terrorist group inside the Kingdom.”  The government continued to regard the MB as a terrorist organization.

Authorities are reported to have arrested cleric Abdelaziz al-Fawzan in July after he spoke out against the arrests of other religious leaders in the country, according to the website Middle Eastern Eye.  The Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account reported that Fawzan, a professor of comparative religious law at the Saudi Higher Institute of Justice, had been arrested over a tweet in which he had “expressed his opinion against the suppression of sheikhs and preachers.”

According to Reuters, the government detained influential religious scholar Safar al-Hawali and three of his sons in July, widening an apparent crackdown against clerics, intellectuals, and rights campaigners.  Al-Hawali, often linked to the MB, rose to prominence 25 years ago as a leader of the Sahwa [Awakening] movement, which agitated to bring democracy to the country and criticized the ruling family for corruption, social liberalization, and working with the West.  Authorities reportedly transferred al-Hawali to a hospital in September after his health deteriorated.

In August multiple media outlets reported that the government detained Saleh al-Talib, an imam and preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca, after he reportedly delivered a sermon on the duty in Islam to speak out against the spread of vice.

In September social media and activist websites reported on the suspension or detention of Mecca Grand Mosque imams.  Khalid bin Ali al-Ghamdi was reportedly suspended and ordered to refrain from preaching or engaging in Islamic da’wa (religious outreach).  No reason was announced for the suspension.  Sheikh Faisal bin Jameel al-Ghazawi was reportedly suspended from his position at the Mecca Grand Mosque.  Al-Ghazawi was reportedly also barred from all preaching and da’wa activities.  A third Mecca Grand Mosque imam, Sheikh Bandar Abdulaziz Balila, was reportedly detained by security forces for four days for unknown reasons.

In October the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged cleric Hassan Farhan al-Maliki with calling into question the fundamentals of Islam by casting doubt on prophetic Sunna and hadith (the record of the traditions or sayings of the Prophet Mohammad), propagating deviant beliefs, holding an impure (takfiri) ideology, insulting the rulers and CSS and labelling them as extremists, glorifying the Khomeini-led revolution in Iran, and supporting Hizballah and ISIS, among other charges.  He remained in detention waiting a second trial at year’s end.

On July 2, authorities detained Zuhair Hussein Bu Saleh to implement a prior sentence of two months imprisonment and 60 lashes for practicing congregational prayers at his house due to the lack of Shia mosques in the Eastern Province, according to the international NGO European Saudi Organization for Human Rights.  Bu Saleh was previously arrested in 2015 for “calling for unauthorized gatherings,” and the government closed the prayer hall he supervised.

In August authorities referred cleric Ali Al-Rabieei for prosecution for allegedly tweeting sectarian and anti-Shia content, according to media reports.  Al-Rabieei subsequently apologized for this tweet and reportedly fled abroad.

In August the public prosecutor ordered the arrest of a man who appeared in a video carrying machine guns and threatening to kill Shia citizens in Najran, in the southern part of the country.

According to Shia groups that track arrests and convictions of Shia, more than 300 persons remained in detention in prisons throughout the Eastern Province and additional individuals remained subject to travel bans.  Authorities had arrested more than 1,000 Eastern Province Shia since 2011 in connection with public protests demanding greater rights for Shia, including acts of violence, according to NGO reports.  Most were held on charges involving nonviolent offenses, including participating in or publicizing protests on social media, inciting unrest in the country, and insulting the king.

SRW reported in April government forces raided a Shia prayer hall in Qatif, arresting three men.  According to SRW, the forces also surrounded multiple neighborhoods in Qatif, setting up checkpoints and restricting entry to and departure from the areas.  SRW also reported that authorities arrested a teenage female Shia activist, Nour Said Al-Musallam, for tweets critical of the government.

The UK newspaper The Independent reported that social media users who posted or shared satire attacking religion faced imprisonment for up to five years under strict new laws introduced in the country.  Those found guilty of distributing content online deemed to disrupt public order or disturb religious values would also be subject to a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), the country’s public prosecutor’s office said in a statement on Twitter:  “Producing and distributing content that ridicules, mocks, provokes and disturbs public order, religious values and public morals through social media will be considered a cybercrime.”

A December report by the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, issued after a visit to the country in April and May, stated “The special rapporteur is further concerned at the pattern of systematic repression in the country’s Eastern Province, where the majority Shi’a population resides.  The Special Rapporteur has received credible allegations that many individuals protesting against repression of the Shia have been detained.  Their cases are currently making their way through the Specialized Criminal Court (SCC).  Many of these individuals were reportedly peaceful protesters, simply asking for increased religious freedoms, equal rights for the Shi’a community and political reform.  Some have been convicted for the expression of their political views; some for coordinating protests through social media; and some even for providing first aid to protesters.  In this process, a number of individuals who were under the age of criminal responsibility at the time they committed the alleged offences have now been sentenced to death.  Others have already been executed.”

Human rights organizations and legal experts continued to criticize antiterrorism laws for using overly broad and vague language, making them susceptible to politicization and other abuse.

The government continued to prohibit the public practice of any non-Islamic religions.  According to civil society sources and media reports, non-Muslims and many foreign and local Muslims whose religious practices differed from the form of Sunni Islam promoted by the government could only practice their religion in private and remained vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation.

The MOIA maintained active oversight of the country’s religious establishment and provided guidance on the substance of Friday sermons and restricted the inclusion of content in those sermons it considered sectarian or political, promoting hatred or racism, or including commentary on foreign policy.  Mosques continued to be the only legally permissible public places of worship.  The government continued to address ideology it deemed extremist by scrutinizing clerics and teachers closely and dismissing those found promoting views it deemed intolerant, extreme, or advocating violence abroad, including in Syria and Iraq.  The MOIA continued to use ministry inspectors, regional branch inspectors, field teams, citizen feedback, and the media to monitor and address any violations of the ministry’s instructions and regulations in mosques.  MOIA oversight of mosques in less populated areas was not always as strict as it was in urban areas.  In July the MOIA created a hotline for individuals to call in and report on statements by imams that observers considered objectionable.  In August Minister of Islamic Affairs Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh announced the ministry was developing a mobile phone app which would monitor sermons and allow mosque-goers to rate their preacher on a number of aspects of their work content and length.  According to a BBC report in August, the government was engaged in deliberations on the reform of religious teachings and in a debate on unifying the content of sermons to steer people away from “foreign, partisan, or Muslim Brotherhood” thought.

Practices diverging from the government’s official interpretation of Islam, such as public celebrations of Mawlid al-Nabi (the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad) and visits to the tombs of renowned Muslims, remained forbidden.

While authorities indicated they considered members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to be Muslims, the group’s legal status remained unclear, and the mainly foreign resident Ahmadi Muslims reportedly hid their faith to avoid scrutiny, arrest, or deportation.

In March MOIA official Hashem bin Mohammed al-Barzanji referred to Shia as “rejectionists” in a tweet.

Since 2016, authorities permitted large-scale public commemorations of Ashura and other Shia holidays in Qatif, Eastern Province, home to the largest Shia population in the country.  As a result of several 2015 ISIS-inspired or directed attacks on Shia gathering places in the Eastern Province, there was again a significant deployment of government security personnel in the Qatif area during the Ashura commemoration in September.  According to community members, processions and gatherings appeared to increase over previous years due to decreased political tensions and greater coordination between the Shia community and authorities.

According to members of the expatriate community, some Christian congregations were able to conduct large Christian worship services discreetly and regularly without substantial interference from the CPVPV or other government authorities.

The government stated that individuals who experienced infringements on their ability to worship privately could address their grievances to the MOI, HRC, the National Society for Human Rights (a quasi-governmental organization), and, when appropriate, the MFA.  Religious groups reported, however, that officials typically charged those arrested during private worship services with gender-mixing, playing music, or other infractions not explicitly related to religious observance.  There were again no known reports of individuals contacting these or other governmental agencies for redress when their ability to worship privately was infringed.

According to government policy, non-Muslims were prohibited from being buried in the country.  There was, however, at least one public, non-Islamic cemetery in Jeddah, although the government did not support it financially.  The only other known non-Muslim cemetery was private and only available to Saudi Aramco employees.  Diplomatic missions reported most non-Muslims opted to repatriate their deceased to their home countries whenever financially possible.

Authorities generally required Shia mosques to use the Sunni call to prayer, including in mixed neighborhoods of both Sunni and Shia residents.  In some predominantly Shia areas of al-Ahsa Governorate in the Eastern Province, authorities allowed Shia mosques to use the Shia call to prayer.  In smaller Shia villages where there was virtually no CPVPV presence, reports indicated it was common for Shia businesses to close for three prayer times (not five times per Sunnis practice), or not at all.

The government continued to set policy aimed at enforcing Islamic norms; for example, the government threatened to expel foreigners who did not refrain from eating, drinking, or smoking in public during Ramadan.  According to media reports, it prohibited parents from giving their children any of 50 listed names deemed blasphemous, non-Arabic, or non-Islamic.

The CPVPV continued to monitor social behavior and promote official standards of morality, although instances of CPVPV interactions with individuals reportedly decreased significantly in most urban areas, such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam.

The government did not recognize certificates of educational attainment for graduates of some Shia religious centers of instruction or provide them employment benefits, which the government provided to graduates of Sunni religious training institutions.

The government continued a multi-year project, begun in 2007, to revise textbooks, curricula, and teaching methods with the stated aim of removing content disparaging religions other than Islam.  The project continued as part of the government’s Vision 2030 development and reform plan announced in April 2016.  The government continued to distribute revised textbooks, although intolerant material remained in circulation, including older versions of textbooks, particularly at the high school level, that contained language disparaging Christians and Jews.  Content included statements justifying the execution of “sorcerers” and social exclusion of non-Muslims, as well as statements that Jews, Christians, Shia Muslims, and Sufi Muslims did not properly adhere to monotheism.  In September Human Rights Watch reported some school textbooks continued to employ biased, anti-Semitic, and anti-Shia language.  Some teachers reportedly continued to express intolerance of other faiths and of alternative viewpoints regarding Islam.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) issued a report on textbooks in November, entitled “Teaching Hate and Violence:  Problematic Passages from Saudi State Textbooks for the 2018-19 School Year.”  The report found that school textbooks for the 2018-19 academic year contained “dozens of troubling passages that clearly propagate incitement to hatred or violence against Jews, Christians, Shi’ite Muslims, women, homosexual men, and anybody who mocks or converts away from Islam.”  In its press release announcing the report, the ADL stated “The Saudi curriculum is replete with intolerant passages about Jews and Judaism; some passages even urge violence against Jews.  Others retread classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and assert conspiracy theories about alleged Jewish and Israeli plots to attack the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.”

Some travelers entering the country reported they were able to import a Bible for personal use, but the government regularly exercised its ability to inspect and confiscate personal non-Islamic religious materials.

Some academic experts reported the government continued to exclude perspectives at variance with the Salafi tradition within Sunni Islam from its extensive government-owned religious media and broadcast programming.

The CPVPV, in coordination with the Information and Communication Technologies Authority, continued to block certain websites as part of a broader policy of censoring online content that reportedly contained “objectionable” content and “ill-informed” views of religion.  The CPVPV shut down or blocked Twitter accounts for users “committing religious and ethical violations,” and authorities arrested an undisclosed number of social media users in accordance with the anticybercrimes law.  The government also reportedly located and shut down websites used to recruit jihadis or inspire violence.  In 2017 authorities announced they unblocked the calling features of certain private messenger apps, including Viber, FaceTime, and Facebook Messenger.  Some users reported that the calling features of WhatsApp and Skype still remained blocked, however.

The government financially supported approximately 70 percent of Sunni mosques, while the remaining 30 percent were at private residences or were built and endowed by private persons.  The construction of any new mosque required the permission of the MOIA, the local municipality, and the provincial government, which allocated space and issued building permits.  The MOIA supervised and financed the construction and maintenance of most Sunni mosques, including the hiring of clerical workers.

Shia Muslims managed their own mosques under the supervision of Shia scholars.  Most existing Shia mosques in the Eastern Province did not seek official operating licenses, as doing so would require asking the government to extend its explicit endorsement of these mosques, according to some NGO reports.  The government did not finance the construction or maintenance of Shia mosques.  Authorities prohibited Shia Muslims outside of the Eastern Province from building Shia-specific mosques.  Construction of Shia mosques required government approval, and Shia communities were required to receive permission from their neighbors to start construction on mosques.  Two Shia mosques in Dammam remained licensed by the government and served approximately 750,000 worshippers.  According to NGO reports, construction of Shia mosques was not approved outside Shia enclave areas.  There continued to be no licensed Shia mosques in major urban centers such as Jeddah, Riyadh, or al-Khobar.  Shia in those areas were therefore forced to hold prayers in private homes and community centers, where some Shia said they were subject to police harassment.  Expatriate Shia reported threats of arrest and deportation if they gathered privately in large groups to worship and were detected by authorities.

Following ISIS attacks against Shia mosques and gathering places in 2015, security services continued to provide protection for many Shia mosques and gathering places in the Eastern Province.  Additionally, media and other sources reported coordination between Shia volunteers and government security services to ensure security outside mosques and other gathering places during Friday sermons or other large public events.

Multiple reports from Shia groups cited discrimination in the judicial system as the catalyst for lengthy prison sentences handed down to Shia Muslims for engaging in political expression or organizing peaceful demonstrations.  The government permitted Shia judges in the Eastern Province to use the Ja’afari School of Islamic jurisprudence to adjudicate cases in family law, inheritance, and endowment management.  There were five Shia judges, all government-appointed, located in the Eastern Province cities of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where the majority of Twelver Shia live.  According to a Human Rights Watch report issued in September “the Saudi judicial system…often subjects Saudi Shia to discriminatory treatment or arbitrary criminalization of Shia religious practices.”

Reported instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur with respect to educational and public sector employment opportunities.  Shia stated they experienced systemic government discrimination in hiring.  There was no formal policy concerning the hiring and promotion of Shia in the private sector, but some Shia stated that public universities and employers discriminated against them, occasionally by identifying an applicant for education or employment as Shia simply by inquiring about the applicant’s hometown.  Many Shia reportedly stated that openly identifying as Shia would negatively affect career advancement.

Although Shia constituted approximately 10 to 12 percent of the total citizen population and at least one-quarter of the Eastern Province’s population, representation of Shia Muslims in senior government positions continued to be well below their proportion of the population, including in national security-related positions in the Ministry of Defense, the National Guard, and the MOI.  In contrast with previous years, the 35-member cabinet contained one Shia minister.  There were no Shia governors, deputy governors, or ministry branch directors in the Eastern Province.  There were five Shia members of the 150-member Shura Council.  A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies.

Multiple municipal councils in the Eastern Province, where most Shia were concentrated, had large proportions of Shia as members, including in the two major Shia population centers of Qatif and al-Ahsa, where five of the 12 government-appointed municipal council members were Shia, and Shia held 16 of the 30 elected seats on the municipal councils.  Eastern Province Shia judges dealing with intra-Shia personal status and family laws operated specialized courts.  Shia were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard.  According to an article published in September by both Foreign Policy magazine and HRW, “Shiite students are generally kept out of military and security academies, and they rarely find jobs within the security force.”  In predominantly Shia areas, there was some Shia representation in the ranks of the traffic police, municipal government, and public schools.  Shiites are regularly denied access to justice, are arbitrarily arrested, and face discriminatory verdicts.  Scores of them have described the … religiously motivated charges they face in court, including the standard charges of “cursing God, the Prophet, or his companions.”

Shia were reportedly not represented in proportion to their percentage of the population in academic positions in primary, secondary, and higher education, and virtually all public school principals remained Sunni, while some teachers were Shia.  Along with Sunni students, Shia students received government scholarships to study in universities abroad under the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques Program for Foreign Scholarship.

There were continued media reports however, that some Sunni clerics, who received government stipends, used anti-Semitic, religiously intolerant language in their sermons.  Cases of government-employed clerics using anti-Semitic language in their sermons, including some instances at Friday prayers in Mecca, were rare and occurred without authorization by government authorities.  During the year, the ministry issued periodic circulars to clerics and imams in mosques directing them to include messages on the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance and to encourage rejection of bigotry and all forms of racial discrimination in their sermons.  According to the ministry, during the year, similar to the previous year, no clerics publicly espoused intolerant views warranting dismissal.  Unlicensed imams, however, continued to employ intolerant views in internet postings or unsanctioned sermons in areas without government monitoring.

The government’s stated policy remained for its diplomatic and consular missions abroad to inform foreign workers applying for visas that they had the right to worship privately and to possess personal religious materials.  The government also provided the names of offices where grievances could be filed.

The government required noncitizen legal residents to carry an identity card containing a religious designation of “Muslim” or “non-Muslim.”  Some residency cards, including some issued during the year, indicated other religious designations such as “Christian.”

The government did not formally permit most non-Muslim clergy to enter the country for the purpose of conducting religious services.  Entry restrictions made it difficult for non-Muslims to maintain regular contact with resident clergy, according to non-Muslim religious groups in neighboring countries.  This was reportedly particularly problematic for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, whose religious traditions require they receive sacraments from a priest on a regular basis.  Multiple press outlets reported that visiting Bishop Anba Morkos of Shoubra el-Kheima held the first Coptic Orthodox Mass in the country in December, in a private residence.

The country’s crown prince told The Atlantic in an April interview that he recognized the right of the Jewish people to have a nation-state of their own next to a Palestinian state.  According to the magazine, no Arab leader has ever acknowledged such a right.  In the interview, he also said that the Shia “are living normally” in the country.

According to NGO reports, Umm al-Qura University’s Department of Islamic Studies continued to teach a course on Judaism saying that Jews rely on three texts:  “The Torah, The Talmud, The Protocols of Zion.” (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is an anti-Semitic tract originally disseminated by the Czarist secret police alleging a Jewish plot aimed at world domination.)  In addition, the reports characterized the university’s course curriculum as heavily anti-Semitic, speaking of the “evil traits” of the Jewish people.

According to the ADL, state television hosted several   hour-long programs   during Ramadan featuring Saad al-Ateeq, a preacher who called   for God to “destroy  ” the Christians, Shia, Alawites, and Jews.  State television also featured Saleh al-Fawzan, who remained   a member of the CSS and was visited   in April by the crown prince, according to al-Arabiya.  The Economist previously reported that Fawzan claimed   ISIS was actually a creation of Jews, Christians, and Shia.  According to Human Rights Watch, he characterized Shia Muslims as “the brothers of Satan.”  According to the ADL, the government gave the honor   of delivering the Eid al-Fitr sermon in June at the Grand Mosque in Mecca to Saleh bin Humaid, who holds a seat   on the CSS.  Bin Humaid previously claimed   it was in Jews’ “nature” to “plot against the peoples of the world.”

According to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, anti-Semitic books including Mein Kampf were offered for sale at the Riyadh Book Fair.

During the year, some Qatari nationals reported being unable to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage due to logistical obstacles stemming from the border closures and restrictions imposed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Egypt on Qatar in 2017.  The government offered Qatari pilgrims internet registration and visa issuance on arrival in Jeddah.  Qatari nationals were purportedly also able to register for Hajj through third country governments.

Al-Monitor, a website covering news from the Middle East, reported in November that the government halted visa issuances to people who held temporary passports and no national identification.  This prevented Palestinians living in Jerusalem and the West Bank, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and elsewhere from traveling to perform religious rites, particularly the Hajj and Umrah.

In April, in the first visit to the country by a senior Catholic official, Chairman of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran met with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh to discuss the role of followers of religions and cultures in renouncing violence, extremism, and terrorism and achieving worldwide security and stability.  On March 4, the crown prince met publicly with Coptic Pope Tawadros II in Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral.

On November 1, the crown prince met with U.S. evangelical Christian figures in Riyadh.  Following the meeting, the group met with the government-sponsored Muslim World League’s (MWL) Secretary-General Mohammed al-Issa to discuss ways both parties could counter extremism and exchanged ideas on possible initiatives and programs to increase mutual respect at the grass roots level.  Al-Issa stated the meeting was an exchange to advance understanding and the message of a “moderate and tolerant Islam.”  On January 28, al-Issa wrote a public letter to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, calling the Holocaust “an incident that shook humanity to the core, and created an event whose horrors could not be denied or underrated by any fair-minded or peace-loving person.”  In October MWL representatives discussed religious cooperation with several non-Muslim religious community leaders including a prominent U.S. Jewish leader at the MWL-sponsored Cultural Rapprochement Between the US and the Muslim World conference in New York.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Instances of prejudice and discrimination against Shia Muslims continued to occur in private sector employment.  Social media provided an outlet for citizens to discuss current events and religious issues, which sometimes included making disparaging remarks about members of various religious groups or “sects.”  In addition, terms like “rejectionists,” which Shia considered insulting, were commonly found in public discourse.

Open Doors, an international NGO, reported that individuals who converted from Islam to Christianity almost always did so in secret, fearing the reactions of family members and the threat of criminal charges, up to and including execution.  Women in particular feared loss of parental rights or being subjected to physical abuse as a result of converting from Islam.

While discussion of sensitive topics on social media was frequent, according to Freedom House, “self-censorship [on social media] remained prevalent when discussing topics such as politics, religion, or the royal family.”

Anti-Semitic comments continued to appear in the media.  For example, in May the newspaper Al-Iqtisadiyya printed an editorial cartoon showing a grinding machine in the shape of the Star of David, grinding Gazans into skulls.

According to MEMRI.org, Abdulwahab al-Omari, a government-licensed imam in Bisha, preached in January that Jews would be turned into apes and pigs, and that on Judgment Day, they would be the soldiers of the Antichrist.  According to MEMRI.org’s translation, al-Omari said Jesus would descend before the Judgment Day, accept sharia, and pursue and kill the Antichrist.  The Muslims would then “pounce on the Jews and kill them.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Senior embassy and consulate general officials continued to press the government to respect religious freedom, eliminate discriminatory enforcement of laws against religious minorities, and promote respect and tolerance for minority religious practices and beliefs.  In discussions with the Human Rights Commission, members of the Shura Council, the MFA, MOIA, the government-funded Muslim World League, and other relevant ministries and agencies during the year, senior embassy and consulate officials raised reports of abuses and violations of religious freedom, arbitrary arrests and detention, the country’s counterterrorism law, and due process standards.  They also discussed the importance of respect for the rights of minorities and their religious practices.

Senior embassy and consulate officials continued to query the legal status of detained or imprisoned individuals and discussed religious freedom concerns, such as religious assembly and importation of religious materials, with members of religious minorities, including Shia and citizens who no longer consider themselves Muslims, as well as with non-Muslim foreign residents.

Since 2004, Saudi Arabia 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.  Most recently, on November 28, the Secretary of State redesignated Saudi Arabia as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompany designation as required in the important national interest of the United States pursuant to section 407 of the Act.