The constitution provides for the right, individually or jointly with others, to adhere to any religion or to no religion, and to participate in religious customs and ceremonies. The constitution says religious organizations shall be separate from the state and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” The constitution bans political parties based on religion. The law restricts Islamic prayer to specific locations, regulates the registration and location of mosques, and prohibits persons under 18 from participating in public religious activities. The government’s Committee on Religious Affairs, Regulation of National Traditions, Celebrations, and Ceremonies (CRA)’s has a very broad mandate that includes approving registration of religious associations, construction of houses of worship, participation of children in religious education, and the dissemination of religious literature. The government continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in what it considered to be “extremist” organizations, arresting or detaining more than 220 persons, primarily for membership in banned terrorist organizations and religious groups, including ISIS, “Salafis,” and Ansarrullah. Officials continued to prevent members of minority religious groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, from registering their organizations. Both registered and unregistered religious organizations continued to be subject to police raids, surveillance, and forced closures. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict by the government-supported Council of Ulema prohibiting women from praying at mosques. The government jailed a Protestant pastor in the northern part of the country for “extremism” for possessing “unauthorized” religious literature. Sources stated authorities attempted to “maintain total control of Muslim activity” in the country. The government adopted new laws on national dress that some government entities treated as a ban on hijabs. President Emomali Rahmon called on citizens to stop wearing hijabs and beards, and some municipal authorities continued a pattern of harassing women wearing hijabs and men with beards. Government officials issued statements discouraging women from wearing so-called “nontraditional or alien” clothing, including religious dress.
Citizens generally remained reluctant to discuss societal abuses or discrimination based on religious belief, and some individuals who converted from Islam reported they experienced social disapproval. In one case, a student declared she was an atheist on the internet and received largely negative responses and pressure to conform to national “norms” of belief.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy staff met with the government to encourage adherence to its international commitments to respect religious freedom. Embassy officers continued to raise concerns about government restrictions on religious practices, interference with peaceful religious activities, rejection of attempts of minority religions to register their organizations, harassment of those wearing religious attire, and limitations on the publication or importation of religious literature. The embassy also raised the lack of due process in the government’s prosecution of individuals on charges of “religious extremism.” Embassy officers met with religious leaders and civil society groups to address the same issues and discuss their concerns over government restrictions on the ability of minority religious groups to practice their religious beliefs freely.
Since 2016, Tajikistan 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. Most recently, on December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompanies designation as required in the important national interest of the United States.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 8.5 million (July 2017 estimate). According to local academics, the population is more than 90 percent Muslim and the majority adheres to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam. Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region located in the eastern part of the country.
Other religious minorities include Christians, a small number of Bahais, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jews. The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox; there are also Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, and other Protestants.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares the country a secular state and religious associations shall be separate from the state and “shall not interfere in state affairs.” According to the constitution, everyone has the right individually or jointly to adhere to any religion or no religion, and to take part in religious customs and ceremonies.
The law prohibits provoking religiously-based hatred, enmity, or conflict, as well as humiliating and harming the religious sentiments of other citizens.
The law defines extremism as the activities of individuals and organizations aimed at destabilization, subverting the constitutional order, or seizing power. This definition includes inciting religious hatred.
The law recognizes the “special status” of Sunni Islam’s Hanafi school of jurisprudence with respect to the country’s culture and spiritual life.
The law defines any group of persons who join together for religious purposes as a religious association. Associations formed for the aim of “conducting joint religious worship” are subdivided into religious organizations and religious communities. In order to operate legally, religious associations and organizations are required to register with the government, a process overseen by the CRA.
In order to register a religious organization, a group of at least 10 persons over the age of 18 must first obtain a certificate from local authorities confirming adherents of their religious faith have lived in the local area for at least five years. The group must then submit to the CRA proof of the citizenship of its founders, along with the home address and date of birth of each. The group must also provide an account of its beliefs and religious practices and describe its attitudes related to education, family, and marriage, and provide documentation on the health of its adherents. As part of its submission, a religious group must list its “national religious centers, central cathedral mosques (facilities built for Friday prayers), central jamoatkhona (prayer places), religious educational institutions, churches, synagogues, and other forms not contradicting the law.” The group must specify in its charter the activities it plans to undertake, and once registered as a religious organization, must report annually on its activities or face deregistration.
Religious communities include cathedral mosques and mosques where prayers are recited five times per day. These communities are required to register both locally and nationally and must be registered “without the formation of a legal personality.” Religious communities must adhere to the “essence and limits of activity” set out in their charters.
The law provides penalties for religious associations that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charter, and assigns responsibility to the CRA for handing down fines for such offenses. The law imposes fines for violating its provisions on organizing and conducting religious activities; providing religious education without permission; performing prayers, religious rites, and ceremonies in undesignated places; and performing activities beyond the purposes and objectives defined by the charter of the religious association. For first-time offenses, individuals are subject to fines of 350 to 500 somoni ($40 to $57), heads of religious associations are fined 1,000 to 1,500 somoni ($114 to $170), and registered religious associations, as legal entities themselves, are subject to fines of 5,000 to 10,000 somoni ($570 to $1,100). For repeated offenses committed within a year of the first offense, fines are increased to 600 to 1,000 somoni ($69 to $114) for individuals, 2,000 to 2,500 somoni ($230 to $290) for heads of religious associations, and 15,000 to 20,000 somoni ($1,700 to $2,300) for the registered religious associations. If a religious association conducts activities without obtaining registration or reregistration, local authorities may force a place of worship to close in addition to .levying fines.
The CRA is the government body primarily responsible for overseeing and implementing all provisions of the law pertaining to religion. The Center for Islamic Studies, under the president’s executive office, helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion.
The law restricts Islamic prayer to four locations: mosques, cemeteries, homes, and shrines. The law regulates the registration, size, and location of mosques, limiting the number of mosques which may be registered within a given population area. “Friday” mosques, which conduct larger Friday prayers as well as prayers five times per day, are allowed in districts with populations of 10,000 to 20,000 persons; “five-time” mosques, which conduct only daily prayers five times per day, are allowed in areas with populations of 100 to 10,000. In Dushanbe Friday mosques are allowed in areas with 30,000 to 50,000 persons, and five-time mosques are allowed in areas with populations of 1,000 to 5,000. The law allows one “central Friday mosque” per district or city, and makes other mosques subordinate to it.
Mosques function on the basis of their self-designed charters in buildings constructed by government-approved religious organizations or by individual citizens, or with the assistance of the general population. The law states the selection of imam-khatibs (government-sanctioned prayer leaders) and imams shall take place in coordination with “the appropriate state body in charge of religious affairs” (i.e., the CRA must approve the imam-khatibs and imams elected by the founders of each mosque). The CRA regulates and formulates the content of Friday sermons.
The law regulates private celebrations, including weddings, funeral services, and celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. The law limits the number of guests and controls ceremonial gift presentations and other rituals. The law states mass worship, religious traditions, and ceremonies shall be carried out according to the procedures for holding meetings, rallies, demonstrations, and peaceful processions prescribed elsewhere in the law. An August amendment to the law bans the traditional sacrifice of animals at ceremonies marking the seventh and fortieth day after a death and celebrating the return of Hajj travelers.
On August 23, parliament added an amendment to the law on the regulation of traditions, celebrations, and ceremonies that states, “Individuals and legal entities are obliged to protect the values of the national culture, including the state language, and national dress.” According to customary interpretation, “national dress” does not include the wearing of the hijab. The chairman of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs said in an interview there is no penalty for violation of this amendment, but also stated that a set of regulations would be introduced. The Code of Administrative Violations does not list wearing a beard or the hijab or other religious clothing as violations.
The law allows registered religious organizations to produce, export, import, and distribute an unspecified quantity of religious literature with the advance consent of appropriate state authorities. Only registered religious associations and organizations are entitled to establish enterprises to produce literature and material with religious content. Such literature and material must indicate the full name of the religious organization producing it. The law allows government authorities to levy fines for the production, export, import, sale, or distribution of religious literature without permission from the CRA. According to the law, violators are subject to fines of up to 3,500 somoni ($400) for individuals; 7,500 somoni ($860) for government officials (who distribute or produce literature without permission); and 15,000 somoni ($1,700) for legal entities, a category including organizations of any kind as well as registered religious associations, with confiscation of the religious literature that is the subject of the administrative offense.
The law prohibits children under 18 from participating in “public religious activities,” including attending worship services at public places of worship. Children are allowed to attend religious funerals and to practice religion at home, under parental guidance. The law allows children to participate in religious activities as part of specific educational programs at authorized religious institutions.
The law requires all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction to obtain permission from the CRA. Central district mosques may operate madrassahs, which are open only to high school graduates. Other mosques, if registered with the government, may provide part-time religious instruction for younger students.
With written parental consent, the law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain religious instruction provided by a registered religious organization outside of mandatory school hours. According to the law, this may not duplicate religious instruction already part of the school curriculum. The CRA is responsible for monitoring mosques throughout the country to ensure implementation of these provisions.
According to the CRA, parents may teach religion to their children at home provided the child expresses a desire to learn. The law forbids religious instruction at home to individuals outside the immediate family. The law restricts sending citizens abroad for religious education and establishing ties with religious organizations abroad without CRA consent. To be eligible to study religion abroad, students must complete a higher education degree domestically and be enrolled at a university accredited in the country in which it operates. The law provides for fines of 2,500 to 5,000 somoni ($290 to $570) for violating these restrictions.
In December the parliament amended the law on freedom and conscience and religious associations to ban the creation of political parties based on religion. According to the newly amended law, only state educational institutions may provide religious education. The constitution prohibits political parties of “a religious nature” as well as “propaganda and agitation” encouraging religious enmity.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government continued to take measures to prevent individuals from joining or participating in what it labeled “extremist” organizations. The government arrested or detained more than 220 persons on extremism charges, many of whom the government said were “Salafis” and/or ISIS supporters. NGOs stated authorities continued to refuse to register religious groups on technical or administrative grounds. Without registration, groups risked criminal or civil penalties for operating. Jehovah’s Witnesses remained banned and deemed an extremist organization, and the country’s sole Jewish synagogue remained unregistered. Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce the edict by the government-supported Council of Ulema prohibiting women from praying at mosques. Human rights activists again stated that authorities sought to “establish total control of Muslim activity” in the country. The Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) continued to conduct internal video surveillance of mosques in Dushanbe. Authorities remained vigilant against the appearance of “illegal” prayer rooms and mosques around the country. NGOs reported authorities continued to harass women wearing hijabs and men with beards, and continued to conduct raids to shut down shops selling “nontraditional or alien” clothing. Government officials continued to issue statements discouraging women from wearing nontraditional clothing.
Government officials continued to take measures they claimed were intended to prevent individuals from joining or participating in what they considered “extremist” organizations and continued to arrest and detain individuals suspected of membership in or supporting such banned groups. Those groups included Hizb ut-Tahrir, al-Qaida, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban, Jamaat Tabligh, Islamic Group (Islamic Community of Pakistan), Islamic Movement of Eastern Turkestan, Islamic Party of Turkestan (former Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – IMU), Lashkar-e-Tayba, Tojikistoni Ozod, Sozmoni Tablighot, Salafi groups, Jamaat Ansarullah, and the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan (IRPT). According to a CRA spokesperson, the committee defined extremism as agitating for the overthrow of the current government or the initiation of sectarian violence.
On July 21, Minister of Internal Affairs Ramazon Rahimzoda told the media that in the first six months of the year, authorities detained 228 individuals suspected of involvement in groups the government deemed terrorist. Included among them were 104 having connections with ISIS, 80 with Salafi groups, 17 with Jamoat Ansarullah, 16 with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and three with the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan. In addition, 13 citizens who joined ISIS voluntarily returned home. All of the voluntary returnees, according to national legislation, were exempt from criminal prosecution.
On November 17, Asia Plus reported an imam-khatib of one of the mosques in the northern province of Sughd was in jail for membership in an outlawed Salafi group. A Guliston city court sentenced Ilhomiddin Abdulloyev, imam-khatib of a mosque in the Choruk-Daarron settlement, to 5.5 years in prison on charges of organizing activities of an extremist group. A source at the Guliston city court said Abdulloyev joined the Salafi group while studying in a religious school in Kuwait from 1994 to 1998. According to the news report, Abdulloyev disseminated Salafi literature and urged others to join the group as well. Authorities banned “Salafism” in 2009 as a threat to national security.
According to a November 27 report from the Ozodagon news agency, a court in Khujand found cardiovascular surgeon Abdumalik Salomov guilty of membership in an illegal Salafi group and sentenced him to 5.5 years in prison. The court also found two other defendants, Ilhom Gafforov (classmate of Salomov) and Saidullo Mirzoev (friend of Salomov), guilty and sentenced each person to five years in prison.
On October 24, the Khujand city court convicted four men in the Sughd Region – Mumin Sodiqov, Bakhtiyor Ahmadov, Mahmud Fayziyev, and Homid Boymatov – of membership in the banned Salafi religious movement, according to press reports. The court found them guilty on charges of establishment of an extremist organization and participation in a religious organization banned for carrying out extremist activities. Each person received a five-year prison sentence.
In February media reported the arrest of Mullorahmat Okhunov, imam of Hoji Mulloqurbon, a five-time prayer mosque in Mastchoh District, and four of his followers for being members of a Salafi group. According to the CRA, the arrest occurred at the end of January. According to media reports, all five detainees were local residents under the age of 35. The arrest of the imam came after police detained a fellow villager in the town of Buston, where he shared information implicating Ohunov. Later, authorities stated they found materials from banned movements or groups in the house of the imam and the four followers.
On May 23, authorities detained four entrepreneurs from Panjakent and held them in custody for seven days for disobeying the police. Subsequently, the Khujand city court sentenced them to an additional two months of preliminary detention. On June 5-6, the court brought charges against all four for the organization of activities of an extremist organization, accusing the men of membership in a Salafi group. According to media reports, law enforcement officers had previously detained the four individuals in Panjakent in June 2016 on suspicion of membership in a Salafi group. Media reports stated that according to their relatives, the authorities forced them to shave their beards at that time and released them.
In August the media reported authorities detained Numonkhon Otaev, a former imam-khatib, in the city of Istaravshan for possessing unregistered religious books. According to his relatives, his arrest took place on August 7 after security officers searched his home and confiscated more than 300 religious and other books. News outlets reported Otaev was a well-known scholar and religious leader with no known connections to groups the government considered extremist.
On September 23, media reported local police detained a government-sanctioned imam of a city mosque in Guliston in Sughd Region along with dozens of his followers. Police officers interrogated and released many detainees the same day. The imam-khatib and 10 of his followers remained in custody, however. The authorities did not release the name of the imam-khatib. Authorities accused the imam and his 10 followers of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to newspaper reports, at the end of July the court of Khujand city sentenced Bahrom Kholmatov – pastor of Sonmin Sonbogim, a Protestant church organization originating in South Korea – to three years’ imprisonment on charges of extremism. Police detained Kholmatov on April 10 in Khujand, and a panel of local religious experts, part of a specialized CRA council to analyze religious literature and provide consent to its importation or publication and distribution in the country, deemed the literature in his house and church to have extremist content. Following the verdict, authorities deregistered the Sonmin Sonbogim church, which meant it could no longer function legally despite having been registered in 2009. Kholmatov’s defense lawyer appealed the court’s decision. In early September media reported the Sughd regional court upheld the July verdict. According to a December update by the NGO Forum 18, Kholmatov decided not to appeal his sentence further.
On October 19, media reported Daniil Islomov, a Jehovah’s Witness from Dushanbe, refused to take the oath, wear a military uniform, or bear arms due to his religious beliefs after being called for military service. The court sentenced him to six months in prison on the charge of evading military service. Islomov appealed his case to the Supreme Court in November. In December Forum 18 stated that the Supreme Court denied Islomov’s appeal despite the court’s recognition that (unspecified) “mistakes” were made in the case.
On June 3, according to representatives of Jehovah’s Witnesses, police raided a private home in Khujand, seizing passports, religious books, and a personal computer. Following an interrogation of those present in the house, police returned all of the seized items.
At a January 10 press conference, CRA officials stated the committee’s functions were based on the constitution and laws of the country, including laws concerning freedom of conscience and religious organizations, the regulation of traditions, celebrations, and ceremonies, and on parental responsibility in the education and upbringing of children. The officials stated that decrees and orders of the president, government, and internal legal acts ratified by the parliament were additional sources for CRA functions.
Hanafi Sunni mosques continued to enforce a religious edict issued by the government-supported Ulema Council prohibiting women from praying at mosques.
NGOs reported authorities put restrictions on imam-khatibs, such as centrally selecting and approving sermon topics, as well as prohibiting some imam-khatibs from performing certain ceremonies. On June 22, the Ulema Council announced the topics for sermons by imam-khatibs in the mosques on the June 26 Eid al-Fitr holiday that included taking measures against recruitment by extremist groups.
At the press conference on January 10, Deputy Chairman of the CRA, Jumakhon Ghiyosov, told the media that only imam-khatibs of Friday mosques and central Friday mosques had the right to perform nikoh (the Islamic marriage ceremony). Additionally, he said imam-khatibs should perform such ceremonies only with appropriate documentation from the registry office. This was to prevent cases of polygamous marriages or marriage to a minor. Those imam-khatibs who performed wedding ceremonies for second or third wives, were already removed from their positions, according to Ghiyosov. This new restriction on who could perform Islamic marriage ceremonies did not have the force of law, however, and according to the CRA, the committee was developing a methodology for instituting administrative action against those clergy not approved by government who were performing marriage ceremonies.
In January officials in the prosecutor’s office in Kulob stated in a press conference that 10 imam-khatibs in villages near Kulob had been punished for “irresponsibility and mismanagement” of the mosques under their supervision. According to the officials, the government fined all of the imam-khatibs and put the mosques under stricter control.
Multiple sources reported on conversion of mosques into other facilities. The prosecutor’s office stated in a press conference there were 72 official mosques functioning in Kulob, and authorities had turned 54 unofficial mosques into sports facilities, residential properties, a local inspector’s office, a kindergarten, and medical stations.
The U.S.-based news organization EurasiaNet reported authorities converted 2,000 mosques into facilities for general public use during the year. Husein Shokirov, head of the CRA, said in a news conference “We gave the owners of the mosques time to file [registration] documents, but they didn’t do it, so the sites were either reclaimed by the government or repurposed into social facilities.” The committee said there were 3,900 mosques operating with proper permits in the country. According to Forum 18, a human rights activist said the committee’s claim that the mosques were illegal was not credible. She added many mosques refused to complain about their closure, even when she offered legal assistance to bring court cases, because “they were afraid to do so.”
On July 21, Khujand Mayor Maruf Muhammadzoda told the media that during the first half of the year, authorities closed four mosques in Khujand lacking proper registration and turned them into other types of facilities: a workshop for producing traditional national textiles, a kindergarten, a teahouse, and a drug store. Muhammadzoda denied the closures reflected a crackdown on religious freedom, noting that in Khujand there were 42 mosques, including 37 five-time prayer mosques and five Friday mosques. He said mosques were closed down and turned into other types of facilities because they lacked proper documentation or were located nearby other mosques.
On July 12, speaking at a press conference, Sulaymon Davlatzoda, Chairman of the CRA, told media that five-time prayer mosques could hold religious training courses if they provided appropriate conditions for conducting classes. He said because the courses were educational, mosques would need a license from the Ministry of Education and Science. As of the end of the year, no mosques received the license necessary to offer religious training, although several applied.
The Ulema Council in July stated on its website Friday prayers should be held at mosques only with official permission. The statement came in response to a question from a reader, and the Ulema Council advised him that if his council mosque were banned from holding Friday prayers, he should go to another mosque.
There were reports of governmental action against students studying abroad. At his July press conference, CRA Chairman Davlatzoda said that legislation required citizens to receive initial religious education inside the country before traveling abroad for further religious education. At his July 21 news conference, Khujand Mayor Muhammadzoda said the city administration repatriated more than 60 persons studying at religious schools abroad. He said only three students remained, in Saudi Arabia, and authorities were pressuring those students to return.
On November 2, the Akhbor news agency reported the CRA sent a statement to all mosques requiring them to dismiss all imam-khatibs who had studied abroad and to replace them with imams who had only studied in the country. The highest Islamic cleric of the country, Mufti Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda, was a graduate of a Pakistani religious school. It was unknown whether this decision would affect him.
NGOs reported authorities continued to enforce their ban on “nontraditional or alien” clothing. The Code of Administrative Violations does not list wearing a beard or the hijab or other religious clothing as violations, but citizens wearing these items reportedly received fines under other regulations. On July 11, President Rahmon stated during a speech marking the 10th anniversary of a national law regulating traditions, celebrations, and ceremonies that persons were not to wear beards or hijabs. He further stated hijabs and black dresses for women were not in line with the country’s traditions, and beards were not necessarily a reflection of religiosity. He called on citizens to “love God with their hearts” and not seek to show their “righteousness” through external attributes.
On September 26, media reports stated authorities took a resident of Khujand, Nargis Qurbonova, to the local police station for her refusal to take off her hijab. She told media police visited her house, asking her to take off her hijab. When she refused, they forced her to go to the police station with her son but released her later in the day, and she returned home. Qurbanova stated two police officers entered her house without any notice. One of them was a local inspector who had previously asked her to remove her hijab. She refused and said there was no legal requirement. After her detention, she called the helpline for the MIA as well as for the Department of Internal Affairs of Sughd Region, informing them of this incident. Once media reported news of her detention, police officers from the regional department visited her and asked her to submit a written statement about the incident. The MIA informed media organizations it was investigating the case. Qurbonova previously taught English at a local university, but four years ago when she began wearing the hijab, she said the university forced her to quit. Qurbonova told media she would continue to wear the hijab.
Media reports stated that on September 26, authorities detained Muhabbatkhon Davlatova, a resident of Ghafurov District, during a police raid at the Panjshanbe market in Khujand. She stated police threatened to take her to the local police station and force her to write a statement explaining why she was wearing a hijab. Davlatova commented to media, “I was released as soon as I said I would complain to the Prosecutor General’s Office.” According to Davlatova other women questioned by police officers did not argue and tied their scarves or veils in a way that exposed their necks. Three months prior to her September 26 detention, at the Atush market, police had “advised” Davlatova to stop wearing clothing “alien” to the country. Davlatova wrote a statement to the prosecutor’s office of Ghafurov District, to which that office responded the officers were acting within the law. In a letter from the prosecutor’s office, authorities stated that since 2015 groups of police officers and other authorities were working to dissuade individuals from wearing “alien clothing.” There were no references to specific enforcement guidelines, however.
In a video of a sermon posted on social media, Muhtadi Ahmadkhojaev, a prominent imam, strongly criticized government policy on hijabs and beards. He said, “Our beards were removed, our wives’ hijabs were removed, doors of mosques are closed, madrassas are closed, and now they are calling through ‘Open Microphone’ [a program on government TV in which individuals espouse their views on various subjects] to ban sacrificing [of animals per Islamic tradition]. This is no sign of prosperity; and it is democracy, not Islam.” According to Ahmadkhojaev, the campaign against hijabs and sacrifices was un-Islamic. After giving the sermon, Ahmadkhojaev left for Russia, according to media reports. Reports stated law enforcement officials requested his return to Tajikistan. Upon his return on August 25, law enforcement officials summoned and questioned him about the sermon. Ahmadkhojaev told district authorities the video was a forgery. Jaloliddini Balkhi district authorities said they initiated no criminal case against him.
On August 16, officials of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs told media they conducted “interviews” with 8,000 women in Dushanbe, and approximately 90 percent of the women interviewed agreed not to wear “religious dress” and instead wear “Tajik national clothes.” Most women said they started to wear hijabs because of family pressure.
On July 12, speaking at a news conference, Deputy Chairman of the CRA Azizulloh Mirzozoda announced government plans to introduce regulations on clothing and appearance into national law. At the same news conference, the head of the Islamic Center, Saidmukarram Abdulqodirzoda, said historically Tajik society was not accustomed to women wearing black and regarded it as rude. He further stated sharia did not require women to wear black clothing.
On July 21, Minister of Culture Shamsuddin Orumbekzoda told the media that the government had set up a commission to promote clothing it deemed appropriate for its citizens, which he said was an initiative aimed at combating “alien” culture. Speaking at a press conference, he said the commission would assist in designing clothing for men and women “taking into consideration Tajik traditions” and “modern life.” According to Orumbekzoda, the hijab was not compatible with the country’s hot climate for reasons of hygiene. Moreover, women wearing the hijab could spark “fear and doubt” in public places. He said, “Some persons standing next to them might wonder, ‘What if she is hiding something under her hijab?’”
On November 29, Russian news agency Sputnik reported authorities would provide women sketches of national clothes for all seasons. The report said, “Sketches of models of women’s clothing, designed for all ages and all seasons, were prepared by three departments: the Ministry of Culture, the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, and the Committee on Youth Affairs.” According to the report, authorities launched this initiative to prevent the dissemination of “alien” culture associated with religious affiliation among the citizens, and to promote national clothing for women and girls. As soon as the government approved the outfits, sketches were expected to be published on the Ministry of Culture’s website.
On September 6, millions of mobile communications subscribers received text messages from the government on national dress. The previous day the government Committee on Women and Family Affairs asked all mobile communication companies to send out messages calling for women to wear national dress. The SMS messages stated, “Wearing national dress is a must!” “Respect national dress,” and “Let us make it a good tradition to wear national dress.” There were reportedly no legal sanctions associated with the campaign.
On March 14, media reported MIA officials had searched for women wearing hijabs at a Dushanbe medical facility and forced a local woman to remove her hijab. The MIA denied its officials forced women to remove their hijabs and said forcible removal was against the law. Instead, ministry officials stated the ministry regularly organized public education campaigns to promote traditional national dress for women.
In May media reported the Committee on Youth, Sports, and Tourism was developing an ethics code which would preclude the participation of athletes in competitions if they wore beards or hijabs. Suhrobi Akbarsho, a representative of the committee, said the regulation was intended to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. He also said hijabs were not comfortable for some types of sports. In August the committee finalized and adopted the code and set up a commission to monitor its implementation. The code contained a stipulation it would be reviewed once a year, at which time experts would consider complaints against the code.
On July 3, the Department on Women and Family Affairs of the Sughd Regional Administration held a meeting in Khujand to begin establishing working groups to strengthen the fight against “alien culture.” All relevant agencies of Sughd Region and Khujand attended the meeting. At the meeting, the regional administration created 21 working groups of government personnel and civilians and developed a plan of action for eliminating “alien” clothing, specifically the hijab and satr (a hair covering similar to the hijab). On July 4, the working groups started urging women not to wear “alien” clothing, visiting localities, trading centers, sewing workshops, kindergartens, health centers, schools, and restaurants.
On July 15, the Minister of Health and Social Protection Nasim Olimzoda called for a ban of “alien clothing” at all health care institutions, including medical educational institutions.
On July 18, national television channel Jahonamo showed a video in which officials from the Committee on Women and Family Affairs, including the head of the committee, Idigul Qosimzoda, stopped women wearing hijabs in the streets of Dushanbe and told them to wear traditional attire instead.
On July 21, speaking at a news conference, the rector of the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan, Tojiddin Asomuddinzoda, noted the institute had prepared its own guidelines on “Tajik style” clothing for female students in accordance with Islamic law requirements. According to Asomuddinzoda, female students would henceforth “not need to wear alien Arab, Iranian, Turkish, or Afghan clothing,” which was widely interpreted to mean that women should not wear hijabs.
On July 28, the Committee on Women and Family Affairs announced at news conference it launched a campaign against “indecent clothing alien to the national culture and religion.” First Deputy Chair Marhabo Olimi told media that its effort focused not only on hijabs but also on indecent and immodest clothing “alien to our national culture and religion.”
At a July news conference, Chief of the Department of Internal Affairs in the Sughd Region General Sharif Nazarzoda said, “Having a beard has guidelines. There is a beard culture. When some join extremist groups and parties, their first duty is to have a beard and wear hijabs. They return home and force their spouses to wear hijabs.” He stated police did not shave individuals’ beards but sometimes ordered the population to “take care” of their beards.
On August 3, a media report stated authorities of the southern Dusti District asked the imam-khatibs of the mosques to shorten their beards to three centimeters (1.2 inches). Authorities explained they were setting an example to help propagate the “national culture.” One of the imam-khatibs was reported to have stated, that even if according to his madhab (school of Islamic thought) the length of a beard should be at least six centimeters (2.4 inches), he could not refuse the authorities’ request.
According to social media users, on August 5, representatives of the MIA and CRA stopped women wearing hijabs at the Shohmansur Market in Dushanbe, recorded their names, and brought some of them to MIA offices for further questioning. The social media users said some of the women removed their hijabs at the gate of the bazaar due to this pressure, and that government representatives told those gathered at the market that the women who violated the law would pay fines up to 1,000 somoni ($110). While there did not appear to be any legal provisions for levying fines, there was reportedly no unified guidance on enforcement, which observers said resulted in punitive actions of various kinds being taken against women wearing hijabs, including fines.
On August 7, Umarjoni Emomali, head of the Press Service at the MIA, stated in an interview with Radio Ozodi that police officers would not fine anyone for wearing foreign garments, including the hijab and satr, or “indecent” clothing. According to him, authorities were reminding women that hijabs, satrs, and turbans were foreign to the traditions of the nation’s people. In the same interview, First Deputy Chair of the Committee on Women and Family Affairs Olimi said the committee’s specialists would soon prepare guidelines for clothing that reflected the national culture and traditions.
On August 10, the media reported one television personality stated that on August 9, two officials at the Qariyai Bolo Hospital in Dushanbe approached his wife and him for “explanatory” checks and treated them rudely because he had a beard and his wife was wearing a hijab. One of the officials threatened him with future fines. When he asked the two inspectors to justify their actions, they responded they were obliged to follow the law.
On August 16, the Ministry of Education and Science issued a manual on its website providing requirements for the clothing of schoolchildren. The guidelines include restrictions on hijabs, as well as other clothing, and on jewelry and fashion items with no particular religious significance. The ministry stated its introduction of these regulations underscored the importance of conforming to national, cultural, and moral norms.
On October 9, media reported a police officer in the northern city of Konibodom stopped a group of bearded men and brought them to the local police station, stating all the city’s bearded men needed to be registered. The detained men explained they worked in the town’s theater, and beards were required for their performance. The police issued the men a special beard exemption card, giving them permission to wear their beards in public.
A media report from September 18 quoted a source at the prosecutor general’s office as saying those women fined for wearing hijabs could appeal to the prosecutor’s office. The source confirmed that, in accordance with norms and amendments to the law regulating traditions, ceremonies, and rituals adopted at the end of August, no penalty had yet been designated for wearing the satr or hijab. The source further noted, according to a court decision, individuals and legal entities could be fined for violating the provisions of this law.
On October 9, media reported authorities in the Rudaki District were launching an investigation into an incident in which Shokir Holodorov, a council member in the village of Mehrobod, used obscene language at a local mosque and demanded its closure. A video of the incident was posted on the internet shortly afterwards. Firuza Kamolova, deputy chairman of the Rudaki District leadership body, reported the village council member had been called in to discuss his behavior with the district leadership body and the local department of the State National Security Committee. Following the incident security officials temporarily closed this mosque. Holodorov explained the mosque in question was operating without registration from the CRA, and he had asked it cease its operations on previous occasions before this incident. After posting a video of the incident online, media organization Akhbor.com reported access to its website had been blocked within the country. Social media followers expressed outrage on Facebook at Holodorov’s behavior.
The government continued to restrict distribution of religious literature; made school attendance mandatory on the Eid al-Adha; limited the numbers of those allowed to go on the Hajj; and defined acceptable practices for children attending mosques and for funeral observances.
In August the Customs Service stated to the media that, during the first half of the year, it had identified six cases in which religious literature was illegally imported into the country and sold. The Customs Service confirmed the sale of a large batch of unauthorized religious literature at the Panjsher trading center of Dushanbe. During a joint raid on the Panjsher trading center, officials of the Customs Service and Dushanbe Department of the Committee on National Security found approximately 100 types of literature it deemed illegal, totaling approximately 4,000 copies. The government determined the literature did not go through appropriate CRA vetting and prevented importation and distribution of the materials. The books were from Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Egypt and Russia. The Customs Service brought court cases against those selling this literature.
On August 23, the Ulema Council of the Islamic Center announced the country would celebrate Eid al-Adha, a designated national holiday, on September 1, like other Muslim countries. The holiday coincided with the first day of the new school year. While constitutional provisions require that citizens be kept free from school or work obligations on official holidays, the Ministry of Education kept schools open on September 1, and made school attendance on that day mandatory for all teachers and students.
On June 20, the CRA announced it had barred citizens under the age of 40 from performing the Hajj, in order to give older individuals a greater chance to undertake the pilgrimage. The CRA’s imposition of age restrictions was similar to past years, when the government also imposed age restrictions on Hajj travel. In 2015, the minimum age was 35.
On September 11, a pilgrim returning from Mecca told media that, while still in the airport, officials from the CRA stated new amendments to the law on the regulation of traditions banned celebrations and ceremonies in honor of those returning from the Hajj. Afshin Muqim, a spokesperson at the CRA, told media that pilgrims could distribute holy water from the Zamzam well, and dried dates brought back from the pilgrimage, but Hojioshi or Hojitalbon ceremonies in honor of those returned from the Hajj, which were traditionally held in the past, were prohibited.
In September the CRA released new guidelines forbidding family and friends from loud wailing or ululating, or hiring others to do so, at funerals and advised citizens not to wear black at funerals.
On June 2, during his sermon at the Qaramishqor Friday mosque in Dushanbe, the imam-khatib told attendees that parents who allowed their children to attend taraweeh prayers (special prayers performed only during Ramadan) would be subject to a government fine. According to the imam-khatib, a government inspector had come to the mosque that day and reiterated that parents should forbid their children from attending mosques. The imam-khatib said the officials also told the imam that law enforcement officers would be posted at the entrances of mosques to register all juveniles attending mosques and levy fines on their parents. The imam-khatib urged his followers to ensure children prayed only at home until age 18.
In January Rector of the Islamic Institute of Tajikistan Asomuddinzoda, informed the media that for the 2016-17 academic year, the number of students at the institute had dropped by almost 40 percent. There were only 197 first year students enrolled for 308 slots; 102 studied for a fee, and the remaining were free of charge. He offered no reason for the decline. The Islamic Institute of Tajikistan is the only higher educational institution in the country offering a religious education.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Individuals outside government continued to state they were reluctant to discuss issues such as societal respect for religious diversity, including abuses or discrimination on the basis of religious belief. Civil society representatives said discussion of religion in general, especially relations between various religious groups, remained a subject they avoided. People said they felt more comfortable discussing violations of civil rights than discussing sectarian disagreements or government curtailment of religious freedom.
Leaders of some minority religious groups stated their communities had positive relationships with the majority Hanafi Sunni population, whom they said did not hinder their worship services or cause concern for their congregation. Other minority religious group leaders, especially from proselytizing religious groups, stated their members experienced social disapproval from friends and neighbors because they were no longer Muslims.
On September 20, a video and written interview with a woman named Farangis, a 21-year-old resident of Dushanbe, whose face was blurred in the video to protect her identity, was published on the Radio Ozodi website. In the video, Farangis stated she had become an atheist, which made her life difficult in society. Farangis stated she felt significant pressure from acquaintances and even friends. Some comments on the article and in social media showed support for her decision, but many others accused her of trying to propagate atheism and were openly hostile to her.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials met with government officials to encourage them to adhere to their international commitments to respect freedom of religion and belief. In meetings with government officials, embassy officers continued to raise the restrictions on minors and women participating in religious services, rejection of attempts by minority religious groups to register, restrictions on the religious education of youth, and limitations on the publication or import of religious literature, as well as the lack of due process in court cases involving religious extremism. Embassy officers also raised the issue of harassment of women and men for religious dress and grooming.
On June 13, the embassy held an iftar with religious community leaders and government officials responsible for policy on religious issues, including representatives from the CRA. Topics of discussion included the state of religious freedom in the country, local religious traditions, and government policy.
The Charge d’Affaires wrote an op-ed to highlight Religious Freedom Day (January 16), which was published in all the local newspapers. The Ambassador stressed the importance of religious freedom as a central tenet of U.S. policy.
Since 2016, Tajikistan has been designated a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom. On December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated the country as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompanies designation as required in the important national interest of the United States.
The constitutions of the union government and of the semiautonomous government in Zanzibar both prohibit religious discrimination and provide for freedom of religious choice. An opposition leader and former prime minister was detained in June and accused of making inflammatory statements after calling for action on a long-pending court case against a group of Islamic leaders who had been held for four years without trial. The prisoners themselves protested against their treatment in prison. In July a court ruled that the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Zanzibar could not continue building on property it purchased in 2004 on which it had been trying to construct a church against opposition from the local Muslim community. The president and other senior government officials publicly supported freedom of worship and called on religious leaders to preach peace, religious tolerance, and harmony to their followers.
Vigilante killings of women accused of practicing witchcraft continued to occur, although incidents declined significantly from 2016. In May and June, unknown assailants attacked and vandalized churches in Mwanza and Pwani Regions. The police had not arrested any suspects by the end of the year. Civil society groups continued to promote peaceful interactions and religious tolerance.
Embassy officers continued to advocate for religious peace and tolerance in meetings with religious leaders in Zanzibar.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 54 million (July 2017 estimate). A 2010 Pew Forum survey estimates approximately 61 percent of the population is Christian, 35 percent Muslim, and 4 percent other religious groups. A separate 2010 Pew Forum Report estimates more than half of the population practices elements of African traditional religions in their daily lives. There are no domestic surveys covering religious affiliation.
On the mainland, large Muslim communities are concentrated in coastal areas, with some Muslim minorities located inland in urban areas. Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Protestants (including Pentecostal Christian groups), Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Other groups include Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahais, animists, and those who did not express a religious preference. Zanzibar’s 1.3 million residents are 99 percent Muslim, according to a U.S. government estimate, of whom two-thirds are Sunni, according to a 2012 Pew Forum report. The remainder consists of several Shia groups, mostly of Asian descent.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitutions of the union government and Zanzibar both provide for equality regardless of religion, prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, and stipulate freedom of conscience or faith and choice in matters of religion, including the freedom to change one’s faith. The union government constitution allows these rights to be limited by law for purposes such as protecting the rights of others; promoting the national interest; and defense, safety, peace, morality, and health. The Zanzibar constitution allows the rights to be limited by law if such a limitation is “necessary and agreeable in the democratic system” and does not limit the “foundation” of the right or bring “more harm” to society.
The law prohibits religious groups from registering as political parties. In order to register as a political party, an entity may not use religion as a basis to approve membership, nor may the promotion of religion be a policy of that entity.
The law prohibits any person from taking any action or making statements with the intent of insulting the religious beliefs of another person. Anyone committing such an offense is liable to a year’s imprisonment.
On the mainland, secular laws govern Christians and Muslims in both criminal and civil cases. In family-related cases involving inheritance, marriage, divorce, and the adoption of minors, the law also recognizes customary practices, which could include religious practices. In such cases, some Muslims choose to consult religious leaders in lieu of bringing a court case.
Zanzibar, while also subject to the union constitution, has its own president, court system, and legislature. Muslims in Zanzibar have the option of bringing cases to a civil or qadi (Islamic court or judge) court for matters of divorce, child custody, inheritance, and other issues covered by Islamic law. All cases tried in Zanzibar courts, except those involving Zanzibari constitutional matters and sharia, may be appealed to the Union Court of Appeals on the mainland. Decisions of Zanzibar’s qadi courts may be appealed to a special court consisting of the Zanzibar chief justice and five other sheikhs. The President of Zanzibar appoints the chief qadi, who oversees the qadicourts and is recognized as the senior Islamic scholar responsible for interpreting the Quran. There are no qadi courts on the mainland.
Religious groups must register with the registrar of societies at the Ministry of Home Affairs on the mainland and with the Office of the Registrar General on Zanzibar. Registration is required by law on both the mainland and in Zanzibar, but the penalties for failing to comply with this requirement are not stated in the law.
To register, religious groups must provide the names of at least 10 members, a written constitution, resumes of their leaders, and a letter of recommendation from the district commissioner. Such groups may then list individual congregations, which do not need separate registration. Muslim groups registering on the mainland must provide a letter of approval from the National Muslim Council of Tanzania (BAKWATA). Muslim groups registering in Zanzibar must provide a letter of approval from the mufti, the government’s official liaison to the Muslim community. Christian groups in Zanzibar may register directly with the registrar general.
On the mainland, BAKWATA elects the mufti. On Zanzibar, the President of Zanzibar appoints the mufti, who serves as a leader of the Muslim community and as a public servant assisting with local governmental affairs. The Mufti of Zanzibar nominally approves all Islamic activities and supervises all mosques on Zanzibar. The mufti also approves religious lectures by visiting Islamic clergy and supervises the importation of Islamic literature from outside Zanzibar.
Public schools may teach religion, but it is not a part of the official national curriculum. School administration or parent and teacher associations must approve such classes, which are taught on an occasional basis by parents or volunteers. Public school registration forms must specify a child’s religious affiliation so administrators can assign students to the appropriate religion class if one is offered. Students may also choose to opt out of religious studies. Private schools may teach religion, although it is not required, and these schools generally follow the national educational curriculum unless they receive a waiver from the Ministry of Education for a separate curriculum. In public schools, students are allowed to wear the hijab but not the niqab.
The government does not designate religious affiliation on passports or records of vital statistics. Police reports must state religious affiliation if an individual will be required to provide sworn testimony. Applications for medical care must specify religious affiliation so that any specific religious customs may be observed. The law requires the government to record the religious affiliation of every prisoner and provide facilities for worship for prisoners.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In June police detained former Prime Minister and opposition leader Edward Lowassa and questioned him regarding remarks he made at an iftar calling for the government to proceed with the case involving the leaders of the Association of Islamic Mobilization and Propagation, known as Uamsho (meaning “Awakening” in Swahili). The Uamsho leaders had been in custody since 2013 awaiting trial on terrorism charges. After questioning, Lowassa was released on bond.
In July Sheikh Khalifa Khamis, chairman of the Imam Bhukhary Islamic Organization, was arrested and interrogated after speaking in support of Lowassa’s call for the release of the Uamsho sheikhs. During a November 13 parliamentary session, the presiding officer ignored the request of Civic United Front parliamentarian Khatib Said Haji for an update on the Uamsho case.
In May members of the Uamsho prisoners group refused to exit their bus when brought to court in Dar es Salaam for pretrial hearings and complained to reporters about poor treatment in prison. According to local media reports in March, dozens of Muslim prisoners said that they would boycott their pretrial hearings on terrorism charges to protest the four years they had spent in custody without trial and with their families barred from visiting. The prisoners said they did not want to appear in court until the authorities had finished the investigation.
Morningstar News reported that in October a judge failed to appear at a hearing for a Christian pastor in Zanzibar who was accused of abusing a Muslim girl in 2014. The case was closed in 2015, with charges against the pastor twice dropped for lack of evidence. Church leaders stated that the case was reopened as a pretext for jailing the Christian pastor and that Christians found it difficult to obtain a fair court hearing in Zanzibar. In November a court date was set for December 13, but the judge again failed to appear. A new court date was set for January 2018.
In June Christian advocacy organizations reported that a district commissioner and police officers in Zanzibar arrested three Christians for cooking during the daytime in their home during Ramadan. According to Christian media, the police reportedly told the Christians, “Today you will learn how to fast.” The Christians were released after three days in custody.
In July a court ruled that the Pentecostal Assemblies of God in Zanzibar could not continue building on property the group purchased in 2004 on which it was trying to construct a church against opposition from the local Muslim community. After opponents to the construction demolished several temporary church structures between 2004 and 2007, the group had completed approximately half the construction of a stone building in 2009 when local Muslims filed suit. A lower court ruling in 2011 in favor of the church had allowed the construction to move forward. In the most recent ruling, the court decided that the party who sold the property to the church was not the rightful owner. According to Christian media, church leaders stated the court ruled due to religious bias and threatened the survival of the congregation on the island. They stated they planned to appeal to the High Court of Zanzibar.
In April President John Magufuli attended Easter services at the African Inland Church and St. Peter’s Church. In remarks he thanked Christians and members of other religious denominations for their prayers for him and urged all Tanzanians to preach and demonstrate peace, unity, hard work, and harmony in the country.
Also addressing an Easter event, held at a stadium and attended by thousands, Minister of Home Affairs Mwigulu Nchemba reaffirmed the government’s commitment to protect the freedom of worship and individual rights. He further said the constitution provides freedom of worship as long as one does not infringe on the rights of others, and stated that Tanzania would always be a nation of different religions, commending religious leaders for their role in protecting the country’s peace.
Speaking to Islamic worshippers celebrating Eid al-Adha, Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa called on religious leaders to sensitize worshippers on the importance of maintaining peace and to preach against “evil acts.”
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In July the Legal and Human Rights Center reported 115 incidents of witchcraft-related killings from January through June, representing a 63 percent decline in such killings from the same period in 2016, when 303 incidents were reported. Incidents were most prevalent in Tabora, Kigoma, and Kagera Regions, with 23, 18, and 11 incidents, respectively.
On May 22, attackers broke into and ransacked a Catholic church in Pwani Region, where unknown gunmen carried out a series of killings targeting local leaders, businesspersons, and police since 2015. The perpetrators burned vestments and other items, although their attempt to burn down the church itself was unsuccessful.
On June 11, unidentified persons broke into and demolished the Evangelist Assemblies of God church in Mwanza.
In August an arsonist attempted to burn down the Dar es Salaam home of Sheikh Khalifa Khamis, chair of the Imam Bukhary Institute, two days after Khamis had made a public call for Muslims to stand up for each other as a community.
As of year’s end, investigations into the church attacks and the arson attempt continued, but no suspects had been arrested.
In September leaders from a wide range of Muslim and Christian religious groups in Zanzibar held an interfaith forum to discuss ways to preserve and enhance peaceful and tolerant relations between the two communities in the islands.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In June the Charge d’Affaires hosted an iftar and engaged a group of Islamic leaders in a discussion on religious tolerance in the country.
Embassy officials promoted interfaith dialogue and cooperation between Christian and Muslim communities to reduce social tensions in the islands in meetings with both Muslim and Christian religious leaders in Zanzibar.
Based on a draft approved in a 2016 national referendum, the new constitution endorsed by King Maha Vajiralongkorn in April specifically prohibits discrimination based on religious belief and protects religious liberty. Insurgent violence continued in the Malay Muslim-majority Deep South, where there has been a longstanding separatist conflict, in which religious and ethnic identity are closely linked. There were no reports that monks were attacked or killed by Malay Muslim insurgents during the year. In October the government dropped all charges against three Amnesty International activists charged with criminal defamation and computer crimes for a 2016 report, which the government denied, that the military tortured and mistreated Malay Muslim insurgents under the continued use of the government’s emergency decree and martial law provisions. In January the ruling military government (NCPO) approved a plan to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among peoples of different religious faiths. Areas covered included education, disseminating religious principles, promoting religion, preventing the subversion of religion, building understanding and cooperation among religious groups, and improving the awareness of and sensitivity to religious norms and traditions.
During the year some Buddhist monks defined themselves as part of the Buddhist nationalist movement and used social media to call for violence against Muslims. They also criticized what they said was the state’s accommodation of Islam. There were no reports of calls by Muslims advocating violence targeting Buddhists.
Embassy and consulate general officials discussed equal rights for religious minorities, continuing religious conflicts in the region, strategies to prevent similar interreligious fractures from emerging elsewhere in the country, and Buddhist-Muslim relations with government officials from the Ministry of Culture’s Religious Affairs Department and the National Buddhism Bureau. The embassy also led a discussion with 100 monks on religious diversity and tolerance prior to their traveling to the United States to serve in Buddhist temples. The embassy hosted two roundtable discussions on religious freedom for government representatives, academics, and religious leaders representing officially recognized religious groups. Roundtables discussed the role of the government, religious organizations, and the community in promoting interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 68.4 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2010 population census indicated 93 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 percent Muslim. NGOs, academics, and religious groups state that 85 to 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist and 5 to 10 percent Muslim. Groups that together constitute less than 5 percent of the population include animists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, and Taoists.
Most Buddhists incorporate Hindu and animist practices into their worship. The Buddhist clergy (sangha) consists of two main schools of Theravada Buddhism: Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttika. The former is older and more prevalent within the monastic community.
Islam is the dominant religion in four of the five southernmost provinces (Narathiwat, Yala, Satun, and Pattani) near the Malaysian border, commonly referred to as the Deep South. The majority of Muslims in those provinces are ethnic Malay, but the Muslim population nationwide also includes descendants of immigrants from South Asia, China, Cambodia, and Indonesia, as well as ethnic Thai. Statistics provided by the Religious Affairs Department (RAD) of the Ministry of Culture indicate that almost all Muslims (99 percent) are Sunni.
The majority of ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese practice either Mahayana or Theravada Buddhism. Many ethnic Chinese, as well as members of the Mien hill tribe, also practice forms of Taoism.
The majority of Christians are ethnic Chinese, and more than half of the Christian community is Roman Catholic.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
A new constitution drafted by the NCPO and approved by popular referendum came into force on April 6 upon endorsement by the king. It carries over provisions from the 2007 constitution on religious freedom and states that all persons are equal before the law regardless of religious belief and allows all persons to profess, observe, or practice any religion of their choice. It also carries a new provision that these freedoms shall not “be harmful to the security of the State.” The new constitution empowers the state to patronize and protect Buddhism as well as other religions, but a new provision adds a mandate for the special promotion of Theravada Buddhism through education, propagation of its principles, and the establishment of measures and mechanisms “to prevent the desecration of Buddhism in any form.”
The NCPO issued a special order in August 2016 guaranteeing the state’s promotion and protection of “all recognized religions” in the country but mandating all state agencies monitor the “right teaching” of all religions to ensure they are not “distorted to upset social harmony.” A law specifically prohibits the defamation or insult of Buddhism and Buddhist clergy. Violators can face up to one year’s imprisonment, fines of up to 20,000 baht ($610), or both. The penal code prohibits the insult or disturbance of religious places or services of all officially recognized religious groups. Penalties range from imprisonment for one to seven years, a fine of 2,000 to 14,000 baht ($61 to $430), or both.
The law officially recognizes five religious groups: Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. As a matter of policy, the government will not recognize any new religious groups outside the five umbrella groups. While there is no official state religion, the constitution continues to require the king to be Buddhist and says he is the “upholder of religions.”
Religious groups associated with one of the five officially recognized religions may register to receive state benefits such as tax exemption, visa status, or government subsidies. Registration as a religious group is not mandatory and religious groups may still operate without government interference whether or not they are officially registered or recognized. Under the law, the RAD is responsible for registering religious groups, excluding Buddhist groups, which the National Buddhism Bureau, an independent state agency under direct supervision of the prime minister, oversees.
The RAD may register a new religious denomination within one of the five recognized religious groups only if it meets the following qualifications: the national census indicates the group has at least 5,000 adherents, it possesses a uniquely recognizable theology, is not politically active, and it obtains formal approval in a RAD-organized meeting of representatives from the concerned ministries and the five recognized umbrella religions. To register with the RAD, a religious group’s leader also must submit documentation on its objectives and procedures, any relationship to a foreign country, a list of executive members and senior officials, and locations of administrative, religious, and teaching sites. Registration is voluntary, but once approved, the RAD issues a certificate of registration and the group is then eligible for benefits that include access to state subsidies, exemption from property and income taxes, and preferential allocation of resident visas for the registered organization’s officials.
The constitution continues to prohibit Buddhist priests, novices, monks, and other clergy from voting in an election or running for seats in the House of Representatives or Senate. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, as of September there are more than 40,000 Buddhist temples in the country with approximately 360,000 clergy who are thus ineligible to vote or run for office. Christian clergy are prohibited from voting in elections if they are in formal religious dress. Except for the chularajmontri (grand mufti) himself, imams are not regarded as priests or clergy and are thus allowed to vote in elections and assume political positions.
The law requires religious education for all students at both the primary and secondary levels; students may not opt out. The curriculum must contain information about all of the five recognized umbrella religious groups in the country. Students who wish to pursue in-depth studies of a particular religion may study at private religious schools and can transfer credits to public schools. Individual schools, working in conjunction with their local administrative boards, are authorized to arrange additional religious studies courses. There are two private Christian universities open to the public with religious curricula. There are 10 Catholic grade schools whose curriculum and registration the Ministry of Education oversees. The Sangha Supreme Council serves as Thai Buddhism’s governing clerical body. The Sangha Supreme Council and the Central Islamic Committee of Thailand create respectively special curricula for Buddhist and Islamic studies required in public schools.
The Central Islamic Council of Thailand, whose members are Muslims appointed by royal proclamation, advises the Ministries of Education and Interior on Islamic issues. The government provides funding for Islamic educational institutions, the construction of mosques, and participation in the Hajj. There are several hundred primary and secondary Islamic schools throughout the country. There are four options for students to obtain Islamic education in the Deep South: government-subsidized schools offering Islamic education with the national curriculum; private Islamic schools that may offer non-Quranic subjects such as foreign languages (Arabic and English) but whose curriculum may not be approved by the government; traditional pondoks, or private Islamic day schools, offering Islamic education according to their own curriculum to students of all ages; and tadika, an after-school religious course for children in grades one through six, often held in a mosque.
The Ministry of Justice allows the practice of sharia as a special legal process, outside of the national civil code, for Muslim residents of the Deep South for family law, including inheritance. Provincial courts apply this law and a sharia expert advises the judge. The law officially lays out the administrative structure of Muslim communities in the Deep South including the process of appointing the chularajmontri, whom the king appoints as the state advisor on Islamic affairs.
The RAD sets a quota for the number of foreign missionaries permitted to register and operate in the country: 1,357 Christian, six Muslim, 20 Hindu, and 41 Sikh. Registration confers some benefits, such as longer visa validity.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Since religion and ethnicity are often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents of violence due to the Malay Muslim insurgency as being solely based on religious identity.
According to Deep South Watch, insurgent-related violence during the year resulted in at least 263 deaths – among them 187 Muslims, 64 Buddhists, and 12 unidentified. Deep South Watch also reported 374 persons injured, including 195 Muslims, 178 Buddhists, and one unidentified. In 2016 there were reports of 307 killed and 628 injured; most of those killed were civilians. There were no reports any of those killed or injured were targeted due to their religion. The insurgents often considered teachers, along with their military escorts, as affiliated with the state and hence legitimate targets. According to the Ministry of Education, there were no deaths of students, teachers, or other education personnel during the year, but according to Deep South Watch, insurgents killed two teachers and one student. According to Deep South Watch, no monks or imams were killed during the year, unlike in 2016.
According to news reports, on June 21, insurgents shot and killed an Islamic teacher, Ahwae Tohsatu, as he left prayers with his family. Tohsatu was an adviser to the Internal Security Operations Command and known for his campaign to convince Muslim insurgents to lay down their arms.
There were reports authorities continued to use the emergency decree and martial law provisions in effect in the Deep South since 2005 and 2004, respectively, that gave military, police, and civilian authorities significant powers to restrict certain basic rights, including pretrial detention and searches without warrant. Authorities delegated certain internal security powers to the armed forces, often resulting in accusations of unfair treatment. Human rights groups continued to denounce insurgent attacks on civilians. The Young Muslim Association of Thailand (YMAT), the Fasai Youth Center, the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies of Mahidol University, the Look Rieng Group, the Peaceful Southern Boundary Organization, and the Buddhist Network for Peace issued statements denouncing the shooting attack on a school bus that took place in Rueso District of Narathiwat on March 2.
In September military personnel arrested a Buddhist monk, Apichat Punnajanatho, in the Deep South city of Songkhla with the stated purpose of preventing the monk’s violent, anti-Islamic, hate speech. According to news reports, soldiers flew him to Bangkok’s Wat Benchamabophit, where he was disrobed and expelled from the monkhood upon orders from the Supreme Sangha Council. Subsequently he was turned over to police for violating the law on computer crimes and for inciting public disorder, but police did not file any charges, and he was later released. The monk had attracted public attention for his anti-Muslim Facebook and other online posts, and in 2015 he had called for the burning down of mosques in response to Buddhist deaths in the Deep South.
In October the government withdrew criminal defamation and computer crime charges against three Amnesty International activists who worked on a 2016 report that stated the military tortured and mistreated at least 24 insurgents detained in the Deep South between 2013 and 2015. The government denied the claims.
According to human rights groups, a majority of the country’s relatively small urban refugee and asylum seeker population were fleeing religious persecution elsewhere. Many of them, both those registered by the United Nations and others who were not, faced prolonged detention in crowded immigration detention centers, some for years. Since the country is not a party to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, even UN-designees may be considered to be in the country illegally. As a result, authorities reportedly arrested and detained some UN-designated refugees, some of whom claimed they faced religious persecution in their home countries. Those without asylum-seeking status faced eventual deportation.
Activists expressed fear the government was assisting with requests to extradite Chinese dissidents associated with religious groups banned in China, but there were no reports of any members of the banned religious group in China being forcibly deported to China during the reporting period. Members of a Falun Gong performance group stated the government canceled their January performance at the behest of the Chinese government. In 2015 a Supreme Administrative Court ruling allowed the Falun Gong to register as an NGO. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports of Falun Gong members seeking asylum being arrested on immigration charges during the year.
The National Buddhism Office issued an order in September for police to investigate temples where state funds were allegedly misappropriated. The police charged five abbots for abusing state authority and collusion, among other charges, amid a broader investigation of 35 temples and 29 individuals.
In February the NCPO issued an order authorizing police and military personnel to restrict exit from and entry to Dhammakaya temple while authorities searched the temple in an attempt to arrest Abbot Chaiyaboon Dhammajayo for his alleged role in the laundering of millions of dollars as part of the Klongchan Credit Union Cooperative embezzlement scandal. The government reportedly already sentenced the bank’s former chairman and Dhammakaya temple treasurer to prison and charged another prominent businessman in June. Temple followers and monks protested the raid. The NCPO lifted the entrance/exit restriction order in April. The investigation into Dhammajayo again drew small protests in the United States, Europe, Hong Kong, and Australia and Dhammajayo’s followers said the abbot was targeted because the popularity of his temple threatened the country’s political and religious elite. Dhammakaya supporters also said the charges and investigation were politically motivated because of reports that the movement had links to a former deposed prime minister.
Since 1984 the government has not recognized any new religious groups. Despite the lack of formal legal recognition or registration, civil society groups continued to report unregistered religious groups operated freely, and the government’s practice of not recognizing or registering new religious groups did not restrict their activities.
A group of female Buddhist monks petitioned the National Human Rights Commission in February to amend the law to recognize officially female monks. The Sangha Supreme Council continued to prohibit women from becoming monks, however; women wishing to join the monkhood usually travelled to Sri Lanka to be ordained. Of the 360,000 Buddhist clergy in the country, only 280 were women. Since a gender equality law exempts cases involving “compliance with religious principles,” female monks (bhikkhunis) were excluded from gender equality protection by the government. Officials had neither formally opposed nor supported female ordination. Officials allowed bhikkhunis to practice and establish monasteries and temples. Without official recognition, however, monasteries led by women continued to be ineligible for any of the government benefits received by other sanctioned Buddhist temples, primarily tax exemptions, free medical care, and subsidies for building construction and running social welfare programs. Unlike male monks (bhikkhus), bhikkhunis received no special government protection from public attacks that sometimes involved male monks opposing the ordination of female monks.
The first Thai bhikkhuni ordained in Sri Lanka, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, Abbess of the Songdhammakalyani Monastery, continued to lead a movement advocating for recognizing bhikkhunis and allowing their ordination within the country. Her movement continued to encounter resistance. The abbess stated the Religious Affairs Department, the Ministry of Culture, and the Royal Household Bureau twice prevented female monks from entering the Grand Palace to pay their respects to the Late King Bhumibol at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017. The abbess filed a case alleging the Secretary of the Committee Screening Buddhist Monks and Novices violated gender equality. After negotiations, the government permitted female monks to enter the palace to pay their respects in February.
The Sangha Supreme Council issued an order in October prohibiting monks from using social media to criticize the kingdom, Buddhism, or the monarchy, or otherwise behaving in a manner inappropriate to their religious status. The order reportedly included steps to make finances more transparent such as telling monks to stop asking for donations.
The only government-certified Islamic university in the Deep South, Fatoni University, continued to teach special curricula for Muslim students, including instruction in Thai, English, Arabic, and Bahasa Malayu, a mandatory peace studies course, and the integration of religious principles into most course offerings. As of September 30, approximately 4,000 students and 470 academic personnel were affiliated with the school.
According to the Association of Private Islamic Schools of Thailand, no Islamic schools were closed by the government during the year, a change from 2016. According to the association and faculty at a prominent university in the Deep South, scrutiny of Muslim professors and clerics declined substantially; however, the military continued to scrutinize Muslim teachers at private schools.
The government allocated approximately 404 million baht ($12.4 million) for the fiscal year (October 1-September 30) to the RAD as an agency under the Ministry of Culture. Approximately 325 million baht ($10 million) of that allocation went to strategic planning for religious, art, and cultural development. The budget included grants of approximately 18 million baht ($552,000) for the maintenance and restoration of non-Buddhist religious sites of the five officially recognized religious groups; 240,000 baht ($7,400) for the Chularajmontri’s annual per diem; and 2.2 million baht ($67,500) to educate Thai pilgrims traveling for the Hajj on proceedings at the grand mosques and logistics for long-distance air travel. The Hajj Pilgrim Fund was transferred from the RAD to the Ministry of Interior, and the fund’s fiscal year 2018 budget was expected to be 48 million baht ($1.47 million).
The National Buddhism Bureau, funded separately from the RAD, received 5 billion baht ($153.4 million) in government funding. Half of that budget, 2.5 billion baht ($76.7 million), went to empowerment and human capital development projects. 1.6 billion baht ($49.1 million) was allocated for personnel administration, 682 million baht ($20.9 million) for education projects, including scripture and bookkeeping instruction for monks and novices, and 255 million baht ($7.8 million) for Deep South conflict resolution and development projects.
The government continued to recognize 39 elected Provincial Islamic Committees nationwide. Their responsibilities included providing advice to provincial governors on Islamic issues; deciding on the establishment, relocation, merger, and dissolution of mosques; appointing persons to serve as imams; and issuing announcements and approvals of Islamic religious activities. Committee members in the Deep South continued to report acting as advisers to government officials in dealing with the area’s ethnonationalist and religious tensions.
Religious groups proselytized without reported interference. Thai Buddhist monks working as missionaries were active, particularly in border areas among the country’s tribal populations, and received some public funding. According to the National Buddhism Bureau, there were 6,300 Buddhist missionaries working nationwide. Buddhist missionaries needed to pass training and educational programs at Maha Makut Buddhist University and Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University before receiving appointments as missionaries by the Sangha Supreme Council. Per government regulations, no foreign monks were permitted to serve as Buddhist missionaries within the country.
There were 11 registered foreign missionary groups operating in the country during the year: six Christian, one Muslim, two Hindu, and two Sikh groups. There were 1,357 registered foreign Christian missionary organizations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), which is not an officially recognized Christian group, has obtained a special quota for 200 missionaries through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and National Security Council. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus had smaller numbers of missionaries in the country. Although registration provided some benefits, such as visas with longer validity, religious groups reported that being unregistered was not a significant barrier to foreign missionary activity, and many unregistered missionaries worked in the country without government interference. Many foreign missionaries entered the country using tourist visas and proselytized without the RAD’s authorization. Non-Buddhist missionaries did not receive public funds or state subsidies.
According to online newspaper Prachatai, the NGO Cross Cultural Foundation reported that in July six men who said they were from the Internal Security Operation Command ordered Anchana Heemmina, the Muslim president of Duay Jai, a local human rights advocacy group in the Deep South, to stop posting on Facebook information on human rights violations concerning jailed insurgency suspects.
In December, according to Prachatai, six police officers interrogated four Malay Muslims and illegally collected detailed personal information about the individuals, including fingerprints, in Nakhon Si Thammarat. One of those detained said police arrived in a pickup truck without a license plate and told him they were from the provincial “Special Crimes Suppression Division” and were “searching for Muslim Malays from Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.”
On January 31, the NCPO approved a plan by the Sangha Supreme Council, National Buddhism Bureau, Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Interior, National Security Council, and Southern Border Provinces Administration Center to promote mutual understanding and reconciliation among peoples of different religious faiths in key areas. Areas covered included education, disseminating religious principles, promoting religion, preventing the subversion of religion, building understanding and cooperation among religious groups, and improving the awareness of and sensitivity to religious norms and traditions. There was no action on the plan during the year.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Ethnic Malay insurgents continued to attack Buddhists and Muslims in the Deep South. There were no reports of Muslims advocating violence against Buddhists. According to Crisis Group, in keeping with the nationalistic nature of the Deep South conflict, the Malay Muslim insurgency was against the “Siamese colonizers” of the Deep South region. Some Buddhist monks regarded as part of the Buddhist “nationalist” movement used social media to call for violence against Muslims. The government tried to stop the violence by arresting Buddhist monk Apichat Punnajanatho and removing inflammatory content posted on Facebook and other social media platforms. Academics and human rights activists in the Deep South said extremism, fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment, continued to increase within the Buddhist community and, according to religious studies experts, was seldom reported. Both Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders, however, stated the majority of the Buddhist community continued to advocate for interfaith dialogue and cultural understanding between their communities.
According to media reports, there were reports some Buddhist residents in Khon Kaen and Sakhon Nakhon provinces protested the construction of mosques, citing fear of terrorism and a threat to the Buddhist character of the country. Some Buddhist monks posted on social media their opposition to what they considered the state’s accommodation of Islam. A Buddhist group in the Deep South petitioned the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center for, among other requests, Buddhist temples to receive the same subsidies as mosques.
According to human rights and civil society groups, more than a decade of continuing violence has decreased interaction between the Muslim and Buddhist communities.
In December academics, NGOs, journalists, and government officials held a seminar on societal roles regarding the peace-building process in the Deep South. NGO representatives said there was tension between Buddhist and Muslim students at most schools. An NGO representative said they no longer have access to interrogation centers. A major general said families had access to such centers, and NGO access was on a case-by-case basis. He also said insurgents were no longer focusing on attacking “soft targets” like teachers and monks.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy and consulate general officials discussed religious freedom with senior government officials from the Ministry of Culture’s Department of Religious Affairs and with the National Buddhism Bureau. They discussed continuing religious conflicts in the region and ways to prevent similar interreligious fractures from emerging elsewhere in the country.
The Ambassador met with Somdet Phra Maha Muneewong, the new Supreme Patriarch and President of the Sangha Supreme Council chosen by King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the beginning of the year. The Ambassador met separately with the chularajmontri to discuss Buddhist-Muslim relations and the role of the international community in helping to reduce religious conflict.
Embassy and consulate officials regularly met Muslim and Buddhist religious leaders, academics, and elected officials as part of the embassy’s effort to promote tolerance and reconciliation and to discuss complex religious issues in society, including ethnic identity and politics. In January and November, a high-level embassy official held a roundtable discussion on religious freedom with a dozen leaders representing the five officially recognized religious groups to gain a greater understanding of the groups’ treatment under the law and government, religious leader, and community efforts to promote interfaith dialogue. Another embassy official participated in a discussion on American respect for religious tolerance and diversity with 100 monks prior to their traveling to the United States to serve in Buddhist temples. The embassy sponsored two centers in Pattani and Yala Provinces in the Deep South, which served as platforms for peace building and conflict mitigation projects targeting Buddhist and Muslim youth. Embassy representatives organized a youth camp that included a discussion of interfaith issues, as well as presentations on Muslims in the United States and on Muslims living in a multicultural society.
The embassy also continued two initiatives in Yala and Pattani provinces to improve the capacity of local civil society to aid the process of peacebuilding. The first initiative focused on building trust between Muslims and Buddhists in six communities through youth leadership and community activities. The second focused on using person-to-person engagement to bridge conflict, including a discussion on living in an interfaith community led by an alumnus of a U.S. exchange program.
The embassy and the consulate general in Chiang Mai regularly engaged with religious minority groups through events such as iftars and interfaith dialogues to promote respect for individual rights to worship and the importance of religious pluralism – using Facebook to amplify the importance of these and other meetings and programs advancing religious freedom and tolerance.
Trinidad and Tobago
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and practice, including worship. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. Laws prohibit actions that incite religious hatred and violence. In June the parliament unanimously passed legislation outlawing childhood marriage, which changed the legal marriage age for all regardless of religious affiliation to 18. The president proclaimed the legislation in September. Religious organizations had mixed reactions to the new law. The Hindu Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, the National Muslim Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, and other nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) supported the legislation, while some religious organizations, including the leader of an orthodox Hindu organization (Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba) said it would infringe on religious rights. Religious groups said the government continued its financial support for religious ceremonies and for the Inter-Religious Organization (IRO), an interfaith coordinating committee. The government’s national security policy continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group at any given time.
The government-funded IRO, representing diverse denominations within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Bahai Faith, continued to advocate for matters of religious concern and the importance of religious tolerance. With a mandate “to speak to the nation on matters of social, moral, and spiritual concern,” the IRO focused its efforts on marches, press conferences, and statements regarding tolerance for religious diversity and related issues.
U.S. embassy representatives met with senior government officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the importance of government protection of religious equality. Embassy representatives met with the IRO to discuss interfaith cooperation and the value of religious tolerance. Embassy representatives conducted outreach to religious group leaders, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha, and Spiritual/Shouter Baptist, as part of its efforts to promote interfaith tolerance. Embassy representatives delivered remarks highlighting the value of religious plurality at a number of events.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 1.2 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the 2011 census, 26.5 percent of the population is Protestant, including 12 percent Pentecostal or evangelical Christian, 5.7 percent Anglican, 4.1 percent Seventh-day Adventist, 2.5 percent Presbyterian or Congregational, 1.2 percent Baptist, 0.7 percent Methodist, and 0.3 percent Moravian. An additional 21.6 percent is Roman Catholic, 18.2 percent Hindu, 5 percent Muslim, and 1.5 percent Jehovah’s Witnesses. Traditional Caribbean religious groups with African roots include the Spiritual/Shouter Baptists, who represent 5.7 percent of the population, and the Orisha, who incorporate elements of West African spiritualism and Christianity, at 0.9 percent. According to the census, 2.2 percent of the population has no religious affiliation, 11.1 percent does not state a religious affiliation, and 7.5 percent lists their affiliation as “other,” which includes several small Christian groups, Bahais, Rastafarians, Buddhists, and Jews.
The ethnic and religious composition of the two islands varies distinctly. On Trinidad, the island constitutes 95 percent of the country’s total population; those of African descent make up 32 percent of the population and are predominantly Christian. A small, primarily Sunni Muslim community is concentrated in and around Port of Spain, along the east-west corridor of northern Trinidad, and in certain areas of central and south Trinidad. Those of East Indian descent constitute 37 percent of the population, roughly half of whom are Hindu, in addition to Muslims, Presbyterians, and Catholics. The population of Tobago is 85 percent African descent and predominantly Christian.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience and religious belief and observance, including worship. It recognizes the existence of basic fundamental human rights and freedoms and prohibits discrimination based on religion.
The law prohibits acts of sedition and seditious intent, which includes engendering or promoting feelings of ill will towards, hostility to, or contempt for any class of inhabitants, including on the basis of religion.
A fine of up to 1,000 Trinidad and Tobago dollars (TT) ($150) may be levied for expressions of hatred directed specifically against a person’s religion, including any “riotous, violent, indecent, or disorderly behavior in any place of divine worship,” or attacks, ridicule, or vilification of another person’s religion in a manner likely to provoke a breach of the peace. An antiblasphemy law states, “Any person who is convicted of any act or an attempt to commit blasphemy, writing and publishing, or printing and publishing, any blasphemous libel… is liable to a fine and to imprisonment for two years”; however, the law is not enforced.
Judicial review, with the power of the court to modify or enforce orders, is available to those who claim to be victims of religious discrimination. Claimants may also appeal a court’s decision.
To receive tax-exempt donations or gifts of land, perform marriages, or receive visas for foreign missionaries, religious groups must register with the government. To register, groups must demonstrate they are nonprofit organizations, be in operation for at least one year, and submit a request for charitable status to the Ministry of Finance and the Economy. The request must include a certificate or articles of incorporation, the constitution and bylaws of the organization, and the most recently audited financial statements. Religious groups have the same rights and obligations as most legal entities, regardless of their registration status. They may, for example, own land and hire employees, and they are likewise liable for property taxes and government-mandated employee benefits.
Chaplains representing the different faiths present in the country may visit prisons to perform religious acts and to minister to prisoners.
The government permits religious instruction in public schools, allocating time each week during which any religious group may provide an instructor at the parent’s request for an adherent in the school. Attendance at these classes is voluntary, and the religious groups represented are diverse. The law states no individual may be refused admission to any public school based on religious beliefs, and no child is required to attend any religious observance or receive instruction in religious subjects as a condition of admission or continued attendance in a public school. Immunization is required of all children entering school. While parents may enroll their children in religiously affiliated private schools as an alternative to public education, the law does not permit homeschooling. Private schools, also called “assisted schools,” receive a combination of government and private funding for their facilities.
The government subsidizes religiously affiliated public schools, including schools operated by Christian, Hindu, and Muslim groups. The government allots primary school funding on a per-pupil basis, with the amount varying each year. For secondary schools, the government allots funding based on budget requests submitted by each school.
A new law passed in June raised the legal age of marriage to 18, ending decades of child marriages. The law amended a series of older marriage laws governing the marriage age for different religious groups.
Foreign missionaries must meet standard requirements for entry visas and must represent a registered religious group in the country. Permits are valid for a maximum period of three years, at a cost of TT 500 ($75) per year. Missionaries may not remain longer than three years per visit, but may re-enter after a year’s absence.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Religious organizations had mixed reactions to the new law setting the marriage age at 18 for all religious groups. Before the law passed, Hindu females could marry at 14 and males at 18, Muslim females could marry at 12 and males at 16, and Orisha females could marry at 16 and males at 18. The Hindu Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, the National Muslim Women’s Organization of Trinidad and Tobago, and other NGOs had made public calls to pass legislation to outlaw child marriage, and they supported the legislation. Other religious organizations, including the orthodox Hindu organization, Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba, opposed the law, stating it infringed on their constitutionally protected religious rights. Following the passage and enactment of the law, Sanatan Dharma Maha Saba leader Satnarayan Maharaj stated he would challenge the law.
The government financially supported activities of the IRO, an interfaith coordinating committee representing approximately 25 religious groups, including diverse denominations within Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and the Orisha and Bahai faiths. Leaders from five religious groups – Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Orisha, and Bahai – continued to deliver invocations at government-sponsored events, including the opening of parliament and the annual court term. According to the new IRO president, Archbishop Barbara Gray-Burke, a Spiritual/ Shouter Baptist, the government maintained its previous levels of engagement and financing of religious organizations during the year.
Members of the government often participated in ceremonies and holidays of various religious groups, regularly emphasizing religious tolerance and harmony. Elected officials from both political parties routinely spoke publicly against religious intolerance. Prime Minister Keith Rowley issued public messages for Easter, Ramadan, and Diwali that underscored religious freedom, diversity, and unity. In his Diwali message, he said, “I am always heartened to note that Diwali is enjoyed by both Hindus and non-Hindus across the country, as persons journey to family and friends to share a meal and witness the remarkable displays of lighted deyas.”
The government continued to limit the number of long-term foreign missionaries to 35 per registered religious group. Missionaries in excess of the 35 could stay in the country a maximum of 30 days. IRO members stated the law was applied equally, although some international religious groups or denominations reportedly maintained more than 35 missionaries in the country if they were affiliated with more than one registered group, including nonprofit groups and charities. The IRO’s former president, a Hindu, said the law continued to constrain Hindus, who had few missionaries but would like them to stay longer than the three-year legal limit. He said that other groups, such as the Mormons, consistently operated at their 35-missionary cap.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The IRO, with a founding mandate “to speak to the nation on matters of social, moral, and spiritual concern,” continued to advocate for matters of religious concern. IRO efforts included marches and press conferences, as well as statements regarding religious tolerance and related issues.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy representatives met with senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the importance of government protection of religious equality. The embassy hosted two iftars to promote respect for religious diversity, which included wide representation from the country’s diverse Muslim population. A senior Department of State official hosted one during his visit to the country in June; the Charge d’Affaires hosted the other.
In November the embassy hosted a roundtable to discuss interfaith cooperation and religious tolerance among representatives of groups that were both IRO members and nonmembers. Attendees included Presbyterians, Muslims, Hindus, Orisha, and Shouter Baptists. Roundtable participants discussed interfaith marriage ceremonies, funerals, and family events planned in the country as well as the new child marriage law. In addition, the roundtable included a discussion of the religious community’s role in promoting human rights, including protecting the country’s religious diversity and arranging interfaith events, such as marriages and funerals.
Embassy staff met regularly with Muslim religious and civil society leaders for discussions on topics including religious tolerance and countering violent extremism. Embassy staff also continued working with religious groups, such as the National Muslim Women’s Organization and the Anjuman Sunnat ul Jamaat Association, and delivered remarks on religious plurality at conventions of the Trinidad Muslim League and the Ahmadi Muslim Community.
The embassy utilized social media for outreach on the value of the freedom to worship according to one’s conscience.
The constitution declares the country’s religion to be Islam but also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and obligates the state to disseminate the values of “moderation and tolerance.” It prohibits the use of mosques and other houses of worship to advance political agendas or objectives, and guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practice. Laws require that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles and prohibit them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that police used arrests, house searches, and travel restrictions to target Salafists and others, some of whom, according to the NGOs, were profiled as terrorists due to the perception they were radicalized based on their appearance or religious beliefs. In May a court in Tozeur sentenced two journalists – a brother and sister – to six months in prison for “insulting a public servant” after they criticized security forces for regularly raiding their home, allegedly on suspicion their sibling was affiliated with extremist religious groups. In June during Ramadan, police arrested five individuals in Bizerte, who were subsequently sentenced to one month in prison for public indecency for eating or smoking in public during the daytime. Several protests in Tunis against what the protestors described as the violation of personal freedoms followed these arrests. A court in Tunis ordered a one-month suspension of the Hizb Ettahrir political party (Liberation Party) in June, concurring with the government’s determination the party had violated the law by inciting hatred and advocating the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. In September community leaders reported police detained a Bahai student without a criminal record and interrogated him at the Monastir police station for three hours before releasing him without charge; the majority of the questions related to his religious beliefs, practices, and connections in the Bahai community. In spite of continued appeals from the Bahai community, the government has not recognized the Bahai Faith or granted its association legal status. The government, however, allowed the Bahai to worship within their own homes and hold a public celebration, including ritual singing, in honor of the founder of the Bahai Faith. The government continued to allow the Jewish and Christian communities to worship within authorized houses of worship. In September the government cancelled a 1973 provision of law preventing the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men. In October the government approved an application for the creation of the Tunisian Council of Secularism, an openly atheist association that has a stated mission to fight for individual rights and liberties, social justice, and peace.
Christian converts from Islam said threats of violence from members of their families and other persons reflected societal pressure against Muslims leaving the faith. Some atheists reported facing societal pressure to conceal their atheism, including by participating in Islamic religious traditions.
The Ambassador and embassy officers met with government officials, including at the Ministry of Religious Affairs (MRA); the Presidency of the Government; and the Ministry of Relations with Constitutional Bodies, Civil Society, and Human Rights (MRCB), to encourage continued tolerance of religious minorities. Officials also discussed the government’s efforts to control activities in mosques, threats to converts from Islam to other faiths, and the status of the Bahai Faith in the country. Embassy officers discussed religious diversity and dialogue with leaders of the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Bahai communities. In May the Ambassador and other embassy officers participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba Synagogue on the island of Djerba, where they discussed religious pluralism and the safety of the Jewish community with Jewish leaders and civil society. Embassy officials attended an October seminar organized by the MRA in conjunction with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and coexistence to the country’s democracy and efforts to counter violent extremism. On October 28, the Ambassador attended the public celebration of the 200tht anniversary of the birth of the Bahai Faith’s messenger, the Baha’u’llah.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 11.4 million (July 2017 estimate), of which approximately 99 percent is Sunni Muslim. Christians, Jews, Shia Muslims, Bahais, and nonbelievers constitute less than 1 percent of the population. Roman Catholics comprise approximately 88 percent of Christians, according to NGOs. Catholic officials estimate membership at fewer than 5,000, widely dispersed throughout the country. The remaining Christian population is composed of Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Greek Orthodox, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Jewish community numbers approximately 1,400, according to the MRA. One-third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital and the remainder lives on the island of Djerba and the neighboring town of Zarzis. There is a small Bahai community, but no reliable information on its numbers is available.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution declares Islam is the country’s religion, but also declares the country to be a “civil state.” The constitution designates the government as the “guardian of religion” and requires the president to be Muslim. The constitution guarantees freedom of belief, conscience, and exercise of religious practices. The constitution also states that mosques and houses of worship should be free from “partisan instrumentalization.” It obligates the state to disseminate the values of moderation and tolerance, protect holy sites, and prevent takfir (Muslim accusations of apostasy against other Muslims). The constitution lists reasons for potential restrictions on the rights and freedoms it guarantees, including protecting the rights of others, requirements of national defense, and public order, morality, or health.
The penal code criminalizes speech likely “to cause harm to the public order or morality,” as well as acts undermining public morals in a way that “intentionally violates modesty.”
Religious groups may form and register associations under the law to establish a bank account and conduct financial activities such as charity work and receive favorable tax treatment, including tax-free donations from government-approved associations, provided the association does not purport to represent all believers of a religious group, or use the name of a religious group. To establish an association, a religious group must submit to the Prime Minister’s Office a registered letter providing the purposes of the association; copies of the national identity cards of its founders, who must be citizens; and two copies of the articles of association signed by the association’s founders or their representatives. The articles of association must contain the official name of the association in Arabic and any foreign language, if appropriate; its address; a statement of its objectives; membership criteria; membership fees; and a statement of organizational structure, including identification of the decision-making body for the association. The law requires that associations and political parties respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles. The law prohibits associations from engaging in for-profit activities, providing material support for individual political candidates, or adopting bylaws or taking actions to incite violence or promote hatred, fanaticism, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Once established, such an association may receive tax-exempt income from organizations, including foreign organizations that have a prior agreement with the government.
Once the association receives the return receipt from the prime minister, it has seven days to submit an announcement of the name, purpose, and objectives of the association to the government press. The government press has 15 days to publish the announcement in the government gazette, which marks the association’s official registration. In the event the government does not return a registered receipt within 30 days, an association may proceed to submit its documents for publication and obtain registration. A foreign association may establish a branch in the country, but the government may also reject its registration request if the government finds the principles or objectives of the foreign association contravene the law.
Violations of the provisions of the law related to associations are punishable first by a warning of up to 30 days from the secretary general of the government, then by a court order suspending the association’s activities for up to 30 days if the violations persist. If the association is still in violation of the law, the secretary general may then appeal to the court for dissolution of the association. Under the law, associations have the right to appeal court decisions.
Registered associations have the right to organize meetings and demonstrations, to publish reports and leaflets, to own real estate, and to engage in “all types of civil activities.”
A 1964 modus vivendi with the Holy See grants official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church. This concordat allows the Church to function in the country and provides state recognition of the Catholic Church, although it restricts religious activities and services to the physical confines of authorized churches, and prohibits construction of new churches and the ringing of church bells. A limited number of Catholic schools and charities may operate under the concordat, but their financial activities are conducted through registration as an association and their affiliation with the Church is not publicized.
The law states the government oversees Islamic prayer services by subsidizing mosques, appointing imams, and paying their salaries. The grand mufti, appointed by the president, is charged with declaring religious holidays, issuing certificates of conversion to Islam, attending to citizens’ inquiries, representing the country at international religious conferences, providing opinions on school curricula, and studying and writing about Islam. The MRA suggests themes for Friday prayers, but does not regulate their content. The government may initiate administrative and legal procedures to remove imams whom authorities determine to be preaching “divisive” theology.
By law, new mosques may be constructed provided they are built in accordance with national urban planning regulations. The MRA pays for construction of mosques, although private and foreign donors also are able to contribute to the cost of construction. Mosques become government property upon completion, after which the government must maintain them.
It is mandatory for students in public schools to attend courses on Islam approximately one hour per week. The curriculum for secondary school students also includes references to the history of Judaism and Christianity, according to the Ministry of Education. Religious groups may operate private schools.
Provisions of law addressing marriage, divorce, and other personal status issues are largely based on principles of civil law, combined with elements of sharia. Laws of inheritance are principally based on requirements in sharia, but there are some provisions that allow for exceptions as outlined in the Code of Personal Status.
The law does not list religion as a prohibited basis for political parties, but prohibits political parties from using religion to call for violence or discrimination.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Amnesty International released a report in February that said police used arrests, house searches, and travel restrictions to target individuals they perceived as radicalized due to their appearance or religious beliefs.
On May 10, a court in Tozeur sentenced two journalists – a brother and sister – to six months in prison for “insulting public servants during the performance of their duties,” after the brother and sister criticized security forces for regularly raiding their home, allegedly on suspicion that their sibling was affiliated with extremist religious groups.
According to media reports, in April authorities in Nabeul shut down a nightclub and detained its owner after videos appeared in social media of a British DJ playing a remix of the Islamic call to prayer at the club. A court sentenced the DJ to one year in prison for public indecency and offending public morality, although he had already left the country by the time of the sentence. He reportedly deleted his Facebook account after receiving death threats.
On June 1, during Ramadan, police arrested four individuals in Bizerte for public indecency for eating in public during daytime, and a court subsequently sentenced them to one month in prison. The same court in Bizerte issued the same sentence to an individual who was arrested for smoking in public during Ramadan. Following these arrests, there were several protests in Tunis against what the protestors described as the violation of personal freedoms. While the Tunis governor stated publicly on May 29 there was no campaign to close cafes during Ramadan, and the minister of interior reiterated this during his June 2 public condemnation of the court’s decision to jail the four men, media reported sporadic harassment of restaurant and cafe owners, and individuals eating in public during daylight hours.
On September 15, community leaders reported police detained a 20-year-old Bahai student without a criminal record and interrogated him at the Monastir police station for three hours, with the majority of the questions related to his religious beliefs, practices, and connections in the Bahai community. The youth was released without charge. Bahai community leaders stated this case represented the lack of government acceptance of their faith.
The court of first instance of Tunis announced on June 6 a one-month suspension of Hizb Ettahrir Party activities for violating the law requiring associations and political parties to respect the rule of law and basic democratic principles, and prohibiting them from encouraging violence, hatred, intolerance, or discrimination on the basis of religion. Hizb Ettahrir’s platform includes the establishment of an Islamic caliphate that, according to media reports, would impose its religious beliefs on other citizens in contravention of the protections of religious freedom established in and provided by the constitution. The court concurred with the claim submitted by the office in charge of political parties and associations that the party had incited hatred and advocated the establishment of an Islamic state. The party resumed its activities following the one-month suspension. This followed a number of earlier cases against the party, including warnings that it violated the law. The party is banned in a number of other countries in the region, but successfully challenged a previous attempt by the government to ban it. At that time, the party released a statement saying the government would “soon have its hands and heads cut (off).” The party maintained a limited following, with no elected office holders or representation in parliament.
Members of the Bahai Faith cited several instances of restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. In spite of appeals to the government to grant them approval to establish an official association, most recently in 2014, the Prime Minister’s Office twice denied their application. Members of the Bahai Faith noted it was not possible for their community to establish houses of worship or conduct some religious activities while they lacked official recognition. Early in the year, the Bahai community submitted a formal request to the Ministry of Interior for permission for a dedicated cemetery to bury their dead. Without a dedicated cemetery, the Bahais have had to hide their religious affiliation to use cemeteries reserved for adherents of other, recognized faiths. As of the end of the year the ministry had not responded to the Bahai community’s request.
In October Bahais submitted a new request to the government (including the Prime Minister’s and President’s Offices) to recognize the Bahai Faith. Although the government did not officially respond to their request, members of the community noted increased government interest in learning about the Bahai Faith, and they said several constructive dialogues with government officials transpired since the submission of their request and the two public events the community hosted in October. In a November meeting, members of the Bahai Faith provided information about the faith to the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee, an independent committee tasked by President Beji Caid Essebsi to provide recommendations on changes to existing laws and suggestions for new laws to ensure the country’s legislation protects individual freedoms and human rights.
Salafists said police profiled them on suspicion of terrorism under the continued state of emergency because of their dress and long beards, which they said they wore to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. Since 2014 more than 500 individuals filed complaints with the Tunisian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms, saying the government prevented them from traveling due to suspicion of extremism, and in some cases apparently based on their religious attire. The media also reported police and security forces harassed some women who wore the niqab.
The government publicly urged imams to disseminate messages of moderation and tolerance to counter what it said were threats of violent extremism. On March 20, the MRA launched a public campaign titled “Tomorrow Is Better” to fight extremism and promote tolerance. During the ministry’s press conference, then minister Mohamed Khalil urged imams and religious preachers to promote peace and tolerance as representative of true Islamic values. On October 26, during a seminar organized by the ministry on religious tolerance and coexistence, his successor Minister Ahmed Adhoum emphasized that peace and religious tolerance were essential to countering terrorism. According to several local mosque committees in charge of mosque operations and chosen by congregation members, the government generally allowed the committees to manage the daily affairs of their mosques and choose their own imams, with the exception of imams for Friday prayers, who were selected exclusively by the MRA. Regional MRA representatives within each governorate had to vet, approve, and appoint both the committees and the imams. According to an official from the MRA, the government standardized and enforced mosque opening and closing times, except for certain mosques with cultural or historical significance and very small community mosques.
On December 12, the MRA officially launched its “Hand in Hand” initiative managed by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and funded with support by the Canadian government. The imitative began in mid-year with a series of training sessions for imams and other religious figures that focused on strategies for youth engagement and on the promotion of democratic values through dialogues on religion in an effort to counter extremism and terrorism.
Members of the Christian community reported the government allowed churches to operate freely in addition to providing security. The government, however, restricted public religious services or processions outside the churches.
Church members reported several instances of harassment, including prolonged questioning of a Christian during a routine renewal of a passport.
Some Christians reported undergoing mandatory civil procedures for marriage, divorce, and inheritance that contained elements of Islamic practice and thus were not applicable to their faith.
On September 14, the government cancelled a provision of law from 1973 that had prevented the marriage of Muslim women to non-Muslim men unless they presented proof of conversion to Islam. Until then, non-Muslim men – almost exclusively foreigners – who wished to marry Muslim women had to convert to Islam and submit a certificate of their conversion.
Jewish groups said they continued to worship freely, and the government continued to pay the salary of the grand rabbi. The government continued to provide security for synagogues and partially subsidized restoration and maintenance costs. Government employees maintained the Jewish cemetery in Tunis.
Authorities provided a heightened level of security for the annual festival held at the El-Ghriba Synagogue in Djerba in May, including security cameras and personnel around the synagogue.
In accordance with government permits, the Jewish community operated private religious schools, and Jewish children were allowed to split their academic day between public schools and private religious schools or attend either school fulltime. The government-run Essouani School and the Houmt Souk Secondary School in Djerba remained the only public schools where Jewish and Muslim students studied together, primarily because of the small size and geographic concentration of the Jewish community. At these schools, Muslim students attended Islamic education lessons on Saturdays while their Jewish classmates could choose to attend classes on religion at a Jewish school in Djerba.
In October the government approved an application for the creation of the Tunisian Council of Secularism, an openly atheist association with a stated mission to fight for individual rights and liberties, social justice, and peace.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In December the Tunisian National Library, in cooperation with the Laboratory for Tunisian Cultural Heritage at the University of Manouba, organized an exhibition on the lessons of Nazi propaganda and reducing susceptibility to extremist messaging. The exhibition was linked to the commemoration of the round-up of Tunisian Jews under the Nazi occupation during World War II. According to media reports, the timing of the December opening of the exhibition was changed after a small number of primarily university staff staged a demonstration to denounce the exhibition launching at their university. During the ensuing demonstration, the protesting staff members shouted “Free Palestine, out with the Zionists,” and exploited the media presence to express their personal beliefs denying the Holocaust. The incident was not covered by local media and, following its opening in Tunis, the organizers of the exhibit continued a planned tour of the country where the exhibit and the accompanying educational programming and workshops for teachers were hosted by schools and cultural centers.
According to media reports, some atheists reported receiving family and societal pressure to return to Islam or conceal their atheism, including, for instance, by participating in fasting during Ramadan and abstaining from discussing religion and criticizing Islam. Converts to Christianity reported strong family and societal rejection and some of them were reportedly beaten and forced to leave their homes on account of their beliefs.
In October the Bahai Faith community hosted for the first time two public events in Tunis, including a celebration of the 200th birthday of Baha’u’llah, which were attended by journalists, leaders of local human rights groups, religious leaders of different faiths, and some government officials and parliamentarians.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
Embassy officials continued to meet regularly with government officials including in the MRA, the Presidency of the Government, and the MRCB to discuss issues concerning religious minorities. Conversations also focused on government efforts to control activities in mosques and on threats to Muslims who had converted to other faiths. On May 14-15, a delegation from the embassy including the Ambassador participated in the Lag B’Omer Pilgrimage to the El-Ghriba synagogue on the island of Djerba. During the visit, the delegation met with Jewish leaders and members of civil society and reaffirmed support for religious diversity and tolerance. Embassy officials attended the October 26 seminar organized by the MRA in conjunction with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss the importance of religious tolerance and coexistence to the country’s democracy and efforts to counter violent extremism. On October 28, the Ambassador attended the public celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Bahai Faith’s messenger, the Baha’u’llah.
The embassy maintained frequent contact with leaders of religious groups throughout the country to discuss the impact of the security situation on religious groups and the freedom of religious minorities to worship without restrictions from the government or threats from the community. The embassy hosted several U.S.-based speakers to engage youth, women’s groups, and civil society representatives in discussions that promoted respect for religious differences. The embassy fostered programs designed to highlight religious tolerance and counter violent extremism, including informal conversation groups led by youth to discuss issues of religious tolerance and alternatives to violence; a program working with Tunisian scouts to learn how to recognize and combat signs of radicalization; and several research programs aimed at identifying and countering radicalization and violent extremism, especially in youth.
The constitution defines the country as a secular state; it provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship; and prohibits discrimination based on religious grounds. The Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) governs and coordinates religious matters related to Islam. Its mandate is to promote and enable the practice of Sunni Islam. A state of emergency instituted in response to the July 2016 coup attempt remained in place throughout the year. The government said the coup attempt was masterminded by self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his movement, which the government considered a terrorist organization. From July 2016 through the end of the year, police arrested more than 50,000 individuals for alleged ties to the Gulen movement or related groups. During the year the government suspended or dismissed thousands of public officials from state institutions, including more than a thousand Diyanet employees. The government continued to prosecute individuals for “openly disrespecting the religious belief of a group” and continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those not recognized under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. The government continued to treat Alevi Islam as a heterodox Muslim “sect,” and continued not to recognize Alevi houses of worship. The government closed two Shia Jaferi television stations based on allegations of spreading “terrorist propaganda.” Religious minorities said they continued to experience difficulties obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes in public schools, operating or opening houses of worship, and in addressing land and property disputes. The government restricted minority religious groups’ efforts to train their clergy. The legal challenges of five churches, whose lands the government expropriated in 2016, continued; members of the churches said they still did not have access to their buildings. The government did not recognize the right to conscientious objection to military service. The government continued to provide security support for religious minority communities and paid for the renovation and restoration of some registered religious properties.
Alevis continued to face anonymous threats of violence. Threats of violence by ISIS and other actors against Jews, Protestants, and Sunni Muslims also continued. Anti-Semitic discourse continued, as some progovernment news commentators continued to publish stories seeking to associate the 2016 coup plotters with the Jewish community. These commentators also sought to associate the Orthodox ecumenical patriarch with the coup attempt. Unidentified assailants vandalized some Protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, and Alevi places of worship, including marking red “X”s on the doors of 13 Alevi homes and attacking a Protestant church in Malatya.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting senior U.S. officials, and embassy and consulate officials continued to engage with government officials and emphasize the importance of respect for religious diversity and equal treatment under the law. Embassy and consulate representatives and visiting U.S. government officials urged the government to lift restrictions on religious groups and make progress on property restitution and specific cases of religious discrimination. Embassy officials also met with a wide range of religious community leaders, including those of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Protestant, Alevi, and Syriac Orthodox communities, to underscore the importance of religious freedom and interfaith tolerance and to condemn discriminatory language against any faith.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 81 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the Turkish government, 99 percent of the population is Muslim, approximately 77.5 percent of which is Hanafi Sunni. Representatives of other religious groups estimate their members represent approximately 0.3 percent of the population, while the most recent published surveys suggest approximately 2 percent of the population is atheist.
Alevi foundation leaders estimate Alevis comprise 25 to 31 percent of the population. The Shia Jafari community estimates its members make up 4 percent of the population. Some observers, including scholars, journalists, and security officials, estimate there may be as many as four million persons influenced by the movement led by Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, which identifies itself as an Islam-inspired civic, cultural, and educational movement, and which the government holds responsible for the 2016 coup attempt.
Non-Muslim religious groups are mostly concentrated in Istanbul and other large cities as well as in the southeast. Exact figures are not available; however, these groups self-report approximately 90,000 Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians (of which an estimated 60,000 are citizens and 30,000 are migrants from Armenia without legal residence); 25,000 Roman Catholics (including a large number of recent migrants from Africa and the Philippines); and 16,000 Jews. There are also approximately 25,000 Syrian Orthodox Christians (also known as Syriacs); 15,000 Russian Orthodox Christians (mostly recent immigrants from Russia who hold residence permits); and 10,000 Bahais. Other groups include fewer than 1,000 Yezidis; 5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses; 7,000 members of Protestant denominations; 3,000 Chaldean Christians; and up to 2,000 Greek Orthodox Christians. There also are small, undetermined numbers of Bulgarian Orthodox, Nestorian, Georgian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Maronite Christians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) estimates its membership at approximately 300 individuals.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution defines the country as a secular state and provides for freedom of conscience, religious belief, conviction, expression, and worship. It stipulates that individuals may not be compelled to participate in religious ceremonies or disclose their religion, and acts of worship may be conducted freely as long as they are not directed against the “integrity of the state.” The constitution prohibits discrimination on religious grounds and prohibits exploitation or abuse of “religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion” or “even partially basing” the order of the state on religious tenets.
The constitution establishes the Diyanet, through which the state coordinates religious matters. According to the law, the Diyanet’s mandate is to enable and promote the belief, practices, and moral principles of Islam, with a primary focus on Sunni Islam, educate the public about religious issues, and administer mosques. The Diyanet operates under the Office of the Prime Minister, with a president appointed by the prime minister, and is administered by a 16-person council elected by clerics and university theology faculties. The Diyanet has five main departments: the high councils for religious affairs, education, services, publications, and public relations. While the law does not require that all members of the council be Sunni Muslim, in practice this has been the case.
There is no separate blasphemy law; the penal code provides punishment for offenses related to “provoking people to be rancorous and hostile,” including showing public disrespect for religious beliefs. The penal code prohibits imams, priests, rabbis, and other religious leaders from “reproaching or vilifying” the government or the laws of the state while performing their duties. Violations are punishable by prison terms of one month to one year, or three months to two years if the crime involves inciting others to disobey the law. There are legal restrictions against insulting a recognized religion, interfering with a religious group’s services, or defacing its property. Insulting a recognized religion is punishable by six months to one year in prison.
The law prohibits Sufi and other religious-social orders (tarikats) and lodges (cemaats), although the government generally does not enforce these restrictions.
Although registration with the government is not mandatory for religious groups, it is required in order to request legal recognition for places of worship, which requires permission from the municipalities for the construction of a new place of worship. It is against the law to hold religious services at a location not recognized by the government as a place of worship; the government may fine or close the venues of those violating the law. A 1935 law prohibits the establishment of foundations based on the religion or ethnicity of members but grants exemptions to foundations existing before the enactment of the law. These longstanding foundations belong to non-Muslim Turkish citizens; 167 of them continue to exist. A religious group may apply to register as an association or foundation provided its stated objective is charitable, educational, or cultural rather than religious.
The General Directorate of Foundations (GDF), under the Office of the Prime Minister, regulates the activities and affiliated properties of all charitable foundations and assesses whether they are operating within the stated objectives of their organizational statute. There are several categories of foundations, including those religious community foundations existing prior to the 1935 law.
If a foundation becomes inactive, the government may petition the courts to find the foundation no longer operational and transfer all its assets to the state. A foundation may earn income through companies and rent-earning properties. The process for establishing a foundation is lengthier and more expensive than that for establishing an association, but associations have fewer legal rights than foundations at the local level. Only a court order may close a foundation of any category, except under state-of-emergency rule or martial law, during which the government may close foundations by decree. The state of emergency put in place in 2016 remained in effect at year’s end.
Associations by definition must be nonprofit and may receive financial support only in the form of donations. To register as an association, a group must submit a registration application to the provincial governor’s office and may immediately begin operating while awaiting confirmation from the governor’s office that its bylaws are constitutional. In addition to its bylaws, if a foreign association or nonprofit organization is listed as a founding member, a group must obtain and submit, as part of its application, permission from the Ministry of the Interior; if foreigners are founding members of the group, the group must submit copies of their residence permits. If the governorate finds the bylaws unlawful or unconstitutional, the association must change the bylaws to meet the legal requirements. Under the law, the governorate may fine or otherwise punish association officials. Only a court order may close an association, except under a state of emergency and martial law, during which the government may close associations by decree. The civil code requires associations not to discriminate on the grounds of religion, ethnicity, or race.
Interfering with a religious group’s services is punishable by one to three years in prison; defacing religious property is punishable by three months to one year in prison; and destroying or demolishing religious property is punishable by one to four years in prison. Because it is illegal to hold religious services in places not registered as places of worship, in practice, these legal proscriptions apply only to registered religious groups.
The constitution establishes compulsory religious and moral instruction in public primary, middle, and high schools, with content determined by the Ministry of National Education’s Department of Religious Instruction. Religion classes are two hours per week for students in grades four through12. Only students who marked “Christian” or “Jewish” on their national identity cards may apply for an exemption from religion classes. Atheists, agnostics, Alevis or other non-Sunni Muslims, Bahais, Yezidis, or those who left the religion section blank on their national identity card may not be exempted. Middle and high school students may take additional Islamic religious courses as electives for two hours per week during regular school hours.
According to the labor law, private and public sector employers may not discriminate against employees based on race, religion, ethnicity, color, gender, disabilities, or political views. Employees may seek legal action against an employer through the Labor Court. If an employee can prove a violation occurred, the employee may be entitled to compensation of up to four months of salary in addition to the restitution of rights.
Military service is obligatory for males; there is no provision for conscientious objection. Those who oppose mandatory military service on religious grounds may face charges in military and civilian courts and if convicted are subject to prison sentences ranging from two months to two years.
By law prisoners have the right to practice their religions in prison; however, not all prisons have dedicated places of worship. The government provides Sunni Muslim mesjids (small mosques) in larger prisons and provides Sunni preachers; Alevis and non-Muslims do not have clerics from their own faiths serving in prisons. According to the law, prison authorities must give permission for religious groups to offer books and other materials that are a part of the prisoner’s faith.
National identity cards contain a space for religious identification, although individuals may choose to leave the space blank. The cards include the following religious identities as options: Muslim, Greek Orthodox, non-Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Zoroastrian, Confucian, Taoist, Buddhist, No Religion, or Other. Bahai, Alevi, and Yezidi, among other groups with known populations in the country, are not options. Members of these groups may choose any of the available options, or leave the space blank.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, with one reservation regarding Article 27, which states that individuals belonging to ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities “shall not be denied the right to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.” The reservation asserts the right “to interpret and apply the provisions of Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in accordance with the related provisions and rules of the Constitution of the Republic of Turkey and the Treaty of Lausanne of 24 July 1923 and its Appendixes.”
Summary paragraph: Since the July 2016 coup attempt, the government dismissed or suspended from state institutions more than 100,000 government officials, including more than 4,000 Diyanet staff, for alleged links with the Gulen movement, which the government continued to hold responsible for the attempted coup. According to the Ministry of Interior, authorities arrested more than 50,000 individuals since the coup attempt on alleged terror-related grounds. The government also continued to detain some foreign citizens for what it stated were potential links to the Gulen movement. In August an Izmir judge added charges to the original December 2016 indictment of a U.S. citizen Protestant pastor detained since October 2016. The government continued to limit the rights of non-Muslim minorities, especially those it did not recognize as covered under the 1923 Lausanne Treaty. It continued to consider Alevism a heterodox Muslim group and continued not to recognize Alevi houses of worship (cemevis). As part of a broader shutdown by government decree of organizations for allegedly spreading terrorist propaganda, the government closed two Shia Jaferi-owned television stations in January. The decrees did not specify the nature of the “terrorist propaganda.” Alevis expressed concern about security and said the government failed to meet their demands for religious reforms. In July the Ministry of National Education implemented an extensive revision of the school curriculum, which secular individuals and other citizens said increased the Sunni Muslim content in the textbooks and undermined the country’s secular education system. Non-Sunni Muslims did not receive the same protections as recognized non-Muslim minorities, although both experienced difficulty operating or opening houses of worship, challenging land and other property claims, or obtaining exemptions from mandatory religion classes. The government continued to train Sunni Muslim clerics, while restricting other religious groups from training their clergy, and continued to fund the construction of Sunni mosques while restricting land use of other religious groups. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of the Greek Orthodox Church continued to call on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to reopen as an independent institution to train Greek Orthodox clerics in the country.
Following the attempted July 2016 coup, the government declared a three-month state of emergency, which it renewed in October for the fifth time. The government ascribed responsibility for the coup attempt to self-exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and his movement, which identifies itself as an Islam-inspired civic, cultural and education movement, although the government considers it a terrorist organization. Since the coup attempt, police arrested more than 50,000 individuals, many for allegedly having ties to the Gulen movement. During the year the government suspended thousands of public officials, including more than 1,000 Diyanet employees. The government reinstated some public employees by state of emergency decree; several hundred were from the Diyanet.
Some foreign citizens, including several individuals with ties to Christian groups, faced detention, problems with residency permits, or denial of entry to the country under the state of emergency. Some Protestant community sources said they did not believe the government was specifically targeting foreign missionaries or those linked to Christian groups. In October the government added additional charges to the case of a U.S. citizen Protestant pastor, who at year’s end remained in pretrial detention in connection with charges including membership in the movement associated with Fethullah Gulen (labeled by the government as the “Fethullah Terrorist Organization” or “FETO”), espionage, and attempting to overthrow the government. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly linked the pastor’s case to the extradition of Fethullah Gulen from the United States. The government asserted that it was not holding the pastor because of his religious work. Most observers in the country said the case was political in nature; some U.S.-based organizations said the pastor’s detention was related to his work as a Christian minister. The pastor’s was one of several cases of U.S. citizens detained under the state of emergency; the other cases did not involve religious leaders.
In May and October a court in Atasehir, a suburb of Istanbul, held hearings on the charge of “willful and malicious injury” for a man who attacked two Jehovah’s Witnesses with a baseball bat in December 2016, severely injuring a 17-year-old Witness. A judge postponed the case; the next hearing was scheduled for January 2018.
According to the Protestant community in Bursa, the government provided police protection for its place of worship in the city following reported threats from ISIS or associated groups.
In April police intervened to stop the Furkan Foundation’s celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday in Adana. According to police, the Furkan Foundation, a Sunni group that is self-described as a social and religious civil society group, lacked the required permits. Police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd and detained more than 200 individuals.
The government continued to interpret the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which refers broadly to “non-Muslim minorities,” as granting special legal minority status exclusively to three recognized groups: Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Greek Orthodox Christians. The government did not recognize the leadership or administrative structures of non-Muslim minorities, such as the patriarchates and chief rabbinate, as legal entities, leaving them unable to buy or hold title to property or to press claims in court. These three groups, along with other minority religious communities, had to rely on independent foundations they previously organized, with separate governing boards, in order to hold and control individual religious properties. The foundations remained unable to hold elections to renew the membership of their governing boards because the government, despite promises to do so, had still not promulgated new regulations to replace those repealed in 2013 that would have allowed the election of foundation board members.
The government continued not to recognize the ecumenical patriarch as the leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, consistent with the government’s stance that there was no legal obligation for it to do so. The government’s position remained that the ecumenical patriarch was not “ecumenical,” but only the religious leader of the country’s Greek Orthodox minority population. The government continued to permit only Turkish citizens to vote in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Holy Synod or be elected patriarch, but continued its practice of granting citizenship to Greek Orthodox metropolitans under the terms of the government’s 2011stopgap solution to widen the pool of candidates to become the next patriarch. The Istanbul Governorate, which represents the central government in Istanbul, continued to maintain that leaders of the Greek Orthodox (Ecumenical Patriarchate), Armenian Apostolic Orthodox, and Jewish communities must be Turkish citizens, although coreligionists from outside the country in some cases had assumed informal leadership positions in these groups.
The Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to seek legal recognition, and their communities operated as conglomerations of individual religious foundations. Because the patriarchates did not have legal personality, associated foundations controlled by individual boards held all the property of the religious communities, and the patriarchates had no legal authority to direct the use of any assets or otherwise govern their communities.
In March the Istanbul governor’s office suspended a decision by the Spiritual Assembly of the Armenian Patriarchate to elect a trustee to start the process for the election of a new patriarch. Incumbent Patriarch Mesrob II remained unable to perform his duties because of his medical condition, and an acting patriarch continued to fill the position. Some members of the community criticized the governorship’s notification as interference in the internal affairs of the church. Patriarchate sources said the government later recognized the March election to elect a trustee. In July the elected trustee applied to the government to hold the patriarchal election in December. At year’s end, the community had not received a response from the government about how to proceed with the patriarchal election.
A majority of Protestant churches reported facing bureaucratic difficulties in registering as places of worship. Consequently, they continued to be registered as church associations and had to meet in unregistered locations for worship services. According to the Protestant community, there were five foundations (four existing before 1936), 36 associations, and more than 30 representative offices linked with these associations.
In January the government announced that female gendarmes would be allowed to wear headscarves under their hats and caps. In February the government extended the change to include all military units.
In January the government shut down two Shia Jaferi-owned television stations for allegedly spreading “terrorist propaganda.” The closure decrees did not specify the nature of the “terrorist propaganda.” Jaferi organizations, a member of parliament, and others publicly criticized the decision.
The trial of 13 individuals charged with conspiracy to commit a large-scale assault on an Izmit Protestant church and assassinate its pastor in 2013 continued throughout the year. In December a judge postponed the next hearing until May 2018 pending the result of an investigation of two local security officials allegedly involved in the plot. A judge had previously released all the suspects pending trial.
The state continued to provide training for Sunni Muslim clerics while restricting other religious groups from training clerics inside the country. The lack of monastic seminaries within the country meant that the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox Patriarchates were unable to train their clerics. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, leader of the Greek Orthodox Church, repeatedly called on the government to allow the Halki Seminary to re-open as an independent institution to enable training of Greek Orthodox clerics in the country. A1971 Constitutional Court ruling prohibited the operation of private institutions of higher education and led to the seminary’s closure.
According to some Protestants, many prosecutors and police continued to regard certain public religious speech and religious activism with suspicion, including proselytism by evangelical Protestants. In April then-Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak said missionary activities should be prohibited and described proselytization as an activity against the country’s unity. Proselytization remained legal at year’s end.
In May 2016 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that Turkey had violated the religious freedom of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Izmir and Mersin by refusing to provide them appropriate places of worship, a ruling the government did not implement during the year.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, 29 different municipalities denied 91 requests made by Jehovah’s Witnesses to obtain a religious facility location on municipal zoning maps. Local governments did not permit zoning for any Kingdom Halls in the country.
According to Protestant groups, many local officials continued to impose zoning standards on churches, such as minimum space requirements, that they did not impose on mosques. Local officials required Protestant groups to purchase 2,500 square meters of land (27,000 square feet) to construct churches, even for small congregations. Officials did not apply this requirement to Sunni Muslim congregations, whom they permitted to build small mosques in malls, airports, and other spaces. The Protestant groups said they had not applied for permits to build any new churches during the year, in part because of the zoning requirements.
Religious communities continued to challenge the government’s 2016 expropriation of their properties damaged in clashes between government security forces and the terrorist group Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The government expropriated those properties for their stated goal of “post-conflict reconstruction.” By the end of the year, the government had not returned or completed repairs on any of the properties, including the historic and ancient Sur District of Diyarbakir Province, Kursunlu Mosque, Hasirli Mosque, Surp Giragos Armenian Church, Mar Petyun Chaldean Church, Syriac Protestant Church, and the Armenian Catholic Church. In April the Council of State, the top administrative court, issued an interim decision to suspend the expropriation of Surp Giragos Armenian Church. The church remained closed and these cases continued at year’s end. Additionally, at year’s end the government had not paid restitution and compensation to the religious groups for the expropriation of property damaged in fighting with the PKK. In September 2016 the GDF began restoring the expropriated Armenian Catholic Church; by the end of the year, the restoration was not complete, and the church was not accessible for public use. The government said the Ministry of Culture would coordinate the restoration of some properties, and the GDF would restore properties it owned; however, no restorations occurred by the end of the year.
The government did not return any additional properties it had seized in previous decades by year’s end. Since 2011 the GDF received 1,560 applications from religious minority foundations that had applied for compensation for seized properties. The GDF returned 333 properties and paid compensation for 21 additional properties. The GDF rejected the other applications pending from 2011; it said the applications did not meet the criteria as outlined in the 2011 compensation law. The period for submitting compensation applications expired in 2013, and therefore no religious foundations submitted new applications during the year. The Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Jewish, Syrian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Georgian Orthodox, Chaldean, and Armenian Protestant communities, which had previously submitted applications for the return of properties, continued to say these unresolved claims were an issue for their communities. Recognized religious foundations were able to receive compensation for their seized properties, but religious institutions and communities without legally recognized foundations were not.
In June a Mardin court denied appeals from the Syriac Mor Gabriel Foundation regarding the Treasury’s ownership of expropriated Syriac community properties, including churches, graveyards, and village homes not registered to a Syriac foundation. Current law does not allow the Syriac community to transfer such community-owned (unregistered) properties from the Treasury to a religious foundation. The government offered to transfer the religious properties to the GDF and to give the Syriac community long-term leases, but the community rejected the proposal and was seeking a legal framework that would give it full ownership. A Syriac member of parliament in July called for the government to adopt policies to protect citizens of different faiths.
Citing zoning law violations, the municipal government in the Sultangazi District of Istanbul announced in April it would demolish a cemevi because it had not been registered properly as a place of worship in the district’s zoning plans. Two days later, however, the Ministry of Interior cancelled the decision.
The government continued to provide land for the construction of Sunni mosques and fund their construction through municipalities. According to the Diyanet, the number of mosques increased from 87,381 in 2016 to more than 90,000 during the year. Although Alevi groups were able to build new cemevis, the government continued to decline to provide financial support for their construction. In August President Erdogan presided over the official opening of Istanbul’s historic mosque of Hamidiye after its restoration by the GDF.
Throughout the month of Ramadan, for the third year the government’s religious television channel, Diyanet TV, broadcast a daily recitation of Quranic verses from the Hagia Sophia, which was secularized and transformed into a museum in 1935. In June then-Head of the Diyanet Mehmet Gormez gave a special interview from the Hagia Sophia while the Muslim call to prayer was broadcast from its minarets.
The government continued to permit annual and other commemorative religious worship services at religiously significant sites previously converted to state museums, such as St. Peter’s Church in Antakya, St. Nicholas’ Church near Demre, St. Paul Church near Isparta, and the House of the Virgin Mary near Selcuk. The Ecumenical Patriarchate again cancelled an annual service at Sumela Monastery near Trabzon because of its continuing restoration and held the ceremony at an alternative site.
In December the Constitutional Court rejected an objection by a local court to a provision of the law banning political activities and statements by imams. The court ruled that imams, muftis, and other Diyanet personnel remain prohibited from engaging in political activities, including praising or criticizing a political party.
In March a local court ruling in Antalya granted the daughter of an atheist family an exemption from compulsory religion classes after the family filed an objection.
In December the Ministry of National Education signed a three-year protocol with the Islamist Hizmet Foundation to provide “moral values” education during regular school hours. A teacher’s union, Egitim-Sen, stated that holding such programs during school hours would force students to attend and criticized the ministry for allegedly devolving its duties to an organization with links to a religious tarikat. The union applied to the Council of State for cancellation of the protocol.
At year’s end the government continued not to comply with a 2013 ruling by the ECHR that found the government’s compulsory religion courses in public schools violated educational freedom. The ECHR had denied the government’s appeal of the ruling in 2015 and upheld the Alevi community’s legal claim that the government-mandated courses promoted Sunni Islam and were contrary to its religious convictions. Authorities added material on Alevism to the religious course curriculum in 2011 after the ECHR decision, but many Alevis stated the material was inadequate and, in some cases, incorrect. Construction began in March 2015 on an Alevi school in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece district. Then- Minister of National Education Nabi Avci said the government would build the school in cooperation with the nongovernmental organization Helping Hands Foundation as a venue for teaching Alevi-Bektashi beliefs. According to the government, construction of the school’s main and annex buildings continued at year’s end.
In July the Ministry of National Education implemented an extensive revision of the school curriculum, which some secular individuals, Alevis and other citizens widely criticized for increasing the Sunni Muslim content in the textbooks while cutting some material on reforms enacted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secularist founder of the Republic of Turkey. The new curriculum included the Islamic concept of jihad in textbooks and omitted the theory of evolution, among other changes. Details on the early implementation of the new curriculum were limited. In September Alevi groups and secularists protested the new education curriculum in various cities and called for a “scientific” and secular education system. Alevis criticized the new curriculum as more sectarian than the previous one.
In September the Diyanet announced a plan to expand and make permanent a pilot program launched in 2016 to assign Diyanet employees, including imams, to university dormitories operated by the government in every province. The Diyanet stated the officials would provide “moral guidance” to address the “moral values” problems in the dorms, and would answer to the Diyanet’s provincial mufti, with performance reviews every six months. Many self-described secular citizens criticized the plan, saying that it gave religion greater influence over the education system.
Non-Sunni Muslims said they continued to face difficulty obtaining exemptions from compulsory religious instruction in primary and secondary schools and often had to choose from electives concerning different aspects of Sunni Islam, particularly if their identification cards listed their religion as “Muslim.” The government said the compulsory instruction covered a range of world religions, but some religious groups including Alevis and members of the Syriac Orthodox community, stated the courses largely reflected Hanafi Sunni Islamic doctrine and contained negative and incorrect information about other religious groups. Some Alevis stated that schools taught Alevi students incorrect information about their own faith, which parents had to correct at home.
In September an Alevi foundation issued a public statement criticizing a second-grade textbook that described an Alevi religious ritual as a “folk dance.”
Members of other minority religious groups, including Protestants, also said they had difficulty obtaining exemptions from religion classes. Some sources said that because schools provided no alternative for students exempted from the compulsory religious instruction, those students stood out and as a result could face additional social stigma.
The government continued to permit the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Jewish religious community foundations to operate schools under the supervision of the Ministry of National Education. Children of undocumented Armenian migrants and Armenian refugees from Syria could also attend. Because the government legally classified migrant and refugee children as “visitors,” however, they were ineligible to receive a diploma from these schools. The curricula of these schools included information unique to the cultures of the three groups and teachable in the minority groups’ languages. The three communities continued to finance most of the cost of these schools; the government financed classes taught in Turkish. The Syriac Orthodox community, which has operated a preschool since 2014, was still unable to open additional schools. The government did not permit other religious groups to operate schools.
The government limited the number of students admitted to public secondary schools and assigned tens of thousands of students to state-run “imam hatip” religious schools based on their entrance exam scores or proximity. The government continued to convert many nonreligious public schools to imam hatip schools, citing demand, and students reported this created a geographic hurdle for those who preferred to attend secular public schools. Enrollment in the imam hatip schools increased to 1.2 million students, up from approximately one million in 2015. Since the 2016 coup attempt, the government has closed at least 1,284 private schools, many affiliated with the movement led by Fethullah Gulen, on “antiterror” grounds. The government converted some of these private schools to imam hatip schools.
Some school textbooks continued to contain language critical of missionaries. One recommended eighth-grade textbook entitled History of the Turkish Republic Reforms and Ataturkism listed missionary activities in a section titled “National Threats.” According to a 2015 poll, 66 percent of respondents held a negative view of missionaries and missionary activity of any kind.
Many public buildings, including universities, maintained small mosques in which Muslims could pray. In June the Ministry of National Education issued a new regulation requiring every new school to have a mescit, an Islamic prayer room. The government continued to deny Alevis the right to establish similar places of worship in government buildings that did not contain places of worship for non-Sunnis. Alevi leaders reported there was an insufficient number of cemevis in the country to meet demand, stating that approximately 2,500 to 3,000 existed. The government continued to state that Diyanet-funded mosques were available to Alevis and all Muslims, regardless of their school of religious thought.
At year’s end the government still had not legally recognized cemevis as places of worship. The Supreme Court of Appeals had affirmed a lower court’s decision in August 2015 that cemevis are places of worship and should receive the same benefits that Sunni mosques receive, such as being exempt from paying utility bills. Most municipalities continued to waive utility bills only for Sunni Muslim mosques. Several municipalities led by the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), however, recognized cemevis and waived utility bills. Alevis issued public statements calling on the government to comply with the Supreme Court ruling. In June the ECHR fined the government 54,000 euros ($64,800) for refusing to pay the utility bills of a cemevi in Istanbul. In July the Council of State ruled in favor of another cemevi in Istanbul, compelling the Diyanet to pay its electricity bills. The government did not implement this ruling nationwide by year’s end.
Responding to a question by opposition parliamentarians, Minister of National Education Ismet Yilmaz announced in June that an academic suspended from his university for insulting and threatening Alevis on his social media accounts was reinstated and reassigned to a different public university.
In November the government passed a law authorizing provincial and district-level muftis and their designees to register and officiate at marriages on behalf of the state. The government stated the new law would make the marriage and marriage registration process more efficient, and supporters said the legislation would reduce illegal unregistered religious marriages. Secularists said the law violated the constitution’s principle of secularism, while women’s organizations stated it would increase child marriages. The law did not give the same authority to clerics of other religions, leading some critics to argue that the law ignored the needs of other religious groups by solely addressing the demands of some within the Sunni Muslim majority.
The Diyanet regulated the operation of all registered mosques. It paid the salaries of 112,725 religious personnel at the end of 2016, the last year for which data was available, compared with 117,378 in 2015. The government did not pay the salaries of religious leaders, instructors, or other staff belonging to other religious groups. In January 2016 the Ombudsman Institution responded to an appeal by the Boyacikoy Surp Yerits Mangants Armenian Church Foundation, issuing an advisory opinion that the Diyanet should pay priests’ salaries. The chief ombudsman said he supported “eliminating unjust treatment by amending relevant regulations.” By year’s end there had been no action on this issue.
As of August, 68 Jehovah’s Witnesses faced prosecution as conscientious objectors to military service. Jehovah’s Witnesses officials stated the government subjected Witness conscientious objectors “to unending call-ups for military duty, repeated fines, and threats of imprisonment.”
Some non-Muslims stated that listing their religious affiliation on national identity cards exposed them to discrimination and harassment. Members of many religious groups continued to assert they were precluded from obtaining government jobs and faced discrimination in the private sector for either not listing a religious affiliation or listing a non-Muslim religion on their identity cards.
In February the government started to distribute new national identity cards that recorded the religious affiliation of an individual in a chip in the card, visible only when scanned by a computer. In February 2016 then-Interior Minister Efkan Ala announced that recording religious affiliation in the chip would be optional.
In Nusaybin, the Syriac community restored three of the seven Syriac churches damaged or destroyed over several years during government clashes with the PKK. Two of the seven churches were completely destroyed during the clashes; renovation work on the two others continued at year’s end. In November Deputy Prime Minister Hakan Cavusoglu stated the government was working on a plan to transfer Syriac churches to the Syriac foundations in the Taskoy (Arbo) village of Mardin, noting the law would also facilitate the transfer of properties under the Mor Gabriel Foundation in Mardin. The churches in Taskoy, Mardin include Mor Dimet, Mor Salito, Meryem Ana, Mor Gevargis, Mor Batlo, Mor Simuni, and Mor Semun.
In April then-Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak announced government funds would renovate a church in Bursa, and the building would reopen for religious services. German Catholic, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Turkish Protestant congregations have shared the building, which the General Directorate of Foundations has owned for more than 10 years.
Ankara University hosted an event to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27. Then-Deputy Prime Minister Tugrul Turkes attended. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a written statement commemorating the event. In February the government again commemorated the nearly 800 Jewish refugees who died aboard the Struma when it sank off the coast of Istanbul in 1942. The Governor of Istanbul attended the commemoration, and the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed condolences.
Muslim, Jewish, and Christian religious leaders joined representatives from various municipalities in Istanbul for a public interfaith iftar in June.
In November Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presided over the reopening ceremony of the Aya Yorgi Greek Orthodox Church in Istanbul’s Edirnekapi district following the church’s three years of restoration by the GDF. Istanbul Governor Vasip Sahin and GDF Director General Adnan Ertem attended the reopening ceremony.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Members of the Jewish community continued to express concern about anti-Semitism and increased threats of violence throughout the country. The government responded to specific threats of violence by ISIS against Jewish schools by implementing enhanced security measures. Jewish community members said the government measures were helpful.
In July nearly 100 members of Alperen Hearths protested outside Neve Salom Synagogue in Istanbul in response to security measures Israel had implemented at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem following a July 14 attack that killed two Israeli police officers. Alperen Hearths describes itself as an educational and cultural foundation and with ideological ties to the Islamist nationalist Great Unity Party. Sources reported no police presence during the protest. Alperen Hearths Istanbul Chair Kursat Mican accused the Israeli government of blocking Palestinians’ freedom of worship and threatened the Jewish community: “If you prevent our freedom of worship there, then we will prevent your freedom of worship here and you will not able to enter here.” Protesters threw stones and kicked the synagogue’s doors before voluntarily dispersing. The Jewish community called for the authorities to take necessary security measures. Several days after the attack, high-ranking government officials called community representatives to demonstrate support for the community.
In August two individuals prayed inside the Hagia Sophia to protest Israeli security measures at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. “This is a mosque, not a museum,” the individuals said. Security guards removed them from the compound after the prayer.
Following a January ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Reina nightclub, a commentator on progovernment television station Kanal A said Alevi leaders would be killed first in the event of a civil war in the country. Alevi groups viewed the comments as a threat; the commentator later apologized on social media.
The Syriac Orthodox community continued to seek agreement with the Roman Catholic community to build a second church in Istanbul to accommodate its growing population. The Syriac Orthodox community to date had only one church in Istanbul to serve an estimated local population of 17,000 to 20,000. Because the land offered by the Istanbul municipality to the Syriac Church Foundation to build a second church previously belonged to the Roman Catholic Church, the Regional Board for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage required a written agreement between the two communities. The two communities had not reached agreement by year’s end.
Anti-Semitic rhetoric periodically continued in some print media and on social media throughout the year. In January columnist Yusuf Kaplan in the progovernment newspaper Yeni Safak claimed the country had been under “Jewish influence” for the last two centuries and described the alleged effect as a “tumor.” In January a columnist in the Islamist Yeni Soz daily claimed ISIS, Al-Qaida, PKK, “FETO,” and other similar groups were products of an alliance between the “devil and the Jews.” In March one columnist in the Islamist Milatdaily claimed the Second World War was started in order to establish the state of Israel, and said the war was a “war of independence” for Jews. In May a columnist in the progovernment Star daily claimed “the evangelicals and the Jews” were supporting the PKK. The same columnist claimed “FETO” was an evangelical movement disguised as Islam. In July a Yeni Soz article claimed the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex movement was financed by “Satanist Jews.”
A new and popular Turkish television series, “The Last Emperor,” raised concern among some in the Jewish community due to its anti-Semitic storyline, which portrayed Jews as the most evil characters. According to some press reports, the March episode provoked a surge in anti-Semitic messaging on social media.
In April on two occasions unidentified vandals damaged Alevi tombs and shrines in a Hatay cemetery. In November sources in Hatay said the government was trying to improve the security of minority religious sites and helping to clean up after acts of vandalism.
Various self-defined Islamist groups continued to threaten and vandalize Christian places of worship. In September an unidentified group threw stones at the Armenian Surp Tateos Church in the Narlikapi neighborhood of Istanbul, breaking windows. Some witnesses said the attackers shouted anti-Armenian slogans while a baptismal ceremony took place inside.
In September the president of the Surp Giragos Armenian Church Foundation said unidentified looters had burglarized the church in Diyarbakir multiple times, despite a continuing curfew in the area.
Various nationalist Islamic groups continued to advocate transforming some former Orthodox churches, including Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum, into mosques, drawing criticism from some Christian groups. The Hagia Sophia was an Orthodox church from 537-1453 and a mosque from 1453-1931. The campaigns intensified after the Hagia Sophia of Trabzon, a 12th-century Byzantine church that had been operating as a museum for the previous 50 years, was converted into a mosque in 2013. In May thousands participated in a morning Islamic prayer outside Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia. The Islamist nationalist Anatolian Youth Association organized the event within the context of the government’s celebration of the 564th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul.
In December, following the U.S. government recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, AKP Member of Parliament Samil Tayyar on Twitter requested the reopening of Hagia Sophia as a mosque in response: “If you say so, let Hagia Sophia be opened to prayers. We should start holding Friday prayers at Hagia Sophia.” A few days later, a group from Alperen Hearths read out a call to prayer inside Hagia Sophia and started to pray. Group members said they were protesting the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the U.S. government. Police detained the protesters and later released them.
On November 22, unidentified individuals in Malatya painted red “X” marks on the front doors of 13 Alevi family homes; family members said they perceived the marks as a threat. Alevis reported the occurrence to police, who opened an investigation. Alevis then held a protest march in Malatya. In December unidentified individuals painted a red cross on the wall of an Alevi house in Manisa. The resident reported the occurrence to police, who erased the mark. Prosecutors investigated the case, but there were no further reports or actions by year’s end.
On November 24, an individual threw a brick through the office window of the Association of Kurtulus (Salvation) Church, a Protestant church in Malatya. The suspect fled the scene, but police caught him later that night and released him the next day. Two attacks targeting the church took place earlier in the year.
In June the Jewish community again hosted an iftar at the Grand Edirne Synagogue for hundreds of participants, including Muslims and Christians.
In February the military held an official funeral ceremony on Gokceada (Imbros) island for a deceased Greek Orthodox veteran of the Korean War.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, embassy and consulate officials, and visiting U.S. officials regularly engaged with government officials throughout the year, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diyanet, and GDF, to underscore the importance of religious freedom, interfaith tolerance, and condemning hateful or discriminatory language directed at any religious groups. Among other issues, they urged the government to implement reforms aimed at lifting restrictions on religious groups, raised the issue of property restitution and restoration, and discussed specific cases of religious discrimination. Senior U.S. officials continued to raise with government officials Hagia Sophia’s extraordinary significance as a symbol of peaceful coexistence and meaningful dialogue and respect among religions. Senior U.S. officials and visitors similarly urged the rapid restitution of church properties expropriated in Diyarbakir and Mardin.
On August 15, the Secretary of State called for the release of the American pastor. The pastor’s case was one of several involving U.S. citizens detained under the state of emergency. The other cases did not involve individuals with ties to religious Christian groups. The U.S. government continued to criticize these detentions as unjustified.
The Secretary of State, Deputy Secretary of State, and other senior U.S. officials continued to urge government officials to reopen the Greek Orthodox seminary in Halki.
In January the Ambassador attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony at Ankara University with senior government officials and the leadership of the country’s Jewish community.
Senior U.S. embassy and consulate officials regularly engaged with a wide range of religious community leaders to hear and address their concerns, visit their places of worship, and promote interreligious dialogue. Officials from the embassy and consulates met with members of the Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Armenian Apostolic Orthodox Christian, Armenian Protestant, Armenian Catholic, Protestant, Alevi, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Latter Day Saints, and Bahai Faith communities, among others, throughout the country. The embassy and consulates utilized Twitter and Facebook to emphasize the importance of inclusion of religious minorities.
READ A SECTION: UKRAINE (BELOW) | CRIMEA
In February 2014 Russian military forces occupied Crimea. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262, adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers Crimea still to be a part of Ukraine.
The constitution protects freedom of religion and provides for the separation of church and state. According to the law, the objective of domestic religious policy is to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship. The president and other members of government continued to appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul to help overcome the division of the country’s Orthodox Christians. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) criticized what it said was the government’s failure to address discrimination against the UOC-MP by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and local governments sympathetic to the UOC-KP and to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC). Religious leaders continued to call on the government to simplify the registration procedures for religious groups; the government instructed ministry officials to develop a plan to do so. Parliament amended the tax code to secure the retention of nonprofit status by religious organizations. Religious leaders also continued to urge the government to establish a transparent legal process to address restitution claims. In August the National Guard announced it had implemented a ban on UOC-MP chaplaincy in National Guard units, which the Ministries of Culture and of Justice had endorsed in 2016. In various regions of the country, minority religious groups continued to report discriminatory treatment by local authorities in land allocation for religious buildings. The cities of Kyiv and Lviv honored World War II nationalist leaders who collaborated with Nazis, and whose subordinates were involved in killing thousands of Jews. The city of Vinnytsya erected a monument to a leader of the 1918-1921 Ukrainian People’s Republic who did not intervene to stop anti-Jewish pogroms in which anti-Semites, including some members of his military forces, killed tens of thousands of Jews.
Russia-led forces continued to control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts and to detain and imprison religious leaders. A military tribunal in Donetsk sentenced an academic specializing in religious studies to 32 months in prison; Russian proxy authorities later released him in a prisoner exchange with the government of Ukraine. A “People’s Council” amendment to the local “law” on religion empowered Russian proxy authorities to abolish religious groups and associations. Russia-led forces continued to occupy religious buildings of minority religious groups and use them as military facilities.
There was a report of a grenade thrown at Jewish pilgrims on a pilgrimage in Uman and a subsequent arrest. Other religious groups and radical political groups, including the Right Sector, disrupted UOC-MP prayer services, and in some cases, radical nationalists physically assaulted parishioners. Baptist Union representatives accused members of a UOC-MP congregation of disrupting a religious ceremony. UOC-MP and UOC-KP pilgrimage marches in Kyiv celebrating St. Volodymyr’s Feast Day were peaceful. Thanksgiving Day events hosted by Protestant churches, the UGCC pilgrimage to the Zarvanytsa and Hoshiv Icons, the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) pilgrimage to the Berdychiv Icon of the Mother of God, and Jewish community pilgrimages to most Jewish holy sites were all peaceful. A number of mainly smaller religious groups and churches established a new organization, the All-Ukraine Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA), to represent them. UOC-MP leaders stated the UOC-KP continued its efforts to seize churches belonging to the UOC-MP; the UOC-KP again stated it was parishioners and not the UOC-KP who had initiated the transfers of affiliation. The Jewish community remained concerned about new construction on the site at Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market located on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery. Nationalists staged a march to honor a World War II-era nationalist leader at which participants chanted anti-Semitic slogans. There were reports of vandalism of Christian monuments, Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries, and at Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls. The All-Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) and AUCRA worked to promote interfaith dialogue and religious diversity.
The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials met with the Presidential Administration, ministry officials, and members of parliament to discuss the protection of religious heritage sites, problems posed by manifestations of anti-Semitism, and issues related to the division within the Orthodox Church. The Ambassador and embassy officials continued to urge religious groups to resolve property disputes peacefully, in particular the dispute regarding the location of parts of the Krakivskiy Market on the site of the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery. Embassy officials continued to meet with internally displaced Muslims from Crimea to discuss their continuing inability to practice their religion freely in Crimea. The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with government, religious, and community leaders to promote Holocaust history education and the protection of Holocaust memorial sites.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 44 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the March national survey conducted by the Razumkov Center, an independent public policy think tank, 68.2 percent of respondents self-identify as Christian Orthodox, 7.8 percent Greek Catholic, 1.3 percent Jewish, 1 percent Roman Catholic, 0.8 percent Protestant and 0.2 percent Muslim. Another 7 percent self-identify as “simply a Christian” and 12.6 percent say they do not belong to any religious group. Small percentages of Buddhists, Hindus, adherents of other religions, and individuals not disclosing their religion comprise the rest of the respondents.
The same survey breaks down the 68.2 percent identifying as Christian Orthodox as 26.5 percent UOC-KP; 12 percent UOC-MP, 24.3 percent “just an Orthodox believer;” 3.5 percent the Russian Orthodox Church (as distinct from the UOC-MP) and other Orthodox groups; 1.1 percent the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC); and 0.8 percent undecided.
According to the Ministry of Culture, the UOC-KP has congregations in all oblasts (regions) of the country; the largest numbers of UOC-KP followers reside in the western and central regions of the country. The UOC-MP has congregations throughout the country. Most of the UAOC’s congregations are in the western part of the country.
Followers of the UGCC, the largest non-Orthodox church with an estimated four million members, reside primarily in the western oblasts of Lviv, Lutsk, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil. The RCC has an estimated one million members. Most of its congregations are in Lviv, Khmelnytsky, Zhytomyr, Vinnytsya, and Zakarpattya Oblasts.
The Evangelical Baptist Union of Ukraine is the largest Protestant community. Other Christian groups include Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons).
Government agencies and independent think tanks estimate the Muslim population at 500,000. Some Muslim leaders put the number at two million. According to government figures, the majority are Crimean Tatars, numbering an estimated 300,000.
According to the most recent government census data from 2001, 103,600 Jews live in the country, constituting approximately 0.2 percent of the population. The Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities (VAAD) states there are approximately 300,000 persons of Jewish ancestry in the country. According to VAAD, before the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, approximately 30,000 Jewish persons lived in the Donbas region. Jewish groups estimate between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before Russia’s attempted annexation. There are also Buddhists, practitioners of Falun Gong, Bahais, and adherents of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship. By law the government may restrict this right only in the “interests of protecting public order, the health and morality of the population, or protecting the rights and freedoms of other persons.” The constitution provides for the separation of church and state and stipulates, “No religion shall be recognized by the state as mandatory.”
By law the objective of religious policy is to “restore full-fledged dialogue between representatives of various social, ethnic, cultural, and religious groups to foster the creation of a tolerant society and provide for freedom of conscience and worship.”
The law requires a religious institution seeking to receive official status as a legal entity to register both as a religious organization and as a nonprofit organization. To obtain official religious status an organization must register either with the Ministry of Culture, the government agency responsible for religious affairs, or with regional government authorities, depending upon the nature of the organization. Religious centers, administrations, monasteries, religious brotherhoods, missions, and religious schools register with the Ministry of Culture. Religious groups and congregations register with the regional authorities where they operate, either with the city government in Kyiv or the respective oblast government outside of Kyiv. While these religious groups and congregations may form the constituent units of a nationwide religious organization, the nationwide organization does not register on a national basis nor may it obtain recognition as a legal entity; rather, the constituent units register and obtain legal entity status.
To be eligible for registration, a religious group must have at least 10 adult members and must submit its statutes to the registration authorities. To obtain status as a nonprofit organization, a religious group must register with the Ministry of Justice, which is responsible for maintaining the government’s register of legal entities. This register lists all entities with this status, including religious ones. The law does not specify which of the two registration procedures must be undertaken first.
Without legal entity status, a religious group may not own property, conduct banking activities, or publish materials. Per the stipulation against national registration, only the registered constituent units of a nationwide religious organization may own property or conduct business activities, either for themselves or on behalf of the nationwide organization. The law grants property tax exemptions to religious organizations and considers them nonprofit organizations.
The law requires commanders of military units to allow their subordinates to participate in religious services but bans the creation of religious organizations in military institutions and military units. The Ministry of Defense defines selection criteria for clerics to become chaplains, the status of chaplains in the chain of command, and their rights and duties in the armed forces, National Guard, and State Border Guard Service.
The law gives prison chaplains access to both pretrial detainees and sentenced inmates. It also protects the confidentiality of confession heard by prison chaplains, prohibits the use of information received during confession as evidence in legal proceedings, and does not allow the interrogation of clerics, interpreters, or other persons about matters associated with the confidentiality of confession.
According to the constitution, organizers must notify local authorities in advance of any type of planned public gathering, and authorities may challenge the legality of the planned event. According to a 2016 Constitutional Court decision, religious organizations need only to inform local authorities of their intention to hold a public gathering, and need not apply for permission or notify authorities within a specific period in advance of the event.
The law allows religious groups to establish theological schools to train clergy and other religious workers, as well as seek state accreditation through the Ministry of Culture for their curriculum. The law states theological schools shall function based on their own statutes.
Government agencies authorized to monitor religious organizations include the Prosecutor General, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and all other “central bodies of the executive government.”
Only registered religious groups may seek restitution of communal property confiscated by the Communist regime. Religious groups must apply to regional authorities for property restitution. The law states consideration of a restitution claim should be completed within a month.
The law prohibits the teaching of religion as part of the mandatory public school curriculum and states public school training “shall be free from interference by political parties, civic and religious organizations.” Public schools include ethics of faith or similar faith-related courses as optional parts of the curriculum.
The law provides for antidiscrimination screening of draft legislation and government regulations, including based on religion. The law specifies the screening be conducted in accordance with instructions developed by the Cabinet of Ministers, with the legal department of each respective agency responsible for verifying the draft legislation does not contain discriminatory language and requiring changes if it does. Religious groups may participate in the screening of draft legislation at the invitation of the respective agency.
The law allows alternative nonmilitary service for conscientious objectors. The law does not exempt the clergy from military mobilization.
The Office of the Parliamentary Human Rights Ombudsman is constitutionally required to release an annual report to parliament with a section on religious freedom.
The law restricts the activities of foreign-based religious groups and defines the permissible activities of noncitizen clergy, preachers, teachers, and other representatives of foreign-based religious organizations. By law foreign religious workers may “preach, administer religious ordinances, or practice other canonical activities,” but they may do so only for the religious organization that had invited them and with the approval of the government body that registered the statute of the organization. Missionary activity is included under permissible activities.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Since 2015, the government has exercised the right of derogation from its obligations under the ICCPR with regard to the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under the control of foreign forces, including the ICCPR provisions pertaining to religious freedom.
Summary Paragraph: The government reiterated its appeal to the Archbishop of Constantinople – New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, based in Istanbul, for recognition of an Orthodox Church in Ukraine independent from the Moscow Patriarchate. The UOC-MP continued to criticize what it said was the government’s failure to address discrimination against the UOC-MP by the UOC-KP and local governments sympathetic to the UOC-KP and UGCC. In 2016 the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Justice endorsed a ban on UOC-MP chaplaincy in National Guard units. Religious leaders continued to call on the government to simplify registration procedures for religious groups; the government instructed ministry officials to do so as part of its action plan for 2016-2020. The parliament struck down a tax code provision requiring all registered religious organizations to reregister their statutes in order to retain nonprofit status. Religious leaders continued to urge the government to establish a transparent legal process to address restitution claims. In different regions of the country, the UOC-KP, UOC-MP, UGCC, RCC, and other religious groups reported local authorities continued to give preference to the majority religious over the minorities on allocating land for religious buildings. Kyiv Muslims reported difficulties in receiving free land for burials, which was their legal right. The cities of Kyiv and Lviv honored World War II nationalist leaders whose subordinates were complicit in the killing of thousands of Jews. The city of Vinnytsya erected a monument to a leader of the 1918-1921 Ukrainian People’s Republic responsible for participation of his military forces in anti-Jewish pogroms. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, in a May 18 letter, the Ministry of Culture reaffirmed that their religious buildings were sanctuaries, which afforded greater legal protection to Kingdom Halls.
On October 3, the Rivne Oblast State Administration turned down a reregistration application by a local Jehovah’s Witnesses organization, stating that members of the organization were not allowed to preach or study the Bible outside Kingdom Halls.
On September 25, the Mykolayiv District Administrative Court revoked a decision by the Vitovsky District State Administration that denied a Jehovah’s Witness the right to alternative nonmilitary service. On September 1, the Slovyansk District State Administration denied a request by a conscript, a Jehovah’s Witness since 2011, to seek alternative service, citing lack of evidence that the applicant’s religious beliefs were “genuine,” and despite a letter from the Religious Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses confirming the applicant’s religious affiliation.
The procuracy continued an investigation into parliament member Vadym Novynsky’s suspected involvement in the 2013 detention of Metropolitan Oleksandr, the personal secretary of then-UOC-MP leader Metropolitan Volodymyr. According to the prosecutor general, the detention was part of an effort involving then-President Yanukovych. Novynsky and several high-level officials of the Yanukovych government removed Volodymyr from his leadership position because he did not support church involvement in politics. On December 5, the prosecutor general said the delay in forwarding the case to a Kyiv court was likely due to the courts judges’ bias in favor of Novynsky.
In his annual address to parliament on September 7, President Petro Poroshenko reiterated the government’s appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant recognition to an Orthodox Church independent of Moscow in the country. He stated such recognition would not lead to the “emergence of a state church or a ban on other Orthodox churches.”
On May 11, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted its annual action plan to implement the National Strategy for Civil Society Development for 2016-2020. It instructed the Ministries of Justice, Culture, and Finance, as well as the State Fiscal Service, to simplify the registration of religious organizations − a step which religious leaders and human rights activists had repeatedly advocated the government to take.
On June 1, the AUCCRO, a longstanding independent interfaith board representing more than 90 percent of the country’s religious organizations, urged the government to grant nonprofit status to religious organizations. The AUCCRO, which includes the UOC-MP, the UOC-KP, the UGCC, the UAOC, and the Roman Catholic Church, as well as Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups, requested the government adopt amendments to the law on religion rather than requiring them to go through the reregistration procedure stipulated by the tax code, which AUCCRO characterized as “cumbersome.” On December 7, parliament struck down the tax code provision requiring all registered religious organizations to reregister their statutes in order to retain nonprofit status. The amendment guarantees automatic inclusion of religious organizations in the Register of Nonprofit Institutions and Organizations by the State Fiscal Service. Religious leaders and experts welcomed the move.
On August 17, the deputy commander of the National Guard told media outlets that the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Justice had endorsed the ban on UOC-MP chaplaincy in National Guard units prior to its introduction by the Interior Ministry in 2016. The Interior Ministry order referred to UOC-MP chaplains as clerics from religious groups whose centers were “located in an aggressor state.”
On July 5, the Ministry of Justice established the Pastoral Council for Religious Support of the Penitentiary System, an advisory interfaith board designed to promote prison chaplaincy. Since its creation, members of the council worked with the ministry to develop guidance for chaplains ministering to prisoners who faced torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment.
Small religious groups continued to report discriminatory treatment by local governments with regard to the allocation of land for religious buildings in Ivano-Frankivsk, Mykolayiv, Odesa, and Ternopil Oblasts and the City of Kyiv. Roman Catholics, UOC-KP members, UGCC members, and Muslims continued to report instances of discrimination. UGCC representatives continued to report local authorities in Sumy and Odesa were unwilling to allocate land for UGCC churches. UOC-MP representatives reported a continued refusal by local authorities in the Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk Oblasts to allocate land for UOC-MP churches. Roman Catholics reported a continued refusal by the government to support the restitution of Odesa’s Roman Catholic seminary building, which the Soviet regime had confiscated. Mormon representatives reported the continued failure of the Kyiv city government to reinstate a lease on land to build a house of worship.
On December 4, the Donetsk Appellate Economic Court upheld the June 27 ruling by the Donetsk Oblast Economic Court to revoke the 2015 decision by the Purification Church in Kostyanynivka, a Donetsk Oblast parish, to change its jurisdiction from the UOC-MP to UOC-KP. The court cited irregularities in appointment of parish members, and said the parish council’s decision contradicted its own statute requiring the parish to receive approval of a local UOC-MP bishop in order to change the jurisdiction. The UOC-KP criticized the verdict.
On November 3, the Kolomyia City and District Court upheld a complaint by a UOC-MP parish in Stary Hvizdets village, Ivano Frankivsk Oblast concerning police failure to investigate an incident, which occurred during an October 14 gathering of local residents. During the event, reportedly initiated by a village mayor and boycotted by a majority of UOC-MP supporters, most participants voted to change the parish affiliation of the local Annunciation Church to the UOC-KP. The UOC-KP rejected claims its supporters did not previously belong to the UOC-MP parish. According to the UOC-MP, UOC-KP members seized keys to the church during the meeting; after the incident, they relied on local police support to deny UOC-MP parishioners access to the building. A director of a local community center said she had to resign in response to pressure from village mayor Mykhaylo Dyakiv and the chief of the Kolomyia District Culture Department over her UOC-MP affiliation. UOC-KP members reportedly beat a UOC-MP parishioner as he tried to attend a November 4 service. Police at the scene told UOC-MP representatives they would only allow UOC-KP members to use the church, citing the need to prevent violent confrontation between the two groups. Violence erupted between UOC-MP and UOC-KP members November 12 as local police prevented UOC-MP representatives from entering the church while helping UOC-KP clerics enter for a religious service. During the scuffle a man reportedly belonging to the UOC-KP threw an elderly UOC-MP parishioner to the ground.
On November 22, the High Economic Court of Ukraine upheld a petition by the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union (UCSJ), ordering the Volyn Oblast Economic Court to reconsider a 2015 decision to allow the construction of a private industrial facility on the grounds of a Jewish cemetery near Toykut village in Volyn Oblast. The High Economic Court also upheld a lower court ruling to revoke the 2008 contract on the lease of the cemetery’s land. In a separate case, on March 27, the Lviv District Administrative Court upheld a UCSJ petition to declare “illegal” the failure of the Volyn Oblast State Administration to protect the same Jewish cemetery in the Volyn Oblast, and to prevent construction on the cemetery grounds. The court ordered the Oblast Administration to rectify the issue. Pursuant to the order, on June 1, the Oblast Administration issued a resolution to determine the existence of the cemetery and register it as a protected heritage site. According to the UCSJ, however, as of the end of the year the facility continued to function on the cemetery grounds.
Kyiv’s Muslim community said the local government, which allocates land for cemeteries, had not acted on the community’s request for additional free land for Islamic burials, which was their legal right. Muslim community leaders said it was running out of land for it burials.
All major religious organizations continued to appeal to the government to establish a transparent legal process to address property restitution claims. Most organizations reported continued problems and delays in the restitution process to reclaim property seized by the Communist regime; they said the consideration of claims often continued to take longer than the month prescribed by law. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups stated a number of factors continued to complicate the restitution process, including intercommunity competition for particular properties, current use of some properties by state institutions, the designation of some properties as historic landmarks, local governments disputing jurisdictional boundaries, and previous transfers of some properties to private ownership. They continued to report local officials taking sides in property restitution disputes, such as the case of the Lviv City government’s continued denial of RCC requests for restitution of several properties that had been turned over to the UGCC.
The AUCCRO called on the government to revive the interagency Commission to Realize the Rights of Religious Organizations, established to address complex restitution issues, as well as promote dialogue between the government and religious groups. It last met in 2012.
RCC leaders stated they continued to ask authorities to return former Church properties in the western part of the country and elsewhere. The RCC leaders reported the government’s continuing refusal to support the restitution of Odesa’s Roman Catholic seminary building, which the Soviet regime confiscated.
Jewish community leaders reported continued difficulties with the Ternopil municipal and district governments with regard to property restitution. The Ternopil District Council continued to reject local Jewish community requests to return a prayer house confiscated during the Soviet regime.
Muslim community leaders expressed concern over the continued lack of resolution of restitution claims involving historic mosques in Mykolayiv.
The AUCCRO continued to appeal to parliament to impose a moratorium on the privatization of previously confiscated religious buildings. Despite renewed government promises to address the issue, the government had taken no action by the end of the year.
The Jewish community expressed concern over the continued failure of local government authorities to protect historic religious properties, particularly historic synagogues in Lviv.
UOC-MP representatives renewed their complaints about what they said was the continuing inadequacy of the central government’s response to discrimination and intolerance toward its members by UOC-KP and UGCC representatives and high-ranking UOC-KP and UGCC supporters in some local governments.
In line with the country’s 2015 decommunization and denazification law, some local authorities continued to rename Communist-era streets, bridges, and monuments in honor of 20th century Ukrainian nationalists, some of whom were associated with anti-Semitism.
On June 13, a Kyiv administrative court upheld a motion by opponents of a proposal to rename a city street in honor of Roman Shukhevych, one of the leaders of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and commander of the Nazi-controlled Nachtigall battalion. The two groups collaborated with the Nazis in the early years of World War II, and according to historian Ihor Shchupak, director of the Tkuma All-Ukrainian Holocaust Research Center, some members of these two groups killed Jews. Although the court had suspended the renaming, the Kyiv City Council approved renaming the street in late June. From June 30-July 2, the city of Lviv held a festival honoring Shukhevych’s 110th birthday. The director of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee was quoted in the press as calling the event “disgraceful.” On July 5, the Simon Wiesenthal Center condemned the naming of Kyiv streets after Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, opposing “the glorification of the two Ukrainian nationalist leaders whose men actively participated in the mass murder of Jews during the initial months following the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union.”
On October 17, the World Jewish Congress issued a statement criticizing the city of Vinnytsya for erecting a monument to Symon Petlyura, a leader of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1918-1921 who did not intervene to stop a series of anti-Jewish pogroms in which anti-Semites, including some members of his military forces, killed tens of thousands of Jews.
In a televised interview in late March, Nadiya Savchenko, an opposition party parliamentarian said Jews exercised too much power in the country and “possess 80 percent of the power when they only account for 2 percent of the population.” In an interview earlier in March, she agreed with a listener calling in who spoke out against a “Jewish takeover” of the country. Government officials publicly condemned her remarks.
Religious leaders continued to appeal to the government to adopt the Concept of Church-State Relations, which would shape cooperation between the government and religious groups and provide long-term basis for legislation on religious issues.
During a July 4 meeting with the AUCCRO, Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman reaffirmed the government’s commitment to promoting religious freedom and dialogue with religious communities. In his September 7 speech to parliament, President Poroshenko reaffirmed the government’s commitment to freedom of worship, saying each citizen independently had chosen and would continue to choose “his or her faith and church.”
The government supported efforts by the Protestant community to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation by assisting with organizing educational and cultural events.
Abuses by Foreign Forces and Nonstate Actors
Russia-led forces in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts continued to detain and imprison members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses as well as other religious leaders.
On May 3, a Russia-controlled “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DPR) “military tribunal” sentenced 63-year old President of the Center for Religious Studies and International Spiritual Relations, Ihor Kozlovsky, detained in 2016, to two years and eight months in prison, describing him as an “unreliable citizen” due to his contacts with Ukrainian organizations “outlawed” in the “DPR.” “DPR” representatives reportedly physically abused Kozlovsky following his arrest and threatened to detain and torture his bedridden son. On May 12, the Ministry of Culture of Ukraine appealed to the international community to support efforts to secure Kozlovsky’s release. The ministry attributed Kozlovsky’s imprisonment to his “professional activity protecting religious freedom.” Russia-led forces released Kozlovsky in a prisoner exchange on December 27.
According to the Baptist Union, on September 20, “DPR” militants stopped Pastor Mykhaylo Nahirnyak at a checkpoint and banned him from returning to his home in Yenakiyeve, Donetsk Oblast, which Russia-led forces controlled, citing a decision by the “DPR Ministry of State Security.” On August 24, militants operating a “DPR” checkpoint prevented Oleksandr Nahirnyak, pastor of another Yenakiyeve church, from returning to his family and church.
On February 10, the Russia-controlled “DPR” “People’s Council” passed amendments to the “DPR” 2016 “Law on the Freedom of Worship and Religious Associations” giving the “DPR” “Ministry of Culture” more powers to monitor the registration of religious associations in the region and to abolish them on various grounds. The revised law continued to require a religious association to register either as a “religious group,” which did not afford the group status as a legal entity or as a “religious organization.” The requirement remained for a newly created religious association seeking legal status to submit written notification to authorities about its function, location, administration, and the names and home addresses of its members. A religious group had to notify authorities about its continued existence annually, at which time the “DPR” authorities had ten days to either put the group on the “Register of Religious Groups” or turn down the notification. The “DPR” authorities had a month to examine the application documents of a religious association seeking “religious organization” status. In either case, the “DPR” authorities could conduct a “state religious expert evaluation” of the documents, which could take up to six months, or deny a registration request on a number of grounds, such as missing required information or if authorities had banned the registration of the religious entity that was applying.
On September 11, the “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LPR) “Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport” created an “expert council” to screen local religious organizations, stating the “LPR” could not register them as legal entities without the council’s approval. The “LPR” also ordered leaders of those religious organizations to hold mandatory consultations with the “expert council.”
As of the end of the year, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported “DPR” and “LPR” representatives had seized six of their buildings and searched seven. During the year “DPR” and “LPR” representatives also interrogated 170 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
According to media reports, in August “LPR Deputy Minister of State Security” Aleksandr Basov stated that “LPR” authorities had stopped the activity of Jehovah’s Witness congregations in Luhansk and Alchevsk Oblasts describing its members as “extremists,” supporters of “neo-Nazi groups,” and “agents of influence” of the Ukrainian security services. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, their situation in the “DPR” sharply deteriorated after its acting “Prosecutor-General” Andriy Spivak pledged to fight “extremism” in his remarks to the “DPR People’s Council” in December 2016.
According to nongovernmental organization (NGO) reports, Russia-led forces continued their use of previously seized places of worship as military facilities. Jehovah’s Witnesses stated Russia-led forces used some places of worship as barracks.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 4, a group of armed representatives of the “LPR State Security Ministry” broke into a Kingdom Hall in Alchevsk, Luhansk Oblast as congregation members gathered for worship. The “LPR Interior Minister” and the town’s “acting prosecutor” also came to the Kingdom Hall. The gunmen escorted congregation members to a local military facility and held them for eight hours in scorching heat without access to drinking water or toilets. Representatives of the “ministry” questioned the detainees, including children and teenagers questioned in the absence of their parents. Authorities ordered local Jehovah’s Witnesses minister Andriy Mezhynsky to pay a fine of 2,392 hryvnia ($85) for organizing “an unsanctioned mass gathering.” “Ministry” representatives searched his home, and confiscated his computer and other electronic devices. During the search of the Kingdom Hall, the armed representatives reportedly planted and “found” several envelopes with pro-Ukrainian leaflets. The “LPR” authorities confiscated the Kingdom Hall on the same day.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that on August 4, armed representatives of the “LPR Ministry for Emergencies” and “State Security Ministry” came to a Kingdom Hall in Luhansk, citing the need to investigate a bomb threat. They ordered approximately 200 members of the congregation to stop a religious service and assemble outside the building. During a subsequent search, the armed representatives confiscated all video and audio equipment, computers, and religious materials. They also questioned some congregation members, particularly elderly women, and confiscated the Kingdom Hall. On August 28, the “LPR State Security Ministry” said it found Nazi symbols and pro-Ukrainian leaflets during the search.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on September 23, “LPR police officers” detained Lyudmyla Kostyuk and Natalya Mordovtseva, who were privately sharing their religious beliefs with local residents. The detainees were undressed to their underwear and searched in the presence of five men. During the five-hour interrogation, “police” forced the detainees to stand for the duration and threatened them with lengthy imprisonment. The interrogation continued for another hour at the “State Security Ministry,” and authorities searched Kostyuk’s home.
On July 2, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that “DPR police” held Jehovah’s Witnesses Viktor Vertel and Nadia Havrylova in detention for four hours for distribution of religious literature in Donetsk. Authorities” threatened the detainees with a ten-day arrest if they continued their activity. Police officers photographed the detainees and collected their fingerprints.
On October 14, five “LPR police officers” and “State Security Ministry” representatives disrupted religious service at the private home of 84-year-old Mykhailo Bukovar, according to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They searched the residence and took Bukovar and other Jehovah’s Witnesses to a police department for interrogation. On November 27, an “LPR court” ordered congregation member Volodymyr Safarov, who prayed aloud during the raid, to pay a fine of 2,392 hryvnia ($85) for “organizing an unsanctioned gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” The “court” accused Jehovah’s Witnesses of “restricting the rights and freedoms of other people,” and described visits by Jehovah’s Witnesses to the homes of local residents as “violation of public peace.”
On November 17, “LPR police” interrogated four Jehovah’s Witnesses during a raid on a Kingdom Hall in Krasnodon, Luhansk Oblast according to the Witnesses.
During the year, “DPR” authorities also raided Kingdom Halls in Donetsk, Novoazovsk, Dokuchayivsk, Yasynuvata, Khartsyzsk, Yenakiyeve, Amvrosiyivka, Makiyivka, and Telmanove, Donetsk Oblasts. The Russian proxy authorities said it was “necessary for combatting extremism.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that “LPR Ministry of State Security officers” threatened local Jehovah’s Witness ministers in Sverdlovsk with negative consequences if they refused to cooperate with them. Unknown persons robbed and desecrated a Kingdom Hall in Luhansk and vandalized a Kingdom Hall in Donetsk in September. “LPR” and “DPR” “authorities” confiscated Kingdom Halls in Kirovsk, Alchevsk, Luhansk, Krasnodon, Horlivka, and Debaltseve.
On August 1, the “DPR Ministry of Justice” added Jehovah’s Witnesses periodicals Awake and The Watchtower to the “Republican List of Extremist Materials.” The “DPR Supreme Court” labeled materials distributed by the “Jehovah Witnesses sect” as extremist.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary Paragraph: There was a report of a grenade thrown at Jewish pilgrims on a pilgrimage in Uman; authorities later arrested a suspect. Other religious groups and the Right Sector political movement disrupted UOC-MP prayer services; in some cases, individuals described as radical nationalists physically assaulted parishioners. A number of primarily smaller religious groups and churches established a new organization to represent them. UOC-MP leaders stated the UOC-KP continued to seize churches belonging to the UOC-MP; the UOC-KP said parishioners initiated the transfers of affiliation and not the UOC-KP. The Right Sector political movement intervened at disputed religious properties on behalf of the UOC-KP and the UGCC. The Jewish community expressed its continued concern about the continuing existence of Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market and construction on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery. Nationalists staged a march to honor a World War II nationalist leader at which participants chanted anti-Semitic slogans. There continued to be reports of vandalism at Holocaust memorials, synagogues, and Jewish cemeteries, as well as reports of vandalism directed against Christian monuments and Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Kingdom Halls. Several religious figures and government officials reported suspicions that Russia had sponsored some anti-Semitic incidents and other religious vandalism as part of its efforts to destabilize Ukraine; in some cases, the Ukrainian government presented evidence. The AUCCRO and the newly created AUCRA worked to promote interfaith dialogue and religious diversity.
Chabad Rabbi Mendel Deitsch died in April from injuries he sustained in 2016 when four individuals attacked him at a train station in Zhytomyr. Authorities arrested the four suspects after the attack; the case continued at year’s end.
According to the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group (NMRMG), an NGO supported by the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress and the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities, no anti-Semitic violence was recorded during the year, compared with one case in 2016, one case in 2015, four cases in 2014, and four in 2013. The NMRMG reported that on March 30, a group of teenagers singled out and taunted a rabbi at the Most City Mall in Dnipro (formerly Dnipropetrovsk). One of the teenagers shoved the rabbi with his shoulder, and the rabbi’s kippah fell to the floor. The teenagers shouted insults and threats, such as “you should all be killed” and “kikes get out of here.” The conflict did not evolve beyond a heated verbal argument; no physical violence was involved beyond the shoving. Police opened an investigation.
According to police, on September 21, three individuals threw a hand grenade at Jewish pilgrims in Uman, Cherkasy Oblast, causing minor injury to a 13-year-old boy. According to an unconfirmed media report, a drunken person living in a nearby apartment building incidentally dropped the hand grenade on the roof a private metal garage used by several pilgrims as inexpensive accommodation. Police detained the three individuals in early October and linked them to two former members of parliament who had fled to Russia in 2014. According the government officials, the main motive of the three individuals was to smear the country’s reputation. The same individuals reportedly threw Molotov cocktails at a synagogue in Lviv on June 30, causing minor damage to its wall. Officials reported the same individuals had defaced the wall of the Central Synagogue in Chernivtsi with anti-Semitic graffiti in November 2016, and in December 2016 had attacked worshippers and desecrated a synagogue near the grave of Rabbi Nachman, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement, in Uman. Police also accused them of politically motivated attacks on several sites with no apparent religious significance, including the U.S. embassy. The NMRMG expressed doubt that the attackers had committed all those offenses. The suspects continued to remain under investigation.
On September 6, supporters of the Svoboda Party and its Sokil youth wing verbally and physically assaulted UOC-MP members who tried to stop their protest against construction of a UOC-MP church in Mykolayiv. The protestors accused congregation members of supporting Russian aggression against the country and damaged a gate and wooden formwork at the construction site. An elderly UOC-MP parishioner was reportedly hospitalized with a concussion and torn ligaments. Another parish member, whom the attackers reportedly tried to strangle, was also taken to a hospital. Police detained several of the protestors but soon released them. On August 26, unidentified individuals burned construction materials at the site. One of the attackers reportedly claimed responsibility for burning the materials and threatened parish members with another arson attack if they continued building the church. According to the UOC-MP, representatives of the two opposition groups had previously assaulted construction workers to prevent them from digging the foundation of the church.
On July 2, several dozen members of a local UOC-MP parish led by their priest disrupted a baptism ceremony conducted by Baptist Union members at a lake near Hrudky village, Volyn Oblast. They demanded the followers of the Baptist group not “desecrate the lake” and hold such ceremonies elsewhere. Some UOC-MP representatives reportedly pushed Baptist Union member Yaroslav Kot as he tried to videotape the incident. According to the Baptist Union, the Hrudky village council chairman and the local police did nothing to resolve the dispute.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 18 cases of physical assaults. In one case, they said a woman in Kyiv carried out 15 attacks, as well as threatened murder and damaged property. The Witnesses reported police did not investigate these attacks.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on June 21, Oleh Nikitshyn verbally and physically assaulted and tried to strangle his coworker, Jehovah’s Witness Yuriy Vorobei, and calling him a “saint” and “Stundist,” a derogatory reference to Vorobie’s membership in a minority Christian group. An eyewitness intervened and stopped the attack. Despite verifiable signs of physical trauma, law enforcement officials did not press charges.
On May 23, the mayor of Kolomyia in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast instructed members of the city council who had requested the government evict a UOC-MP congregation from the city’s historic Annunciation Church not to use force against the congregation. The mayor instead suggested local activists should try to “convince” the parish members to leave the UOC-MP. On June 4, a group of Greek Catholic priests, accompanied by members of the Right Sector and Black Hundred groups, disrupted a UOC-MP prayer service in the church, accusing the worshipers of “serving the Russian aggressor” and insisting the parishioners leave the UOC-MP. In a statement issued on June 6, the UGCC Kolomyia and Chernivtsi Diocese publicly distanced itself from the June 4 events, describing them as a local community initiative. The UGCC also said it would not relinquish its rights to the church, which the Soviet regime confiscated from the UGCC in the 1940s and later transferred to the UOC-MP in 1991. In response, the UOC-MP stated it would take the case to court, stating the 16th century church was originally built as an Orthodox church. On June 29, the Kolomyia City and District Court upheld a UOC-MP complaint against the local police for refusing to investigate the June 4 incident. During the proceedings, opponents of the UOC-MP shouted insults at parish representatives in the courtroom and physically assaulted UOC-MP priest Vitaliy Dimnych when he prevented the opposition from seizing parish documents from a lawyer for the UOC-MP congregation. On October 4, the Ivano-Frankivsk District Administrative Court declared illegal a decision by the Kolomiya municipal police chief to seal the church entrance. On October 17, UGCC followers reportedly removed locks from the church entrance, taking control of the church. On October 22, UGCC followers, including their priest, Mykola Medynsky, verbally and physically assaulted UOC-MP members who tried to hold a prayer service in the church courtyard. Medynsky called UOC-MP parishioners “Moscow’s pigs,” and reportedly pushed and punched some of them. The UOC-MP criticized local police for their reluctance to intervene. On October 26, UGCC leader Major Archbishop Svyatoslav condemned the use of force and urged participants in the dispute to respect the rule of law. He also attributed the confrontation to the municipal government’s “inconsistent” position regarding the Annunciation Church.
Jehovah’s Witnesses expressed concern over the failure of law enforcement agencies to prosecute those who assaulted Jehovah’s Witnesses, including attacks in Stryzhavka in 2013, Mykolayiv, Melitopol, Komyshaka, and Odesa in 2014, and Kyiv, Kamyanka, Lviv, Pryvillya, and Uman in 2016.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on August 2, an individual chanted an anti-Semitic slur and smashed mobile displays with Jehovah’s Witnesses’ materials in Poltava. He also threatened the two missionaries who were displaying the materials. The victims photographed the attacker and his car, but police reportedly refused to investigate the incident, saying it was not a crime.
On July 3, a man attacked two Jehovah’s Witnesses missionaries in Cherkasy, breaking a window of a nearby shop and forcing them to flee. Other Witnesses stopped the attacker. Police did not respond to three emergency calls from the victims, saying that no patrols were available at the time. Law enforcement authorities did not open an investigation.
There were no further developments in the police investigation of the 2015 killing of Roman Nikolayev, rector of the UOC-MP St. Tetyana’s parish in Kyiv.
On September 19, local government officials in Sumy Oblast stated they would not permit the UOC-MP to hold its annual march in Sumy city on October 14, stating the procession could cause a “confrontation.” Despite the ban, the UOC-MP held the march, which transpired without incident.
According to media estimates, more than 100,000 persons attended Protestant church-hosted Thanksgiving Day events to “thank God for His abundant blessings” in central Kyiv on September 17. Well-known Christian evangelists addressed the crowd.
On July 27, the UOC-MP celebrated St. Volodymyr’s feast day with a procession in Kyiv, which transpired without incident in contrast to the previous year, when nationalist groups harassed marchers and tried to prevent individuals in various locales from joining the procession. Police estimated there were 15,000 participants.
The following day, the UOC-KP held its annual procession in Kyiv to mark St. Volodymyr’s feast day. Police reported no incidents; media reported an estimated 4,000 individuals participated in the event.
According to the Ternopil Oblast State Administration, on July 15-16, more than 100,000 persons participated without incident in the UGCC annual national pilgrimage to the Zarvanytsya Icon of the Mother of God.
In September and October the annual Jewish New Year pilgrimages to the Uman burial site of Rabbi Nachman took place. According to media reports, more than 30,000 pilgrims visited Uman during the year. Media also reported Jewish pilgrims visited other burial sites of spiritual leaders in Belz, Medzhybizh, Berdychiv, and Hadyach, all without any significant difficulties.
According to the Ministry of Culture, the UOC-MP had 12,328 congregations throughout the country, while the UOC-KP had 5,114 and the UAOC had 1,195.
On January 26, a number of mainly smaller religious groups and churches, in conjunction with the NGO Ukrainian Association of Religious Experts, established the All-Ukrainian Council of Religious Associations (AUCRA) for the stated purpose of promoting the country’s spiritual revival, interfaith dialogue, and interaction between religious organizations and the government. AUCRA’s membership included the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (Umma), Religious Association of Progressive Jewish Communities of Ukraine, the National Spiritual Association of Bahai of Ukraine, Association of Sons and Daughters of Native Ukrainian National Faith, Center of the Krishna Consciousness Communities in Ukraine, and the Apostolic Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Several AUCRA members said they were blocked from membership in the AUCCRO, which requires unanimous approval for new members.
The UOC-MP continued to make public statements saying that the UOC-KP was “emboldened” by police inaction and by support from groups, such as the Right Sector, to continue its efforts to seize UOC-MP church buildings. According to the UOC-MP, local authorities continued to transfer parish jurisdictions from the UOC-MP to the UOC-KP against the will of the parishioners.
Posts on the Right Sector website repeated previous statements by the group stating that, at the request of the UOC-KP, it would continue to visit sites disputed between the UOC-MP and UOC-KP to “facilitate” a change of jurisdiction.
Following the UOC-MP and Right Sector statements, the UOC-KP repeated its previous statements, rejecting accusations about its involvement in the seizures of UOC-MP churches and saying these were legitimate transfers to UOC-KP jurisdiction initiated by parishioners. The UOC-KP stated it would continue to act according to the law, but also would continue to accept into its jurisdiction any UOC-MP clergy and laity requesting UOC-KP affiliation.
Jehovah’s Witnesses reported local religious communities continued to be denied zoning permits to build Kingdom Halls in 12 cities, towns, and villages.
The Jewish community continued to express its concern about the continuing operation of the Krakivskiy Market on the grounds of an ancient Jewish cemetery in Lviv. The UCSJ expressed concern over the construction of a multi-story building on the cemetery grounds.
The UCSJ and civic activists also expressed concern over the possible continuation of construction of a high-rise building at the site of the World War II Jewish ghetto in Lviv. Although the project was suspended after human remains were reportedly found and removed from the soil at the construction site in 2016, the remains had not been returned to the site by year’s end.
Nationalists associated with the Svoboda Party conducted a march in Kyiv on New Year’s Day to celebrate the birthday of Stepan Bandera. Bandera was a leader of the 1930s and 1940s nationalist movement, whose members fought alongside Nazi soldiers against the Soviets in the first years of World War II, and some of whom were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Jews. According to media and NGO accounts, thousands of individuals reportedly attended the event, with some chanting “Jews out” in German (“Juden raus”). Government officials condemned the march, and Jewish community leaders called on authorities to prosecute those chanting such slogans for hate speech. As of the end of the year, authorities filed no charges.
According to the UOC-MP, on September 29 unidentified individuals claiming affiliation with the National Corps Party in Malyn, Zhytomyr Oblast, posted leaflets calling for the removal of UOC-MP priests from the region and describing them as “the Kremlin’s agents of influence.” A local UOC-MP priest stated a local UOC-KP priest’s aggressive rhetoric may have influenced the activists and could be behind the incident.
In April the Ternopil Oblast Right Sector branch initiated an outdoor advertising campaign describing UOC-MP clerics as “invaders” on billboards throughout the region.
On February 21, unidentified vandals smashed a window of the Nativity of Christ Church of the UGCC in Kozyatyn, Vinnytsya Oblast.
On April 24, unknown individuals burglarized the St. Demetrious Church of the UOC-MP in Odesa, damaging icons and stealing donations.
On July 17, unidentified individuals damaged a statue of the Mother of God affiliated with the RCC located in a public square in Lviv. According to media reports, earlier this year unknown vandals damaged two more statues of the Mother of God in the city.
According to media sources, in July unidentified individuals defaced a statue of the Mother of God with a tar-like substance near a UAOC church in Lutsk. Authorities discovered the vandalism on July 25.
In August unidentified individuals cut down and burned a cross at Polonyna Runa Mountain in Transcarpathia Oblast. Police detained three suspects, who remained under investigation at year’s end.
On August 16, unidentified individuals destroyed a cross on the side of the road near the entrance to Odesa.
On October 2, unidentified individuals destroyed a cross and damaged a tombstone on the grave of Archbishop Oleksanr Petrovsky, revered by the Orthodox Church as a holy martyr, at a cemetery in Kharkiv.
In October unknown individuals defaced a street mural of Pope John Paul II in Kyiv with a swastika and anti-Polish graffiti.
On October 16, unknown individuals broke a cross and destroyed several sculptures at the outdoor Stations of the Cross of Lviv.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported 30 new incidents of vandalism against Kingdom Halls during the year, compared with 21 incidents of vandalism, including three arson attacks, in 2016. Incidents included an attack in January on a Kingdom Hall in Shpola, Cherkasy Oblast.
The NMRMG reported 24 cases of anti-Semitic vandalism during the year, compared with 19 in 2016 and 22 in 2015.
On February 26, a group of Right Sector activists held a ceremony to erect a memorial cross at the old Jewish cemetery in Kolomyia. They said buried at the site were members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a World War II pro-independence paramilitary group that fought against the Soviets, sometimes in collaboration with the Germans, but later fought against the Germans and also against Polish communists. The local Jewish community stated there were no Christian graves in the cemetery, and described the incident as a provocation. Although several Greek Catholic priests had participated in the ceremony, the UGCC Kolomiya and Chernivtsi Diocese issued an official statement saying the diocesan administration had “neither organized, received an invitation, nor delegated its priests” to attend the event. The statement went on to say, “some priests, guided by their personal beliefs, were present at the event for a joint prayer to commemorate victims of the communist regime.” The local government stated it had not sanctioned the event.
The case against three suspects who had vandalized a local synagogue and cemetery and attempted to set fire to the ohel, a structure covering the grave of Chief Rabbi Gillel Boruch Liechtenstein, continued after a long delay in Kolomyia, Ivano Frankivsk Oblast. The Jewish community stated the delay was because of the court’s “unwillingness” to handle the case. The hearing continued at year’s end.
There continued to be reports of vandalism of Holocaust memorials and Jewish religious monuments, including in Cherkasy, Chernivtsi, Kyiv, Lviv, Nikopol, Mykolaiv, Odesa, Poltava, Rivne, and Ternopil Oblasts. Police investigations into these incidents continued at year’s end.
According to media reports, on April 18, the Kostopil District State Administration, Rivne Oblast urged law enforcement agencies to identify and bring to justice perpetrators who in mid-April painted a swastika on a Holocaust memorial near the town. Local college students removed the graffiti and an investigation into the incident continued at year’s end.
On January 13, arsonists damaged a Jewish cemetery in Kolomiya, where similar attacks occurred in 2015. A police investigation continued at year’s end.
According to media sources, on June 9, unidentified individuals painted swastikas on the wall of a Jewish community center in Odesa. According the NMRMG, workers of the center did not rule out that the incident could be a pro-Russian provocation.
On June 21, unidentified individuals defaced the Three Synagogues Memorial in central Lviv with a swastika and the inscription “White Power.” The mayor called the incident “unacceptable” and appealed to police and the security services to find and punish the perpetrators. According to the NMRMG, on July 13, a witness saw three young men painting a swastika at on the memorial. He prevented them from escaping and called the police. Police then detained the vandals and forced them to remove the graffiti.
On June 30, unidentified individuals painted anti-Semitic graffiti on the walls of a Lviv synagogue.
According to media reports, in late August unidentified individuals either toppled or destroyed some 20 tombstones at a Jewish cemetery in Svalyava. A local rabbi urged authorities to investigate the desecration. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On December 13, unidentified individuals painted neo-Nazi graffiti on a Hanukah menorah in central Kyiv. On December 17, unidentified persons spilled a blood-like substance on the same menorah. The Kyiv mayor condemned the acts and police investigated both incidents as acts of hooliganism. The investigation continued at year’s end.
On December 25, the words “death to kikes” appeared on the exterior wall of Hesed Shpira charity, funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in Uzhhorod. The individuals responsible for the graffiti had not been identified at year’s end.
According to media reports, unidentified individuals wrote anti-Semitic graffiti on three Jewish institutions in Odesa at the end of December. On December 25, the words “Toasting the Holocaust” appeared on the gate of Odesa’s Holocaust museum. In another incident, unidentified individuals wrote “Jews out, Ukraine for Ukrainians” on Brodsky Synagogue’s exterior face. An anti-Semitic symbol also appeared on a gate near the Beit Grand Jewish Community Center. In all three incidents, a Wolfsangel, a Nazi symbol, figured prominently at the center of the graffiti. A police investigation continued at year’s end.
Authorities continued to investigate the 2016 acts of vandalism against the Israeli flag in Babyn Yar, the ohel on the grave of Rabbi Aryeh Leib in Shpola, and desecration of the Holocaust monument in Uzhhorod.
Police investigations continued into the 2016 arson attacks on UOC-MP churches in Kyiv, including the Transfiguration Church, the Saint Agapitus Church, and the Church of Saint Petro Mohyla. Additionally, the arson and vandalism attack on the UGCC church in Ternopil remained under investigation at year’s end.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, embassy officials, and other U.S. government officials continued to meet with the Presidential Administration; the Ministries of Culture, Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs; as well as with members of parliament, political parties, and local officials. They discussed continuing concerns about the government’s response to the division within the Orthodox Church, the preservation of religious heritage sites, support for religious minorities, and manifestations of anti-Semitism. In meetings with government officials at both the national and local levels, the Ambassador continued to raise the issue of communal property restitution. Both in those meetings and in official correspondence, the Ambassador also urged government officials to increase their efforts to ensure the preservation of historic religious sites.
Embassy officials continued their meetings with internally displaced Muslims from Crimea to discuss their abuse by occupation authorities, including regular searches and detentions, a continuing inability to practice their religion freely or express dissent, a lack of restitution of their religious properties, and other continuing problems they faced with the Crimean occupation authorities.
The Ambassador and embassy officials hosted an interfaith iftar in June during Ramadan. Religious leaders from across faiths, government officials, and members of the diplomatic community attended. The Ambassador and other embassy officials also attended Hannukah, Christmas, and other religious events, as well as hosting a December holiday reception. They emphasized the importance of religious dialogue and equality and encouraged efforts to combat anti-Semitism and preserve cultural heritage.
The Ambassador and embassy officials continued to urge the peaceful resolution of religious disputes concerning property in meetings with leaders of major Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religious groups in Dnipro, Kyiv, Uman, and Lviv. In particular, the embassy continued to encourage religious groups involved in the dispute related to the location of parts of Lviv’s Krakivskiy Market on the former site of the city’s Old Jewish Cemetery to resolve the dispute peacefully. Embassy officials also discussed other issues affecting religious communities, such as registration procedures for religious groups, desecration of monuments, and the government’s procedures for religious property restitution.
The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues met with government, religious, and community leaders in April to encourage them to make greater efforts to promote Holocaust history education and to protect Holocaust memorials. In his meetings, he also emphasized the importance of preserving Jewish heritage sites.
READ A SECTION: UKRAINE (ABOVE) | CRIMEA
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In February 2014 Russian military forces occupied Crimea. United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262, adopted on March 27, 2014, and entitled “Territorial Integrity of Ukraine,” states the Autonomous Republic of Crimea remains internationally recognized as within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government does not recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and considers Crimea still to be a part of Ukraine.
In February 2014, armed forces of the Russian Federation seized and occupied Crimea. In March 2014, Russia announced Crimea had become part of the Russian Federation. A UN General Assembly resolution declared continued international recognition of Crimea’s inclusion within Ukraine’s international borders. The U.S. government continues not to recognize the purported annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and maintains Crimea continues to be part of Ukraine. Occupation forces continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory of Crimea.
The head of the Dzhankoy branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses died of a heart attack following a court hearing on charges of conducting illegal missionary activities. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Muslims faced charges for the same offense. According to human rights and international organizations, occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions, especially if the authorities purportedly suspected the individuals of involvement in the Muslim political organization Hizb ut-Tahrir. On August 31, Russian court bailiffs injured Archbishop Kliment, head of the Crimean Diocese of the UOC-KP, when they raided the UOC-KP cathedral and diocesan administration office in Simferopol and seized parts of the property. The Russian government reported there were 812 religious communities registered in Crimea, a number that had dropped by over 1,000 since occupation began in 2014, the last year for which Ukrainian government figures were available. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), stringent Russian legal requirements continued to prevent or discourage groups from reregistering, while individuals who refused Russian citizenship remained unable under occupation law to register their communities. The OHCHR reported local authorities in June deregistered all 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Crimea. The UGCC and the UOC-KP reported occupation authorities continued to make it difficult for them to operate in the territory. Local authorities reportedly told a Jehovah’s Witness he would not be able to participate in alternative nonmilitary service unless he abandoned his religion.
Religious and human rights groups reported continued efforts by Russian media to create suspicion and fear among religious groups, accusing the Crimean Tatar community of links to Islamic groups designated by the Russian Federation as terrorists, and attempting to discredit the UOC-KP and the UGCC as “fascists.” Crimean Tatars reported police continued to be slow to investigate attacks on Islamic religious properties or refused to investigate them at all.
The U.S. government continued to condemn the intimidation of Christian and Muslim religious groups by Russian occupation authorities in Crimea and to call international attention to the religious abuses committed by Russian forces. U.S. government officials remained unable to visit the peninsula following its occupation by the Russian Federation. Embassy officials, however, continued to meet in other parts of Ukraine with Crimean Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders to discuss their concerns over actions taken against their congregations by the occupation authorities, and to demonstrate continued U.S. support for their right to practice their religious beliefs.
Section I. Religious Demography
The Crimean peninsula consists of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (ARC) and the city of Sevastopol. According to State Statistics Service of Ukraine estimates, the total population of the peninsula is 2,353,000. There are no recent independent surveys with data on the religious affiliation of the population, but media outlets estimate the number of Crimean Tatars, who are overwhelmingly Muslim, at 300,000, or 13 percent of the population.
According to the most recent information provided by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014, the UOC-MP remains the largest Christian denomination. Smaller Christian denominations include the UOC-KP, RCC, UAOC, UGCC, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, along with Protestant groups, including Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Lutherans. Adherents of the UOC-MP, Protestants, and Muslims are the largest religious groups in Sevastopol.
There are several Jewish congregations, mostly in Sevastopol and Simferopol. Jewish groups estimate that between 10,000 and 15,000 Jewish residents lived in Crimea before the Russian occupation began.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
Pursuant to international recognition of the continued inclusion of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea within Ukraine’s international borders, Crimea continues to be officially subject to the constitution and laws of Ukraine. In the aftermath of Russia’s occupation, however, occupation authorities continue their de facto implementation of the laws of the Russian Federation in the territory.
Summary Paragraph: The head of the Dzhankoy branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses died of a heart attack following a court hearing on charges of conducting illegal missionary activities. Other Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Muslims faced charges for the same offense. The occupation authorities continued to subject Muslim Crimean Tatars to abductions, forced psychiatric hospitalizations, imprisonment, and detentions, according to human rights and international organizations. Occupation authorities sentenced several Muslim Crimean Tatars to prison for alleged involvement in Hizb ut-Tahrir and detained dozens more throughout the year. According to the Russian Ministry of Justice, there were 812 registered religious communities in the region, more than 1,000 fewer than were registered under Ukrainian law in 2014, the last year for which figures were available from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture. According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities, while many religious minorities refusing Russian citizenship remained unable under occupation law to register their communities. The OHCHR reported local occupation authorities in June deregistered all 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Crimea. Greek Catholic leaders continued to have difficulty staffing their parishes because of the policies of the occupation. The UGCC reported it continued to have to operate under the umbrella of the RCC. The UOC-KP reported continued seizures of its churches and the injury of UOC-KP Archbishop Kliment on August 31 when Russian bailiffs raided the main UOC-KP cathedral in Simferopol in Russia-occupied Crimea and seized religious property. Local authorities reportedly told a Jehovah’s Witness he could not participate in alternative nonmilitary service unless he abandoned his religion. Because religion and ethnicity were often closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
The investigation of Ervin Ibragimov’s kidnapping continued with no new information on his whereabouts at year’s end. In May 2016 unidentified uniformed men kidnapped Ibragimov, a Muslim and member of the Bakhchisarai Mejlis and of the Coordinating Council of the World Congress of Crimean Tatars, after stopping his car on the side of the road. In June Ibragimov’s employment record book and passport were found near a bar in Bakhchisarai.
The NGO Crimean Human Rights Group reported the death of the head of the Dzhankoy branch of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Vitaly Arsenyuk, by a heart attack on June 27 following a hearing before a “justice of the peace” on charges of “unlawfully conducting missionary activities.”
On September 10, Akhtem Chiygoz, deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, was sentenced to eight years in jail in connection with what both the Ukrainian government and civil society organizations considered unfounded charges related to a demonstration that took place before Russia’s occupation began. Both Chiygoz and Mejlis representative Ilmi Umerov were released October 25 following negotiations by the Turkish government. The details of their release were not publicly known.
Forced psychiatric examinations of Crimean Tatar Muslim prisoners continued throughout the year. For example, according to a human rights NGO, on January 12, occupation authorities forcibly subjected Zevri Abseitov, detained on charges of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim political organization outlawed in Russia but legal in Ukraine, to psychiatric evaluation and confinement without apparent medical need.
In late April a court in Rostov, Russia changed the verdict for Ruslan Zeyitullayev, replacing his six-year prison sentence with twelve-years’ imprisonment on terrorism charges for his alleged involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir. In April, May, and July he held hunger strikes, demanding Russian authorities stop ethnically and religiously motivated persecution of Crimean Tatars. On July 27, Russia’s Supreme Court rejected Zeyitullayev’s appeal and increased his prison term to 15 years.
During an offsite hearing in Simferopol on December 4, Russia’s Rostov District Military Court prolonged the detentions of Muslims Aliyev, Emir-Useyn Kuku,
Vadym Siruk, Enver Bekirov, Arsen Dzheparov and Refat Alimov until May 2018. The court cited their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Yalta.
On October 11, police detained six Crimean Tatars − Timur Ibragimov, Marlen Asanov, Server Zekiryayev, Ernest Mametov, Seyran Saliyev, and Memet Belyalov − for their suspected involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir in Bakhchisarai. The press quoted their lawyer, Mammet Mambetov, as stating that police had beaten some of them while they were in custody. According to media reports, on December 5 and 7, Simferopol’s Kyivsky District Court extended their detention until March 2018. Russian media portrayed the Crimean Tatars detained on October 11 and subjected to searches in Bakhchisarai in January as “extremists.” The Crimean Tatar Resource Center, an NGO based in Kyiv, issued a statement following the October 11 arrests asserting such “systemic criminal acts” by the occupation authorities were an abuse of freedom of religion, were politically motivated, and “aimed at inciting ethnic and religious hatred.” Occupation authorities also detained another nine Crimean Tatars − Asan Ismailov, Amet Suleymanov, Eldar Ishnazarov, Ernest Ibragimov, Refat Asanov, Eskender Lyumanov, Ilnur Asanov, Rudem Nedjiev, and Ruslan Bilyalov − who were present at homes searched on October 11, and had tried to document and spread information about the searches. On October 12, the Bakhchisarai District Court imposed fines of 10,000 to 20,000 Russian rubles ($170 to $350) on each of the nine detainees for “organizing the simultaneous mass presence and movement of persons in public places, which caused violations of public order.”
Eight Crimean Tatars − Zevri Abseitov, Remzi Memetov, Rustem Abiltarov, Ayder Saledinov, Teymur Abdullayev, Uzair Abdullayev, Emil Dzhemadenov, and Rustem Ismailov − all detained by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) in 2016 on suspicion of involvement with Hizb ut-Tahrir, remained in custody at year’s end facing potential prison sentences of up to 10 years. According to media reports, on December 8, the Crimean Supreme Court extended the detention of Saledinov, Dzhemadenov, Ismailov, and Teymur and Uzair Abdullayev until February 2018. In February Ismailov and Saledinov were reportedly forced to undergo psychiatric examination.
In October the NGO Memorial released its annual report, which included a list of political prisoners in Russia. The report named three Crimean political prisoners who continued to be imprisoned in Russia for their participation in Hizb ut-Tahrir. Yury Primov, Ferat Saifullayev, and Ruslan Zeitullayev were detained in Sevastopol in 2015 and charged with participation in or organizing activities for a terrorist group as designated by Russian law.
On August 31, Russian court bailiffs twisted the arm of Archbishop Kliment, head of the Crimean Diocese of the UOC-KP, when they raided the UOC-KP cathedral and diocesan administration office in Simferopol. The archbishop was transported by ambulance to hospital for treatment. The bailiffs cited a 2016 decision by Crimea’s “arbitration court” to revoke a lease agreement for the property, evict the UOC-KP from the cathedral, and pay a fine of 500,000 Russian rubles ($8,600). They restricted access to portions of the property and seized the cross, church utensils, icons, porcelain, and crystal tableware donated to the church, as well as carpets.
According to the OHCHR, following an April decision by the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation to ban Jehovah’s Witnesses, local authorities deregistered all 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations in Crimea on June 1. The OHCHR report stated the ban “affected the right to freedom of religion of an estimated 8,000 believers in the region.”
Based on information provided by the Ministry of Justice of Russia, the OHCHR reported 722 religious communities were registered with the local authorities in Crimea and 96 in Sevastopol as of September 4. These included the two largest religious organizations – the Christian Orthodox UOC-MP and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea (SAMC) – as well as various Protestant, Jewish, Roman Catholic, and Greek Catholic communities, among other religious groups.
According to data collected by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture in 2014 (the most recent year available), there were 2,083 religious organizations (a term including parishes, congregations, theological schools, monasteries, and other constituent parts of a church or religious group) in the ARC and 137 in Sevastopol. The numbers included organizations both with and without legal entity status. Muslim religious organizations constituted the largest number of religious organizations in the ARC, most of which were affiliated with the SAMC, Ukraine’s largest Muslim group.
The OHCHR report on the most recent number of registered religious communities indicated more than 1,000 religious communities recognized under Ukrainian law had not reregistered. According to the OHCHR, stringent legal requirements under Russian legislation continued to prevent or discourage reregistration of many religious communities. In addition, many members of religious minorities, especially Crimean Tatars and members of the UOC-KP, continued to refuse Russian citizenship and remained unable under occupation law to register a religious community.
According to human rights groups, the authorities continued to restrict the rights of Crimean Tatars, who are Muslim, following the 2016 designation of the Mejlis, recognized under Ukrainian law as the democratically elected representative council of the Crimean Tatars, as an “extremist organization.”
Human rights groups reported the occupation authorities continued to require imams at Crimean Tatar mosques to inform them each time they transferred from one mosque to another.
According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on April 2, police “stormed into” a Kingdom Hall in Dzhankoy during a prayer service and, citing the Russian Supreme Court’s ban on Jehovah’s Witnesses activity, searched the building and locked it to prevent future religious gatherings at the site. Occupation authorities continued to occupy the building at year’s end.
According to Forum 18, an international religious freedom NGO, occupation authorities brought administrative charges against 13 individuals, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, Protestants, and Muslims, for illegal “missionary activity,” although some were attending religious meetings of the religious group to which they belonged. The punishments generally involved fines of approximately 10 days’ wages, according to Forum 18. Occupation authorities brought an additional 14 cases against individuals and religious communities for failing to use the full legal name of a registered religious community.
On February 9, a “justice of the peace” of the Bakhchisarai District fined Arsen Ganiev for “missionary activity conducted at an unauthorized location” for distributing calendars, leaflets, and a book about the forthcoming celebration of the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday.
On February 18, a “justice of the peace” of Yalta District sentenced Hryhoriy Stasyuk, local leader of the Church of Christians of Seventh-day Adventists in Yalta. He was fined 30,000 Russian rubles ($520) for the absence of a signboard with the full name of the organization at the entrance to the premises in which the church held its services.
On May 11, a “justice of the peace” of the Bakhchisarai District imposed a fine of 30,000 Russian rubles ($520) on Nikolay Blyshchik, a pastor of the local evangelical Revival Church, for the absence of a signboard with the full name of the organization at the entrance to the premises where the church services were conducted.
The RCC reported it continued to operate in the territory as a pastoral district directly under the authority of the Vatican. The RCC stated it faced continued difficulty in staffing parishes, as occupation authorities continued to require its Polish and Ukrainian priests, the majority, to register as foreign residents. As such, the priests were permitted to stay in the territory for only 90 days at a time and then were required to remain out of Crimea for 90 days before returning.
According to the UGCC, it could still only operate as a part of the pastoral district of the RCC and was prohibited from operating independently.
According to the UOC-KP, Russian occupation authorities intensified pressure on the UOC-KP Crimean diocese in a bid to force the UOC-KP to leave the region. Only eight of the 15 UOC-KP churches located in Crimea prior to the Russian occupation remained functioning at the end of the year.
According to media reports, Russian authorities sanctioned the destruction of a historic Islamic cemetery in Gurzuf to prepare the site for construction of a children’s camp building. The construction began in January and continued, although workers had unearthed human remains. In November Russian media reported that occupation authorities would give the site protected heritage status.
According to the All-Ukraine Union of Pentecostal Churches, occupation authorities in Bakhchisarai forced the local Pentecostal congregation Voice of Hope to move out of its building located opposite a newly built FSB facility. Occupation authorities cited violations of construction standards. The congregation resumed worship in a different building.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia website, on June 9, officials of the Bakhchisarai District’s Military Registration and Enlistment Office told a local Jehovah’s Witness he would not be able to perform alternative nonmilitary service unless he abandoned his religion. The office reportedly served the conscript a summons requiring him to present documents showing his “change of faith” and warning him that authorities would prosecute him for rejecting their demand.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Religious and human rights groups continued to report Russian media efforts to create suspicion and fear among certain religious groups, especially targeting Crimean Tatar Muslims, whom media repeatedly accused of links to Islamist groups designated by Russia as terrorist groups, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir. Russian media articles and commentary continued attempts to discredit the UOC-KP and the UGCC, depicting the groups as “fascists” for supporting the Ukrainian government and opposing the Russian occupation. For example, on June 4, the Russian news website Life.ru posted a lengthy analysis of the “history” of the UOC-KP, purportedly showing how “Nazi supporters” dominated the UOC-KP both in the past and in the present.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government continued its efforts to focus international attention on the religious freedom-related abuses committed by Russian forces and occupation authorities in Crimea, especially on actions taken by those forces and authorities against Christians and Muslims. U.S. government and embassy officials condemned the continuing intimidation of minority religious congregations, including Christians and Muslim Crimean Tatars.
Although embassy and other U.S. government officials remained unable to visit Crimea following the Russian occupation, embassy officials continued to hold meetings in other parts of Ukraine with Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders. They discussed their concerns over actions taken against congregations by the occupation authorities and reassured the religious leaders of continued U.S. support for the right of all to practice their religious beliefs. In meetings with U.S. officials on December 11 and 12, representatives from the UOC-KP, UOC-MP, Pentecostal Church, UGCC, Baptist Union, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jewish, and Muslim communities expressed concerns regarding continued harassment, intimidation, and property confiscation by occupation authorities. Embassy officials said the United States would continue to support religious freedom in the peninsula and press the occupation authorities to return confiscated property and release prisoners incarcerated for their religious or political beliefs.
READ A SECTION: UKRAINE | CRIMEA (ABOVE)
United Arab Emirates
The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of worship as long as it does not conflict with public policy or morals. It states all persons are equal before the law. The law prohibits blasphemy, proselytizing by non-Muslims, and conversion from Islam. An antidiscrimination law includes prohibitions on religious discrimination, but also criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religions. There were cases of individuals accused of blasphemy during the year; in July a Dubai court convicted a Lebanese businessman of blasphemy, fining, imprisoning, and sentencing him to deportation. The government prohibited the dissemination of literature it perceived as supporting extremism. The General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowments (Awqaf) continued to provide strict guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques and instructions to Shia mosques across all emirates except Dubai, where mosques are overseen by Dubai’s Islamic Affairs and Charitable Activities Department (IACAD). Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths said they could worship in private without government interference but faced restrictions on practicing their religion in public. Government-controlled internet service providers blocked access to websites critical of Islam or supportive of views the government considered extremist. The Abu Dhabi Department of Justice signed an agreement with Christian leadership to allow churches to handle non-Islamic marriages and divorces. Christian churches and Hindu and Sikh temples serving the noncitizen population operated on land donated by the ruling families; during the year, construction was underway on multiple houses of worship. Noncitizen religious groups said capacity was still insufficient, however, to meet demand. Regulatory requirements sometimes limited the ability of religious organizations to rent space for worship and limited the ability to engage in certain charitable activities. The minister of state for tolerance organized a meeting with regional Christian leaders at the site of an early Christian monastery. In an October cabinet reshuffle, Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum announced that the position of minister of state for tolerance was being elevated to minister of tolerance.
According to non-Muslim religious groups, there was a high degree of tolerance within society for minority religious beliefs and traditions, although societal attitudes and behavior discouraged conversion from Islam. Conversion to Islam was encouraged, however. Anti-Semitic materials continued to be available for purchase at book fairs. There were continued instances of anti-Semitic remarks on social media sites.
In meetings with senior government counterparts, the Ambassador, embassy and consulate general officers, and visiting U.S. officials reviewed ways to promote respect among faith groups and freedom for minority groups to practice their religions in the country as well as government initiatives to foster religious tolerance and counter extremist interpretations of Islam. Embassy and consulate general officials also engaged with a broad range of minority religious groups present in the country. The embassy and consulate general hosted interfaith events to encourage and support religious freedom and tolerance, engaging with various religious communities as concrete demonstrations of the importance of interfaith dialogue.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (July 2017 estimate). The UN estimates the total population is 9.4 million (2017 estimate). The most recent estimate from the country’s National Bureau of Statistics is 9.1 million (December 2016). There has been no nationwide population census since 2005.
Approximately 11 percent of the resident population are citizens, of whom more than 85 percent are Sunni Muslims, according to media reports. The vast majority of the remainder are Shia Muslims, who are concentrated in the Emirates of Dubai and Sharjah.
Of the estimated 89 percent of residents who are noncitizens, the majority come from South and Southeast Asia. Although no official statistics are available for the breakdown between Sunni and Shia Muslims among noncitizen residents, media estimates suggest less than 20 percent of the noncitizen Muslim population are Shia.
Of the total population (both citizen and noncitizen), the 2005 census found 76 percent to be Muslim, 9 percent Christian, and 15 percent from other religious groups comprising mainly Hindus and Buddhists, but also including Parsis, Bahais, Druze, Sikhs, and Jews. Ahmadi Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Dawoodi Bohra Muslims together constitute less than 5 percent of the total population and are almost entirely noncitizens. The Pew Research Center estimated that in 2010, 76.9 percent of the total population was Muslim, 12.6 percent Christian, 6.6 percent Hindu, 2 percent Buddhist, with the remaining belonging to other faith traditions.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution designates Islam as the official religion. It guarantees freedom of religious worship “in accordance with established customs,” provided this “does not conflict with public policy or violate public morals.” The constitution states all citizens are equal before the law, and prohibits discrimination on grounds of religious belief.
The law prohibits black magic, sorcery, and incantations, which are punishable by a prison term ranging from six months to three years, and deportation for noncitizens.
The law does not directly prohibit Muslims from converting to other religions; however, the penal code defers to sharia on matters defined as crimes in Islamic doctrine, which in many interpretations prohibits apostasy.
The law provides for imprisonment of up to five years for preaching against Islam or proselytizing to Muslims. The law also prohibits “abusing” a holy shrine or ritual of any religion, insulting any religion, inciting someone to commit sin or contravene national values, labeling someone an infidel or unbeliever, and forming groups or holding meetings with the purpose of provoking religious hatred. Offenders are subject to fines up to two million dirhams (AED) ($545,000) and imprisonment generally ranging from five to 10 or more years.
The law prohibits blasphemy, defined as any act insulting God, religions, prophets, messengers, holy books, or houses of worship. Offenders are subject to imprisonment for five or more years and fines from 250,000 AED ($68,000) to two million AED ($545,000); noncitizens may be deported.
The law does not require religious organizations to register; however, the formation of a legal entity, which requires some form of registration, is necessary for operational functions such as opening a bank account or renting space. Each emirate oversees registration of non-Muslim religious organizations and the process differs by emirate, organization, and circumstance. Currently, there is no consistent legal framework across the seven emirates for registering non-Muslim religious organizations and, as a result, different religious organizations register under different ministries. The government has also granted some religious organizations land in free trade zones, where they legally registered by applying for a trade license, which allows them some operational functions.
The law requires Muslims and non-Muslims to refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking in public during fasting hours during the month of Ramadan.
The law prohibits churches from erecting bell towers or displaying crosses or other religious symbols on the outside of their premises, although they may place signs on their properties indicating they are churches.
Islamic studies are mandatory for all students in public schools and for Muslim students in private schools. The government does not provide instruction in any religion other than Islam in public schools. In private schools, non-Muslim students are not required to attend Islamic study classes. All students, however, are required to take national social studies classes, which include some teaching on Islam. A small number of Christian-affiliated schools are authorized to provide instruction tailored to the religious background of the student, for example, Islamic studies for Muslim students, Christian instruction for Christian students, and ethics or comparative religions for others.
Private schools deemed to be teaching material offensive to Islam, defamatory of any religion, or contravening the country’s ethics and beliefs face potential penalties, including closure. All private schools, regardless of religious affiliation, must register with the government. Private schools are required to have a license from the federal Ministry of Education and their curriculum must be consistent with a plan of operation submitted to and approved by the ministry. Administrative oversight of the schools is a responsibility of each emirate’s government.
The law prohibits the distribution of religious literature the government determines is contradictory to Islam, as well as literature it deems blasphemous or offensive towards religions.
The law restricts land ownership to citizens, or companies majority-owned by citizens. This effectively prevents most minority religious communities (which consist of noncitizens) from purchasing property to build houses of worship.
The law prohibits multiple forms of discrimination, including religious discrimination, and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression. It also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.
According to the constitution, sharia is the principal source of legislation, although the judicial system applies two types of law, depending on the case. Sharia forms the basis for judicial decisions in most family law matters for Muslims, such as marriage and divorce, and inheritance for both Muslims and non-Muslims; however, in the case of noncitizens, the parties may petition the court to have the laws of their home country apply, rather than sharia. Sharia also applies in some criminal matters. Civil law provides the basis for decisions on all other matters. Shia Muslims in Dubai may pursue Shia family law cases through a special Shia council rather than through the regular judicial system. When sharia courts try non-Muslims for criminal offenses, judges have the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties. Higher courts may overturn or modify sharia penalties.
Under the law, Muslim men may marry non-Muslim women who are “people of the book” (Christian or Jewish). Muslim women may not marry non-Muslim men. Non-Muslim men and Muslim women who marry are subject to arrest, trial, and imprisonment on grounds of engaging in extramarital sex, which carries a minimum sentence of one year in jail, as the marriage is considered invalid; any extramarital sex between persons of any religion is subject to the same penalties.
In the event of a divorce between a Muslim father and non-Muslim mother, the law grants child custody to the Muslim father. Non-Muslim wives of citizens are also ineligible for naturalization. There is no automatic spousal inheritance provision for wives under the law if the husband is Muslim and the wife is non-Muslim. Such wives may not inherit their husband’s property unless named as a beneficiary in their husband’s will.
In November the Emirate of Abu Dhabi’s judicial department signed an agreement with Christian leaders to legally mediate divorces for non-Muslims, provided that the bride and groom are both residents of the emirate. Under the previous system, persons filing for divorce would undergo mandatory mediation sessions with court counsellors, often with Arabic interpreters. Church officials are permitted to officiate at weddings for non-Muslims, but the marriage certificate must still be obtained from the Abu Dhabi Justice Department. In both cases of marriage and divorce, the church official must be registered with the Ministry of Justice as officially recognized to perform these acts.
Noncitizens may register wills in the emirate in which they live. In the absence of a will filed with the government, the assets of foreigners who die are subject to sharia. The Abu Dhabi judicial system opened a non-Muslim wills office in August allowing non-Muslims to register their wills as a way to safeguard their assets and preserve their children’s inheritance rights. In Dubai, foreigners may file wills at the Dubai International Financial Center (DIFC) Court Wills and Probate Registry and include their own choice of law clause. The DIFC Court Wills and Probate Registry opened a virtual registry in October, to support overseas investors. Dubai wills not filed in the DIFC Court are subject to sharia. A 2016 agreement provides for the mutual enforcement of judgments between the Ras Al Khaimah courts and the DIFC Court, extending DIFC jurisdiction to the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah. In May the Abu Dhabi government established two new courts for Personal Status and Inheritance for non-Muslims in the Abu Dhabi Court of First Instance.
The law prohibits activities the government deems supportive of political or extremist interpretations of Islam. These include the use of the internet or any other electronic means to promote views the government believes insult religions, promote sectarianism, damage national unity or the reputation of the state, or harm public order and public morals. Punishments include imprisonment and fines from 500,000 AED ($136,000) to one million AED ($272,000). The law prohibits membership in groups the government designates as terrorist organizations, with penalties up to life imprisonment and capital punishment.
The law restricts charitable fundraising activities, including by religious organizations, by prohibiting the collection of donations or advertising fundraising campaigns without prior approval from authorities.
Dubai authorities passed a law in July designating the Community Development Authority (CDA) as the official body mandated to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate, including non-Muslim religious groups. The CDA issues operating licenses and permits for events, and monitors fundraising activities. The law also states that civil institutions may only collect donations or launch fundraising campaigns after obtaining the CDA’s written approval. Fines for noncompliance range from 500 AED ($140) to 100,000 AED ($27,200).
The country is not a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: Authorities conducted arrests under blasphemy and antidiscrimination laws that criminalize insulting religions. The Awqaf continued to provide weekly guidance for the content of sermons in Sunni mosques, and the government regulated and actively monitored the issuance of all fatwas at both the national and emirate levels. Shia mosques continued to receive guidance from the Awqaf but were considered private and managed primarily by the Jaafari Affairs Council, located in Dubai. The government continued to allow private worship of other religious groups and granted permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis.
In July the Dubai Court of First Instance convicted a Lebanese businessman of blasphemy and threatening his former business partner, after he sent several text messages in which he cursed God and threatened the partner, an Emirati man. The businessman was jailed, fined 500,000 AED ($136,000), and sentenced to deportation after his three-month prison sentence was completed.
The Dubai Court of First Instance acquitted a Filipino man in February of offending Islam by characterizing it as a religion of terror and calling Muslims terrorists, following an argument with his roommate. The court cited a lack of corroborating evidence in announcing the acquittal.
Within prisons, the authorities required Muslims to attend weekly Islamic services. In Abu Dhabi, Christian clergy reported difficulties visiting Christian prisoners.
In September an American citizen and associate professor of journalism at a U.S. university wrote a newspaper op-ed piece stating that he believed the government had denied him a visa to teach at the university’s branch in Abu Dhabi because he was Shia. The individual said that at least one other faculty member from his university, also a U.S. citizen with a Shia background, had been denied a security clearance to teach in Abu Dhabi.
There were reports of government actions targeting the Muslim Brotherhood, previously designated by the government as a terrorist organization, and individuals associated with the group.
In March the government sentenced activist Nassir bin Ghaith to 10 years in prison. According to human rights organizations, among the charges authorities filed against him in 2016 were ridiculing the government’s decision to grant land for a Hindu temple.
The country’s two primary internet service providers, both majority-owned by the government, continued to block certain web sites critical of Islam or supportive of religious views the government considered extremist, including Islamic sites. The service providers continued to block other sites on religion-related topics, including some with information on Judaism, Christianity, atheism, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.
The federal Awqaf continued to oversee the administration of Sunni mosques, except in Dubai, where they are administered by the IACAD. On its website, the Awqaf stated its goals included offering “religious guidance in the UAE [United Arab Emirates] to instill the principle of moderation in Islam.” It continued to distribute weekly guidance to Sunni imams regarding subject matter, themes, and content of Friday Islamic sermons; published a Friday sermon script every week; and posted the guidance on its website. The Awqaf applied a three-tier system in which junior imams followed the Awqaf Friday sermon script closely; midlevel imams prepared sermons according to the topic or subject matter selected by Awqaf authorities; and senior imams had the flexibility to choose their own subject and content for their Friday sermons. Some Shia sheikhs (religious leaders) chose to follow Awqaf-approved weekly addresses, while others wrote their own sermons.
The Jaafari Affairs Council managed Shia affairs for all of the country, including overseeing mosques and endowments. The council complied with the weekly guidance from IACAD and issued additional instructions on sermons to Shia mosques.
The Awqaf operated official toll-free call centers and a text messaging service for fatwas, or religious rulings, in three languages (Arabic, English, and Urdu). Fatwa categories included belief and worship, business transactions, family issues, women’s issues, and other Islamic legal issues. Callers explained their question directly to an official mufti, who then issued a fatwa. Both female (muftiya) and male (mufti) religious scholars worked the phones at the fatwa hotline.
The Awqaf continued to vet and appoint Sunni imams, except in Dubai, based on their educational background and knowledge of Islam, along with security checks. According to the federal Awqaf, the government continued to fund Sunni mosques, with the exception of those considered private, and retained all Sunni imams as government employees. Including Dubai, the federal government reported more than 6,700 total Sunni mosques in the UAE. Dubai’s IACAD controlled the appointment of Sunni clergy and their conduct during worship in Dubai mosques. All of the imams in Dubai’s more than 2,000 Sunni mosques were government employees and included both citizens and noncitizens. As of 2012, 478 of the mosques were considered private.
The government did not appoint sheikhs for Shia mosques. Shia adherents worshiped in and maintained their own mosques. The government considered all Shia mosques to be private; however, they were eligible to receive some funds from the government upon request. The government continued to allow Shia mosques to broadcast the Shia call to prayer from their minarets.
Shia Muslims had their own council, the Jaafari Affairs Council, to manage Shia affairs, including overseeing mosques and community activities, managing financial affairs, and hiring preachers. The government permitted Shia Muslims to observe Ashura in private, but not in public.
Representatives of non-Islamic faiths said registration procedures and requirements for minority religious groups remained unclear in all emirates other than Dubai. The government did not require non-Muslim religious groups to register, but according to some observers, the lack of a clear legal designation continued to result in an ambiguous legal status for many groups and created difficulties in carrying out certain administrative functions, including banking or signing leases. For example, the government required religious groups to register as a precondition for establishing a formal place of worship, such as a temple, mosque, or church, or for holding religious services in rented spaces such as hotels or convention centers. Community sources indicated that the government permitted unregistered religious organizations to rent spaces at hotels in some circumstances. The government permitted groups that chose not to register to practice in private homes, as long as this activity did not disturb neighbors through excessive noise or vehicle congestion.
The government required all conference organizers, including religious groups, to register conferences and events, including disclosing speaker topics.
Immigration authorities continued to ask foreigners applying for residence permits to declare their religious affiliation on residence applications. School applications also asked for family religious affiliation. According to Ministry of Interior officials, the government collected this information for demographic statistical analysis only.
Individuals belonging to non-Islamic faiths, including Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Judaism, said they could worship and practice without government interference within designated compounds or buildings, or in private facilities or homes. The government, however, did not allow non-Muslims to worship, preach, or conduct prayers in public.
The government continued to provide land for non-Islamic cemeteries. There were cremation facilities and associated cemeteries for the large Hindu community. The Al Ain municipality in Abu Dhabi Emirate also ran a cremation facility. Non-Muslim groups said capacity in cremations and cemeteries was sufficient to meet demand. The government required residents and nonresidents to obtain a permit to use cremation facilities, and authorities routinely granted such permits. The government allowed people from all religious groups except Islam to use the cremation facilities.
In January a South African man and his Ukrainian fiancee living in the UAE were imprisoned for violating the UAE’s interpretation of sharia by engaging in extramarital sex when a doctor discovered that the fiancee was pregnant. After being held for approximately five weeks, the authorities dropped all charges, and the couple was released.
In June Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan ordered that his namesake mosque, located next to a complex of churches in the capital, be called Mary, Mother of Jesus Mosque, to promote interreligious understanding.
Some religious groups, particularly Christians and Hindus, advertised religious functions in the press or online, including holiday celebrations, memorial services, religious conventions, and choral concerts, without government objection. The government also allowed businesses to advertise, sell merchandise, and host events for non-Islamic religious holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali.
In spite of legal prohibitions on eating during daytime hours of Ramadan, in Dubai, non-Muslims were exempt from these laws in hotels and most malls; non-Muslims could eat at some stand-alone restaurants and most hotels in Abu Dhabi as well.
The government did not always enforce the law against bell towers and crosses on churches, and some churches displayed crosses on their buildings or had bell towers, but with no ringing or chiming of bells.
Customs authorities continued to review the content of religious materials imported into the country and occasionally confiscated religious materials, such as books. Additionally, sometimes customs authorities denied or delayed entry to passengers carrying items deemed intended for sorcery. Specific items airport inspectors reportedly confiscated included amulets, animal bones, spells, knives, and containers of blood. According to media reports, in 2017 Dubai Airport Customs disrupted at least 13 attempts to smuggle items related to sorcery and witchcraft. Police and courts also continued to enforce laws against sorcery. For example, in Abu Dhabi Emirate a man who said he was offering services such as treating evil spirits and infertility was arrested and charged with practicing sorcery and fraud.
Officials from the Awqaf’s Department of Research and Censorship reviewed religious materials such as books and DVDs published at home and abroad. The department’s Religious Publications Monitoring Section continued to limit the publication and distribution of religious literature to what it considered moderate interpretations of Islam and placed restrictions on non-Islamic religious publications, such as material that could be considered proselytizing or promoting another religion over Islam. The section issued permits to print the Quran and reviewed literature on Quranic interpretation. The government continued to prohibit the publication and distribution of literature it believed promoted extremist Islam and overtly political Islam. The Religious Publications Monitoring Section inspected mosques to ensure prohibited publications were not present.
Noncitizens, who make up the membership of most minority religious groups, relied on grants and permission from local rulers to build houses of worship. For these groups, land titles remained in the respective ruler’s name. There were approximately 40 Christian churches, built on land donated by the ruling families of the emirates in which they were located, including houses of worship for Catholics, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, and other denominations. Ajman and Umm Al Quwain were the only emirates without dedicated land for Christian churches, although congregations did gather in other spaces, such as hotels.
Two Hindu temples and one Sikh temple operated in Dubai. The government allocated land in Al-Wathba, Abu Dhabi, for the construction of a Hindu temple, which was not yet finished by the end of the year. There were no Buddhist temples; some Buddhist groups met in private facilities. There were no synagogues for the expatriate resident Jewish population, but regular communal worship took place on the Sabbath and holidays in Dubai. Construction began on a new Anglican church in Abu Dhabi; the projected completion date is not clear.
The government continued to grant permission to build houses of worship on a case-by-case basis. Minority religious groups said, however, the construction of new houses of worship had not kept up with demand from the country’s large noncitizen population. Many existing churches continued to face overcrowding and many congregations lacked their own space. Some smaller congregations met in private locations, or shared space with other churches to which rulers had given land. Noncitizen groups with land grants did not pay rent on the property. Several emirates also continued to provide free utilities for religious buildings. .
In Islamic court cases involving non-Muslim defendants, judges had the discretion to impose civil or sharia penalties, and sources said the judges generally imposed civil penalties.
In the executive cabinet reorganization in October, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, announced that the position of minister of state for tolerance became minister of tolerance, and appointed Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan to the position. In November the minister announced that the ministry would be focused on four areas: community awareness, building community relations supporting tolerance and peaceful coexistence, performing activities and events promoting tolerance, and performing research and creating indexes to monitor implementation and measure desired outcomes.
On multiple occasions, government leaders issued public statements condemning extremist activities. For example, in November the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation condemned the attack on a mosque in Egypt, stating “This horrible crime … exposes the false allegations of extremist groups, which don the cloak of religion to justify their barbaric acts, which Islam is innocent from.”
In June Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum issued a law establishing the International Institute for Tolerance and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Tolerance Award.
In April then-Minister of State for Tolerance Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid Al Qasimi visited the Vatican and was received by Pope Francis. She also met with the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Local media reported that discussions included cooperation on promoting the value of tolerance globally and the importance of emphasizing the equality of all people.
Although the government permitted non-Muslim groups to raise money from their congregations and from abroad, some noncitizen religious groups were unable to open bank accounts because of the lack of a clear legal category to assign the organization. Several religious minority leaders reported this ambiguity created practical barriers to renting space, paying salaries, collecting funds, and purchasing insurance, and made it difficult to maintain financial controls and accountability.
Some Muslim and non-Muslim groups reported their ability to engage in nonreligious charitable activities, such as providing meals or social services, was limited because of government restrictions. For example, the government required groups to obtain permission prior to any fundraising activities. Religious groups reported official permission was required for any activities held outside of their place of worship, including charitable activities, and this permission was sometimes difficult to obtain.
The government engaged with religious minorities frequently. In January the Ministry of Tolerance hosted an event for 30 Christian leaders from nine denominations located throughout the Gulf; the event took place at the site of an early Christian monastery on Sir Bani Yas Island in Abu Dhabi Emirate. In addressing the group, the minister of state for tolerance noted, “This site is a symbol of the diversity we have in the UAE … Nations develop and flourish when they accept differences and work on their similarities.”
In February the Emirates Association for Human Rights hosted a regional conference on combating intolerance, extremism, and incitement of hatred. Representatives of civil society and government organizations from various Arab countries attended the event.
In May the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, an organization sponsored by the government but with nominal independence, initiated and received the first American Caravan for Peace, consisting of 30 prominent leaders from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish clergy. The caravan discussed mutual visions, challenges, and opportunities of coexistence, including fostering tolerance and the role of religion in public life. In his address to the caravan, forum president Sheikh Abdallah bin Bayyah stated “All Abrahamic religions carry fundamental teachings that promote coexistence and peace, and the universal quality of human dignity. These teachings can form powerful antidotes to extremism, and an effective approach to counter hatred, Islamophobia, and religious extremism together.” In December the forum hosted its fourth annual conference in Abu Dhabi that included more than 700 Islamic scholars and interfaith participants with a focus on combating anti-Muslim sentiment.
In June Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum declared, “Since its establishment, the UAE has promoted the values of tolerance, coexistence, acceptance, and openness, and has become a safe haven for people from all over the world who can find it a place without discrimination based on religion, race, gender, or color.”
In September hundreds of people of different faiths and nationalities participated in the UN International Day of Peace at Dubai’s Sikh Gurudwara. Sheikha Lubna Bint Khalid Al Qasimi, the chief guest at the event, said, “Here in the UAE, we believe that tolerance is the backbone of all civilizations, religions, and cultures.”
There were reports of permitting delays and event cancellations affecting religious groups due to difficulties of the Dubai Community Development Authority in implementing the new law to oversee all civil institutions and nonprofits in the emirate.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
According to non-Muslim groups, there continued to be societal pressure discouraging conversion from Islam and encouraging conversion to Islam, including in the workplace. For example, some non-Muslim women reportedly faced pressure from family and friends to convert to Islam following marriage to a Muslim.
During Ramadan, local newspapers published stories portraying conversions to Islam positively and published statistics on conversions to Islam. For example, the Kalemah Islamic Centre reported that 341 foreign residents had converted to Islam between June 2016 and June 2017. During Ramadan, the Abu Dhabi e-government portal offered guidance on how to become a Muslim. By contrast, observers reported conversion from Islam was highly discouraged through strong cultural and social pressure, particularly from family members.
Holiday foods, decorations, posters, and books continued to be widely available during major Christian and Hindu holidays, and Christmas trees and elaborate decorations remained prominent features at malls and hotels. The news media continued to print reports of religious holiday celebrations, including religious activities such as Christmas celebrations and Hindu festivals such as Diwali. News reports highlighted the existence of pre-Islamic religious archeological sites in the country, such as a 7th century Christian monastery marked with tourism signage on Sir Bani Yas Island. The minister of state for tolerance’s and Christian leadership’s visit to Sir Bani Yas Island in January was also widely covered in regional and local media. Christian leaders lauded the role of the country’s first president, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, in preserving the Christian ruins.
Religious literature, primarily related to Islam, was available in stores; however, bookstores generally did not carry core religious works for other faiths, such as the Bible or Hindu sacred texts.
Radio and television stations frequently broadcast Islamic programming, including sermons and lectures; they did not feature similar content for other religious groups.
In some cases organizations reported hotels, citing government regulatory barriers, were unwilling to rent space for non-Islamic religious purposes, such as weekly church worship services. Local media reported on difficulties in obtaining bank loans to cover construction costs for religious spaces, even for registered religious organizations. This remained a problem in constructing a new Anglican church, according to local clergy.
Anti-Semitic materials were available for purchase at some book fairs and from a major international book retailer. Human rights organizations criticized the publication of an anti-Semitic article in Al-Khaleej newspaper in April, which contained blood libel accusations that Jews used the blood of Christians in religious rituals. They also noted cartoons invoking anti-Semitic themes, which appeared in Al Bayan. There were continued reports of users posting anti-Semitic remarks on some social media sites.
According to religious groups, there was a high degree of acceptance and tolerance within society, including among both citizens and noncitizens, for diverse religious beliefs. News reports during the year quoted religious leaders, including from Catholic, Anglican, Hindu, Sikh, and other religious communities, positively portraying government support for their communities and the relative freedom in which they could worship. The media reported the Egyptian Coptic Church in Abu Dhabi and the Sikh Gurudwara Temple hosted interfaith iftars in Dubai during Ramadan. At the iftar hosted by the Sikh Gurudwara, Gurudwara Darbar Chairman Surender Singh Kandhari stated, “In a world that struggles with extremism, the best way to cut it is through creating friendships among different faiths and nationalities and making the difference ourselves. It is only through communication that we can overcome adversities.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The U.S. government discussed religious freedom and promoting tolerance at the highest levels of government. The Ambassador and other embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of the Ministry of Tolerance, the Awqaf, IACAD, and other officials. In addition to the implementation of new laws and regulatory practices, officers discussed international, bilateral, and governmental efforts to support religious diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance, as well as government initiatives to promote moderate Islam. Officers also engaged with government-supported organizations whose official stated purpose was to promote what the government believed were moderate interpretations of Islam, such as the Tabah Foundation, and promoting tolerance within and across religions, such as the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. The U.S. Government closely monitored foreign organizations for possible terrorist activity; during the reporting period, the Muslim Brotherhood did not meet U.S. statutory criteria to be designated as a foreign terrorist organization.
Embassy and consulate general officers met with representatives of minority religious groups to learn more about issues affecting their communities as part of continuing efforts to monitor their abilities to associate and worship. The embassy and consulate general hosted events that brought together leaders from diverse religious communities to facilitate the sharing of their experiences with one another, encourage interfaith contact building and dialogue, and demonstrate U.S. support for tolerance and religious freedom.
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church and the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church. The law prohibits “incitement to religious hatred” as well as discrimination on the grounds of religion. The government stepped up security for Muslims and said it would spend 13.4 million pounds ($18.1 million) over the following year to protect Jewish sites. The government outlawed groups Scottish Dawn and National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action (NS131) as aliases for banned neo-Nazi group National Action. The Labour Party adopted new rules on anti-Semitism after the party came under criticism for anti-Semitic rhetoric by some of its members at the party’s annual conference. The Labour Party extended the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for saying Hitler had supported Zionism. Jewish leaders issued a manifesto calling on the government to take steps to promote religious freedom and tolerance and ensure the rights of the Jewish community. The government adopted the working definition of anti-Semitism of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).
The government reported significant increases in religiously motivated hate crimes and incidents in England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Community Security Trust (CST), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) monitoring anti-Semitism, reported 767 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of the year, a record high for that period. Incidents included 80 assaults. The 1,346 anti-Semitic incidents CST recorded in 2016 was a record for a calendar year. London police reported significant increases in anti-Muslim attacks, to 1,260 in the year through March 2017, compared with 343 in the same period just four years earlier. Tell MAMA, an NGO fighting anti-Muslim sentiment, cited a rise in anti-Muslim crimes following terrorist attacks and after the EU Brexit referendum. There were multiple incidents of violence, arson, threats, and vandalism against religious groups. In June a man killed one Muslim and injured several others when he drove his vehicle into a group of worshippers leaving a mosque. Muslims were also victims of an acid attack and a stabbing. According to a National Union of Students survey, more than a quarter of Jewish students were afraid of becoming victims of an anti-Semitic attack. Another survey by two Jewish groups reported low levels of anti-Semitism, although 30 percent of respondents either held an unfavorable view of Jews or endorsed at least one of seven anti-Semitic statements in the survey. There were incidents of religiously motivated hate speech against Muslims, Jews, and Christians.
U.S. embassy and Department of State officials engaged with multiple Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) representatives and officials at the Ministry of Defense, as well as with Church of England leaders and civil society to assess common goals of engaging religious minority populations at risk of radicalization and building religious tolerance. The Consulate General in Edinburgh hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner with representatives of the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Bahai communities in which participants discussed ways to promote religious tolerance in their communities.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 64.8 million (July 2017 estimate). Census figures from 2011, the most recent, indicate 59.3 percent of the population in England and Wales is Christian, comprising the Church of England (Anglican), the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), other Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and other Christian groups. Of the remaining population, 4.8 percent identified as Muslim; 1.5 percent as Hindu, 0.8 percent as Sikh, 0.5 percent as Jewish, and 0.4 as Buddhist. Approximately 25 percent of the population reported no religion, and 7 percent chose not to answer. The Jehovah’s Witnesses estimate there are 137,000 members in the country, and the Bahai community estimates there are more than 7,000 members in the country.
According to the 2017 British Social Attitudes survey, an annual survey of approximately 3,300 persons throughout the country conducted by the National Center for Social Research, an independent, nonprofit social research agency, 53 percent of the population describes itself as having no religion, 15 percent as Anglican, 10 percent as Catholic, and 6 percent as belonging to non-Christian religions.
The Muslim community in England and Wales is predominantly of South Asian origin, but it also includes individuals from the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Africa, and Southeast Asia, as well as a growing number of converts of European descent. Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists are concentrated in London and other large urban areas, primarily in England.
Census figures from Scotland in 2011 indicate 54 percent of the population is Christian, comprising the Church of Scotland (32 percent), Roman Catholic Church (16 percent), and other Christian groups (6 percent). The Muslim community comprises 1.4 percent of the population. Other religious groups, which together make up less than 1 percent of the population, include Hindus, Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists. Persons not belonging to any religious group make up 36.7 percent of the population, and the remainder did not provide information on religious affiliation.
Census figures from Northern Ireland in 2011 indicate 41.5 percent of the population is Protestant – consisting of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland (19 percent), Church of Ireland (14 percent), the Methodist Church in Ireland (3 percent), and other Protestant groups (6 percent) – and 41 percent Roman Catholic. Less than 1 percent of the population belongs to non-Christian religious groups, and approximately 10 percent professes no religion; 7 percent did not indicate a religious affiliation.
Census figures from Bermuda in 2010 cite 22 religious groups in the population of 71,000; 78 percent identifies as Christian, including 16 percent Anglican, 15 percent Roman Catholic, 9 percent African Methodist Episcopal, and 7 percent Seventh-day Adventist. Approximately 2 percent identifies with other religious groups, including approximately 600 Muslims, 200 Rastafarians, and 120 Jews. Approximately 20 percent did not identify with or state a religious affiliation.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
In the absence of a written constitution, the law establishes the Church of England as England’s state church. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland do not have state religions. Legislation establishes the Church of Scotland as Scotland’s national church, but it is not dependent on any government body or the queen for spiritual matters or leadership.
As the supreme governor of the Church of England, the monarch must always be a member of, and promise to uphold, that Church. The monarch appoints Church of England officials, including lay and clergy representatives, on the advice of the prime minister and the Crown Appointments Commission. Aside from these appointments, the state is not involved in the Church’s administration. The Church of Scotland is governed by its General Assembly, which has the authority to make the laws determining how it operates. The General Assembly consists of 850 ministers and clergy members and meets once a year for a week in May.
In England and Wales the law prohibits religiously motivated hate language, and any acts intended to incite religious hatred through the use of words or the publication or distribution of written material. The law defines religious hatred as hatred of a group because of its religious belief or lack thereof. The police are responsible for investigating criminal offenses and for gathering evidence; the Crown Prosecution Service, which is an independent body and the main public prosecution service for England and Wales, is responsible for deciding whether a suspect should be charged with a criminal offense. The maximum penalty for inciting religious hatred is seven years in prison. If there is evidence of religious hostility in connection with any crime, it is a “religiously aggravated offense” and carries a higher maximum penalty than the underlying crime alone. In Scotland the law requires courts to consider the impact of religious bias when sentencing.
By law the General Register Office for England and Wales governs the registration and legal recognition of places of worship in England and Wales. The law also states buildings, rooms, or other premises may be registered as meeting places for religious worship upon payment of a fee; the General Register Office for England and Wales keeps a record of the registration, and the place of worship is assigned a “Worship Number.” Registration is not compulsory, but it provides certain financial advantages and is also required before a place of worship can be registered as a venue for marriages. Registered places of worship are exempt from paying taxes and benefit from participating in the country’s Gift Aid program. Gift Aid allows charities to claim back the 25 percent basic rate of tax already paid on donations by the donor, boosting the value of a donation by a quarter.
Throughout the country the law requires religious education (RE) and worship for children between the ages of three and 13 in state-run schools, with the content decided at the local level. Specialist school teachers, rather than religious groups, teach the syllabus. Parents may request to exempt their children from RE. At age 13, students themselves may choose to stop RE or continue, in which case they study two religions. Nonreligious state schools require the RE curriculum to reflect “Christian values,” be nondenominational, and refrain from attempts to convert students. It must also teach the practices of other principal religions in the country. Students and, unless they are employed by faith-based schools, teachers may decline participation in collective worship, without prejudice.
Nonreligious state schools in England and Wales are required to practice daily collective prayer or worship of “a wholly or mainly…Christian character.” School teachers lead these assemblies; however, parents have the legal right to request their children not participate in collective prayer or worship. The law permits sixth form students (generally 16- to 19-year-olds in the final two years of secondary school) to withdraw from worship without parental permission or action. Nonreligious state schools are free to hold other religious ceremonies as they choose.
In Scotland only denominational (faith-based) schools practice daily collective prayer or worship.
In Bermuda the law requires students attending state schools to participate in collective worship, characterized by educational officials reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but prohibits worship “distinctive of any particular religious group.” At the high school level, students are required to take a course that explores various religions until year 9 (ages 11-14); in years 10 and 11 (ages 15-16), courses on religion are optional.
The government determines whether to establish a faith-based school when there is evidence of demand, such as petitions from parents, religious groups, teachers, or other entities. If a faith-based school is not oversubscribed, then the school must offer a place to any child, but if the school is oversubscribed it may use faith as a criterion for acceptance. Nonstate faith-based schools are eligible to claim “charitable status,” which allows for tax exemptions.
Almost all schools in Northern Ireland receive state support, with approximately 90 percent of the students attending Protestant or Catholic schools. Approximately 7 percent of school-age children attend religiously integrated schools with admissions criteria designed to enroll equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant children without the intervention of the state, as well as children from other religious and cultural backgrounds. These integrated schools are not secular, but are “essentially Christian in character and welcome all faiths and none.” RE – a core syllabus designed by the Department of Education, the Church of Ireland, and the Catholic, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches – is compulsory in all government-funded schools, and “the school day shall include collective Christian worship whether in one or more than one assembly.” All schools receiving government funding must teach RE; however, students may request to opt out of the classes and collective worship. Catholic-managed schools draw uniquely on the Roman Catholic tradition for their RE, while other schools may draw on world religions.
An estimated 30 sharia councils operate parallel to the national legal system. They adjudicate Islamic religious matters, including religious divorces, which are not recognized under civil law. Participants may submit cases to the councils on a voluntary basis. The councils do not have the legal status of courts, although they have legal status as mediation and arbitration bodies. As such, rulings may not be appealed in the courts.
The law prohibits discrimination on the grounds of “religion or belief” or the “lack of religion or belief.” The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – a body sponsored by the Department of Education’s Government Equalities Office – is responsible for enforcing legislation prohibiting religious discrimination. The EHRC researches and conducts inquiries into religious and other discrimination in England, Scotland, and Wales. The minister for women and equalities appoints the members. If the commission finds a violation, it can issue a notice to the violator and seek a court order to enforce the notice. The EHRC receives government funds and must account for its use of those funds, but it operates independently. The Northern Ireland equivalent to the EHRC is the Equality Commission.
In Northern Ireland the law bans discrimination on the grounds of religious belief only in employment; however, schools may discriminate on the grounds of religion when recruiting teachers. In the rest of the country, the law prohibits any discrimination, including employment discrimination, based on religious belief, unless the employer can show a genuine requirement for a particular religion.
Citing a limited broadcast spectrum, the law prohibits religious groups from holding national radio licenses, public teletext licenses, more than one television service license, and/or radio and television multiplex licenses, which would allow them to offer multiple channels as part of a single bundle of programming.
Twenty-six senior bishops of the Anglican Church sit in the House of Lords as representatives of the state Church. Known as the Lords Spiritual, they read prayers at the start of each daily meeting and play a full role in the life and work of the upper house.
The law requires visa applicants wishing to enter the country as “ministers of religion” to have worked for at least one out of the previous five years as a minister and to have at least one year of full-time experience or, if their religion requires ordination, at least two years of part-time training following their ordination. A missionary must also be trained as such or have worked previously in this role.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary Paragraph: The government stepped up protection for Muslim communities following a June attack outside a mosque and said it would spend 13.4 million pounds ($18.1 million) to protect Jewish sites in the following year. The government banned two groups whose names it said were aliases of previously banned neo-Nazi group National Action, and police arrested 11 of their members. The government instructed prosecutors to treat online hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones, as seriously as other crimes and coauthored a guide for victims and witnesses of anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, and other hate crimes. The House of Commons ended its examination of the role of sharia councils without issuing a report of its findings. In September the Labour Party adopted new rules against anti-Semitism after the founder of Jewish Voice for Labour, Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, chaired an event where a speaker said people should be allowed to question whether the Holocaust happened. The Labour Party extended the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for saying Hitler had supported Zionism. Jewish leaders issued a “Ten Commandments” manifesto calling on the government to take steps to promote religious freedom and tolerance and defend Jewish practices, culture, and heritage. Political leaders responded to the manifesto by expressing support for the Jewish community and pledging to combat anti-Semitism, intolerance, and extremism. The government adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism.
In March Home Secretary Amber Rudd said the government would provide 13.4 million pounds ($18.1 million) to protect Jewish sites during the coming year. She said Jews had been identified as a “legitimate and desirable target,” and called anti-Semitism a “deplorable form of hatred.”
Police forces around the country stepped up protection for Muslim communities in following the June 19 attack on Muslim worshippers outside a Finsbury Park mosque, and the government assigned more officers to patrol near churches, mosques, and synagogues. Home Secretary Rudd pledged the extra resources would remain in place for as long as needed.
In June the Scottish government responded to a report on religiously motivated crimes that its Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crimes issued in 2016. The Scottish government accepted the recommendations in the report, which included the development of clearer terminology and definitions related to hate crimes and prejudice, as well as a public education program to improve understanding of the nature and extent of hate crimes. The report had found “facing prejudice and fear remained part of the everyday life of too many people.”
On August 21, the Crown Prosecution Service issued new guidance to prosecutors to treat online hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones, as seriously as face-to-face hate crimes. The guidance did not require changes to existing laws. The move followed an unprecedented number of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim hate crimes in the previous year.
In August the Crown Prosecution Service and the Department of Communities and Local Government coauthored a guide for victims and witnesses of hate crimes, particularly those motivated by anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim sentiment, with CST and Tell MAMA. The guide aimed to protect the rights of victims and explained the processes and procedures for reporting these crimes and how statutory bodies, such as the police and Crown Prosecution Service, worked with victims.
In September Home Secretary Rudd banned the Scotland-based Scottish Dawn group and National Socialist Anti-Capitalist Action (NS131) under the antiterror laws, and police arrested 11 of their members. The government said it had identified their names as aliases of the previously banned neo-Nazi group, National Action. Members or anyone found supporting the group could face up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Rudd stated, “National Action is a vile…anti-Semitic group which glorifies violence and stirs up hatred…I will not allow them to masquerade under different names.” On September 13, three alleged members of National Action – two British soldiers, Lance Corporal Mikko Vehvilainen and Private Mark Barrett, and a civilian, Alexander Deakin – appeared in court charged with terror offenses.
The government continued to provide religious accommodation for employees when it considered such accommodation feasible. Muslim employees of the prison service regularly took time off during their shifts to pray. The prison service recognized the rights of prisoners to practice their faith while in custody. The pastoral needs of prisoners were addressed, in part, through chaplains paid for by the Ministry of Justice, rather than religious groups. All chaplains worked as part of a multifaith team, the size and breakdown of which was determined by the size of the prison and the religious composition of the prisoner population. Prison service regulations stated that “chaplaincy provision must reflect the faith denomination requirements of the prison.”
The military generally provided adherents of minority religious groups with chaplains of their faith. As of 2007 there were approximately 280 recruited chaplains in the armed services, all of whom were Christian, but the armed forces retained civilian chaplains to care for their Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish, and Muslim recruits. The Chaplaincy Council monitored policy and practice relating to such matters.
The House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee continued its inquiry into the role of sharia councils, examining how they operated within the legal system and resolved disputes and whether they discriminated against women by legitimizing forced marriages or issuing unfair divorce settlements. It also looked at best practices among sharia councils; however, due to disruption caused by the snap general election in June, the committee closed the inquiry early and did not issue a report on its findings. In parallel, The Home Office conducted its own inquiry and was expected to issue a report in early 2018.
As of January there were 6,813 state-funded faith schools in England. Of these, 6,176 were primary (ages 3 through 11) schools (37 percent of all state-funded primary schools), and 637 secondary (ages 11 through 16) schools (19 percent of all state-funded secondary schools). Church of England schools were the most common type among primary schools (26 percent of all primaries); Roman Catholic schools were the most common at secondary level (9 percent). Additionally, at either the primary or secondary level, there were 26 Methodist, two Greek Orthodox, one Quaker, one Seventh-day Adventist, one United Reform, 145 other Christian, 48 Jewish, 27 Muslim, 11 Sikh, and five Hindu state-funded schools. There were 370 government-funded denominational schools in Scotland: 366 Catholic, three Episcopalian, and one Jewish. The government classified schools with links to the Church of Scotland as nondenominational.
In August a campus serving both Catholic and Jewish primary school children opened in East Renfrewshire, Scotland. The East Renfrewshire council built the joint campus, which brought together Catholic St Clare’s Primary and the Jewish Calderwood Lodge, to address an increasing demand for Catholic education.
The government continued to require schools to consider the needs of different religions when setting dress codes for students. This included wearing or carrying specific religious artifacts, not cutting hair, dressing modestly, or covering the head. Guidance from the Department of Education required schools to balance the rights of individual students against the best interests of the school community as a whole; it noted schools could be justified in restricting individuals’ rights to manifest their religion or beliefs when necessary, for example, to promote cohesion and good order.
In April the Church of England said parents should not be allowed to withdraw their children from religious education classes. Derek Holloway, the Church’s lead on RE policy, stated students “must learn about other religions and world views so that they know how to get along with people from different backgrounds and beliefs,” and those withdrawing children from RE lessons wanted to “incite religious hatred.”
In September the Labour Party adopted new rules against anti-Semitism and other forms of hate speech, including “Islamophobia.” According to the new rules, “no member of the Party shall engage in conduct which…is prejudicial, or in any act which…is grossly detrimental to the Party.” The change was approved by 98 percent of voters and was expected to make it easier for the party to expel members who breached the new rules. The Jewish Labour Movement (JLM), a formal party affiliate comprised of Labour-supporting members of the Jewish community, proposed the change, backed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour Party made the rule change after Naomi Wimborne-Idrissi, founder of the group Jewish Voice for Labour, a network for Jewish members of the Labour Party which describes itself as “standing for rights and justice for Jewish people…and against wrongs and injustice to Palestinians and other oppressed people,” chaired a side event at the party’s annual conference in September. At that event, a speaker compared Zionists to Nazis and said people should be allowed to question whether the Holocaust happened, and participants cheered calls for Jewish and pro-Israel groups to be expelled from the party. During the same meeting, Michael Kalmanovitz of the “International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network” called for the JLM and the Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) to be expelled, stating, “What are JLM and LFI doing in our Party? It’s time we campaigned to kick them out.”
Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson said the side event had “nothing to do with the official Labour Party Conference,” and that he was sure the party would investigate the allegations made. Watson added that he would attempt to reassure colleagues in the JLM that the Party had no tolerance for anti-Semitism. Jeremy Newark, JLM’s chair, told Sky News, “[Labour] allowed their meeting to become an arena for what effectively amounts to a call for Jews and Jewish groups to be purged from the party.” Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, called for members who made “disgusting” anti-Semitic comments to be expelled from the party. In response to these events, EHRC Chief Executive Rebecca Hilsenrath said, “Anti-Semitism is racism, and the Labour Party needs to do more to establish that it is not a racist party.”
During a hearing in April Labour’s National Constitutional Committee extended the suspension of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone for another year, until April 27, 2018. The Labour Party first suspended Livingstone in April 2016 after he said in a radio interview that Hitler had supported Zionism.
In January the Labour Party readmitted Ilya Aziz , a counselor in the city of Nottingham, after suspending him in May 2016 for calling for Jews in Israel to “relocate” to America.
In June a Labour Party election campaign banner in Bristol superimposed a Star of David as an earring on Prime Minister Theresa May, provoking accusations that Labour had tapped into anti-Semitic sentiment. A designer of the banner, Nina Masterson, told the press the earring referenced May’s support of Israel and was not anti-Semitic.
In July Member of Parliament (MP) John Mann, leader of the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, called for action to be taken against “racists,” following the publication of a report written by pro-Israel blogger David Collier and funded by Jewish Human Rights Watch citing links between the Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and anti-Semitism in Scotland. The report stated there was a correlation between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel attitudes. Jewish Human Rights Watch commissioned the report in 2016 after protestors at a festival in Edinburgh celebrating Israeli culture chanted, “No to Brand Israel.”
In May the Board of Deputies of British Jews, representing Jews in the country, issued a manifesto in the form of “10 Commandments” to the government. The manifesto had the professed aim of informing policymakers about the most important interests and concerns of the Jewish community. The manifesto asked policy makers to: oppose extremism and hate crime, including anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim hatred; promote good relations among all communities; defend the right to a Jewish way of life, including kosher meat, religious clothing, circumcision, and accommodation for holy day observances; support efforts to remember the Holocaust and prevent any future genocide; advocate a permanent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; promote peace projects and resist boycotts; affirm the importance of faith schools; support religiously sensitive youth and social care services; promote a just and sustainable future; and celebrate and support Jewish heritage and cultural institutions. The manifesto also highlighted that in 2016, the country recorded the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents since 1984.
Leaders of the Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, and Scottish National Parties all delivered responses to the manifesto. Prime Minister May cited the Conservative Party’s “zero-tolerance” approach to anti-Semitism and efforts to counter extremism and committed to delivering a Holocaust Memorial and Learning Center in London. She also denounced the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement against Israel. Labour leader Corbyn said, “We should all be deeply troubled by the rise of anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and other racially motivated hate crimes,” and stated his intention to work with the Jewish community to tackle discrimination. Liberal Democrats Leader Tim Farron reiterated his party’s opposition to hate crime and proposed increasing money spent on policing. Scottish National party leader Nicola Sturgeon emphasized the importance of a safe and thriving Jewish community in Scotland and the collective responsibility to ensure there was no place for anti-Semitism in Scotland.
On December 12, 2016, the government adopted the IHRA working definition of anti-Semitism, which included examples of discourse that could be considered anti-Semitic. This definition was subsequently adopted by the Labour Party, the National Union of Students, the Scottish and Welsh governments, several local authorities, and used by the Crown Prosecution Service when assessing potential prosecutions for anti-Semitic hate crime.
The government is a member of the IHRA.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary Paragraph: The government reported charges of religiously motivated crimes in the most recent 12-month periods for which data were available increased by 35 percent in England and Wales, to 5,949, by 16 percent in Scotland, to 673, and by 32 percent in Northern Ireland, to 29. CST reported 767 anti-Semitic incidents in the first six months of the year, a record high for that period. Police reported anti-Muslim incidents in London rose to a record high of 1,260 in the 12 months ending in March, a 367 percent increase from four years earlier. Home Secretary Rudd said figures suggested more than half of those experiencing hate because of their religion were Muslim. Incidents targeted Muslims, Jews, and Christians and included a killing and attempted killings, physical attacks, threats, attempted arson, and hate speech. A survey by CST and a Jewish research group found low rates of anti-Semitism, although 30 percent of respondents held at least one anti-Semitic attitude. There were multiple incidents of vandalism against Muslim and Jewish sites.
According to Home Office official figures for the 12 months ending in March, there were 5,949 religiously motivated hate crimes recorded in England and Wales – 7 percent of total hate crimes – a 35 percent increase over the 4,400 crimes in the previous year. There was no breakdown by type of crime. Home Office statisticians said the increase likely reflected both a genuine rise in hate crime and ongoing improvements in crime recording by the police. Police reported an increase in racially or religiously aggravated offenses in March, possibly connected with the March 22 terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge in London.
Relying on Home Office statistics, Tell MAMA cited a rise in racially and religiously motivated crimes in England and Wales following the EU referendum and the terrorist attacks on Westminster Bridge, Manchester Arena, and London Bridge in the first half of the year. The number of these aggravated crimes peaked at 6,000 in June, according to Tell MAMA, following a sustained spike after the Westminster Bridge terror attack. The number increased somewhat, immediately following the Finsbury Park mosque attack; however, the Home Office Report stated this was likely a continuation of the sustained increase after the London Bridge attack two weeks earlier. The number of reported crimes decreased shortly after the Finsbury Park attack.
In Scotland the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service reported 673 religiously motivated crimes in the 12 months ending in March, a 16 percent rise (581 in the previous year). The most recent figures included 384 anti-Catholic crimes (299), 165 anti-Protestant crimes (141), 113 anti-Muslim crimes (134 in the previous year), and 23 anti-Semitic crimes (18). Cases did not add up to the total number reported as some of the crimes related to conduct that targeted more than one religious group.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) reported 29 religiously motivated hate crimes committed in 21 incidents during the 12 months ending in September, an increase of seven from the previous reporting period. PSNI cited 21 other religiously motivated incidents in the same period that did not constitute crimes, the same number as in the previous 12 months.
Anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic hate crimes continued to rise. CST recorded 767 anti-Semitic incidents across the country in the first six months of the year, a record high for January-June and a 30 percent increase from the 589 incidents recorded during the same period in 2016. The total of 1,346 incidents in 2016 was the highest CST recorded in a calendar year. Through June CST had recorded 100 or more anti-Semitic incidents for 15 consecutive months. For the January-June period, incidents targeted Jewish public figures (16), Jewish schools (22), synagogues (35), Jewish homes (51), and Jewish cemeteries (four). CST categorized 80 incidents as assaults, a 78 percent increase from the previous year. Three quarters of the incidents, 425 and 145 respectively, occurred in the main Jewish centers of greater London and greater Manchester. CST characterized 74 percent of reported incidents as “abusive behavior,” including 142 involving verbal abuse on social media.
According to CST, the increase in anti-Semitic incidents reported may have resulted in part from improvements in information collection, including better reporting from victims and witnesses as a result of growing communal concern about anti-Semitism; an increase in the number of security guards (many of whom the government funded through a CST-administered grant to provide security at Jewish locations); and ongoing improvements to CST’s information sharing with police forces around the country.
According to a July report by the NGO Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA), there were 1,078 anti-Semitic hate crimes in 2016, an increase of 44 percent from two years earlier. There were 105 violent crimes reported, according to CAA, only one of which resulted in prosecution. In total, authorities prosecuted only 15 cases, leading to 17 convictions. CAA called for specific training and guidance on anti-Semitic hate crime for police and prosecutors, appointment of a senior officer in each police force with responsibility for overseeing responses to anti-Semitic crimes, and a requirement for the Crown Prosecution Service to record and regularly publish details of cases involving anti-Semitism and their outcomes, as police forces were already required to do.
Police recorded a continuing increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes. According to The Guardian newspaper, London police recorded 1,260 anti-Muslim crimes in the 12 months ending in March, compared with 1,109 in 2015-16 and 343 incidents over the same period four years earlier. According to Shahid Malik, chairman of Tell MAMA, following the Brexit vote, there was an “explosion of anti-Muslim hate both online and on our streets, with visibly Muslim women being disproportionately targeted by cowardly hatemongers.” The Guardiancited Home Secretary Rudd as stating that figures suggested more than half of those who experienced hate because of their religion were Muslim.
The Guardian reported the number of anti-Islamic crimes in Manchester increased fivefold in the week after the May 22 terrorist bombing of the Manchester arena, with 139 crimes reported to Tell MAMA, compared with 25 in the previous week. Police statistics, according to The Guardian, indicated reported anti-Muslim crimes in June, the month after the bombing, increased to 224, compared with 37 a year earlier. According to the BBC, Wasim Chaudhry, the Manchester police’s lead officer for hate crime, Muslims underreported hate crimes because of privacy and other concerns. On June 7, London Mayor Sadiq Khan stated police would take a “zero-tolerance approach” to hate crimes.
In August Tell MAMA, CST, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Department for Communities and Local Government published a Hate Crime Guide to help those affected. The guide provided guidance on navigating the criminal justice system, reporting or reacting to hate crimes, and understanding the court system. The organizations repeatedly stated that as levels of reported hate crimes, including religiously motivated ones, continued to grow, the need for collaborative efforts to educate and inform those affected became increasingly important.
In September Scottish NGO Victim Support Scotland (VSS) said stakeholders should undertake a collaborative approach to tackle hate crime. VSS said tackling hate crime should mirror the approach to dealing with public health issues, where organizations worked together to support victims and their communities. VSS added there could be an overlap between racial and religious hate crimes; for example, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents could contain elements of both racial and religious prejudice and it was not always clear whether a victim had been targeted because of their race or religion. The VSS also stated the mixed motivation for hate crimes was relevant to those of an Irish background in Scotland. While the police would define such crimes as “sectarian,” the victims might not define themselves as being a victim of a religiously motivated hate crime.
In June authorities charged Darren Osborne, 47, with the terrorism-related murder of Makram Ali, 51, and attempted murder. Osborne was accused of driving his van into a group of Muslim worshipers outside a mosque in Finsbury Park in north London on June 19, while yelling, “I’m going to kill all Muslims…” Osborne’s trial was set for January 2018.
On April 1, individuals attacked a 17-year old Kurdish-Iranian at a Croydon bus stop after forcing him to admit he was an asylum seeker. The attackers chased, punched, and kicked the teenager until he was unconscious, leaving him with a fractured skull and a blood clot in the brain. The Guardian reported police arrested 17 persons in connection with the investigation. According to press reports, on November 9, three of the attackers were convicted of violent disorder, and three other individuals were acquitted of the same charge. A seventh defendant pled guilty before the start of the trial. Local MP Gavin Barwell said he was “appalled” by the incident, calling the attackers “scum.” Labour Leader Corbyn tweeted he was “absolutely shocked at the attack.”
In London on June 21, a man threw acid on two Muslim cousins, Jameel Muhktar and Resham Khan, while they sat in a car stopped at a traffic light in Beckton. Both suffered severe burns to the face and body; Muhktar was initially placed in an induced coma. Authorities treated the attack as a hate crime and charged John Tomlin with grievous bodily harm. On November 27, Tomlin pled guilty to the charges on the first day of his trial. His sentencing hearing was scheduled for January 2018.
In September a man stabbed Dr. Nasser Kurdy, an orthopedic surgeon and imam, as he arrived at the Altrincham Islamic center in greater Manchester for evening prayers. Kurdy suffered a noncritical stab wound in the neck, which required stitches. Authorities treated the incident as a hate crime and charged Ian Anthony Rooke with unlawful and malicious wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm and possession of a lethal weapon. Rooke’s trial was scheduled for March 2018.
In November a male attacker pushed a Muslim woman to the ground and pulled off her hijab. The police treated the incident as a racially or religiously aggravated hate crime.
On December 5, Marek Zakrocki, a supporter of the Britain First Party, was convicted of dangerous driving. On June 23, after shouting “white power” and giving a Nazi salute, he drove a van over the curb at Kamal Ahmed, who was standing in front of an Indian restaurant. When arrested in Harrow that evening, Zakrocki was carrying a knife and a Nazi coin and stated he was “going to kill a Muslim.” Zakrocki was remanded into custody, and a sentence hearing was scheduled for January 2018.
On May 9, police arrested a man waving a meat cleaver and threatening customers and staff at two kosher stores in North London.
In July police arrested a man armed with two knives when he attempted to enter a London synagogue.
In June unidentified individuals in a car threw a bag of vomit at two Muslim women wearing hijabs in another car in Blackburn.
In Manchester in November a woman shouted “black scumbag” and other epithets at a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf and spat in the face of the Muslim woman’s young son.
Sufia Alam, manager of the Maryam Center at the East London Mosque, said Muslim women reported being verbally abused on buses following the June attack at the London Bridge, including one whom an individual grabbed around the throat at a bus stop, and others whom persons verbally abused, spat on, or threatened with attack. He described the abuse as “part of the course of being a Muslim in the UK today.”
In August a man threw glass bottles and yelled, “Hitler was a good man” at two teenage Jewish girls in London.
In London on January 20, unknown individuals pelted a group of Jewish pedestrians with eggs as they returned home from Shabbat evening services.
In January St. Clare’s School in Handsworth prohibited a four-year-old Muslim girl from wearing a headscarf at school because it went against the school’s uniform policy. The city council said because the school was faith-based, it was within its rights to insist on a particular dress code.
In Surrey on June 24, suspects used hostile language against a group of Muslims who had just visited a mosque, then pushed and rocked the vehicle in which the group was travelling. East Surrey Superintendent Clive Davies said a thorough investigation was underway to identify the suspects and stepped up patrols in the area.
In June members of the Sikh Sewa Organization, a Sikh group that provided food to the homeless, said they had to flee the site where they were working at Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester after members of the English Defense League, a group professing opposition to “global Islamification,” became abusive.
Police investigated two arson attacks on kosher restaurants in Prestwich, a Jewish area of Manchester. Shortly before midnight on June 2, two men approached the Ta’am restaurant and threw a milk carton filled with gasoline and a lit rag at the premises. On June 6, offenders forced open a window in JS Restaurant and poured accelerant inside and lit it. No one was hurt in either incident, as both restaurants were closed at the time of the attacks. Both restaurants reopened.
CST, which worked closely with police to help reassure and protect Jewish communities, increased security patrols in greater Manchester and the surrounding area following the Manchester and London terror attacks.
According to a National Union of Students survey of students conducted from November 2016 to February 2017, 26 percent of Jewish university students were fairly or very worried about being physically attacked, and 28 percent said they had been subjected to abuse on social media or other communication channels. Two thirds said they believed they had been targeted due to their religion, and the same proportion reported difficulties with classes and exams being scheduled on Jewish holidays. Almost half reported difficulties accessing kosher food on campus.
A joint study issued in September by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) and the CST found not more than 2.4 percent of the country’s population held strong anti-Semitic views, while another 3 percent could be termed “softer” anti-Semites. According to the survey, 4 percent believed violence was often or sometimes justified against Jews, compared with 7.5 percent who felt violence was often or sometimes justified against Muslims. Approximately 30 percent of the population held an unfavorable view of Jews or endorsed at least one of seven anti-Semitic statements in the survey. The presence of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel attitudes were two to four times higher among Muslims than among the general population, but most Muslims disagreed with or were neutral about the seven anti-Semitic statements presented to them. The report concluded the levels of anti-Semitism in the country were among the lowest in the world. The findings came from the largest and most detailed survey of attitudes towards Jews and Israel ever conducted in the country. The JPR’s researchers questioned 5,466 persons, including 995 Muslims, face-to-face and online in 2016-17.
In April Micheline Brannan, Chair of the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, filed a complaint with the Scottish Parliament’s Presiding Officer over an incident at Holyrood’s Cross-Party Group on Palestine (CPG), a parliament-organized gathering of interested parties to discuss the issue of Palestine. Brannan stated the treasurer of the CPG, Philip Chetwynd, described her and her colleagues as “representatives of Zionist organizations” and “ideological terrorists” and asked them to leave the meeting. Other CPG members rejected the call for their ouster.
In August University of Glasgow rector and human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar, a Muslim, received hate mail and abusive tweets after he was interviewed on television following a Barcelona terrorist attack, where he narrowly avoided being hit by a van. Anwar said one of the messages was from former leader of the English Defense League Tommy Robinson, who called him “a lawyer for ISIS terrorist Aqsa Mahmood,” while another read, “shame he didn’t get hit by the van.” Anwar said he had received death threats in 2016 after condemning ISIS and extremism and calling for unity in the Muslim community following the killing of a Muslim shopkeeper in Glasgow.
In August Cayman Islands news media reported a local activist, Kerry Tibbetts, had launched a campaign to replace the newly appointed governor of the territory, Anwar Bokth Choudhury, a Muslim, scheduled to take office in 2018. Tibbetts reportedly said the FCO was insensitive in appointing a non-Christian to the job. Also in August, according to the Cayman News Service, the local Christian community largely rejected the offer of a Toronto-based imam from the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, Aizaz Khan, to meet and discuss religion while he visited on vacation. According to the report, Khan said some Christians called him “scum.”
Community organizing group Citizens UK, chaired by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, released a report in July, “Missing Muslims: Unlocking British Muslim potential for the benefit of all,” that recommended the British Muslim community appoint British-born and trained imams instead of foreign born ones and take a stronger stance against persecution of other faiths, including anti-Semitism and attacks against other branches of Islam. A racial equality think tank, Runnymeade Trust, agreed with the report’s findings and expressed hope it would stimulate debate. Leading website for Islamic and current affairs Islam21c.com criticized the report, stating there was “nothing radical or new about it” and only involved persons (Muslim and non-Muslim) who shared a particular establishment thinking and a stereotypical agenda about “Muslims as a problem community.”
In March two street preachers in Bristol who told Muslims their God “did not exist” and called a crowd of shoppers “animals” were fined 330 pounds ($450) each and ordered to pay court costs of 3,372 pounds ($4,600) after being convicted of a religiously aggravated public order offense.
In September Chelsea soccer club sports fans sang a song about Alvaro Morata, a player on the team, that included an anti-Semitic slur reportedly directed against Chelsea rival Tottenham Hotspur, which has a large Jewish fan base. Morata told Chelsea supporters to “respect everyone,” and the club condemned the song, stating it would impose a life ban on any fans found guilty of joining in anti-Semitic songs.
Britain First, a nationalist party widely described as far-right, organized a “Persecuted Patriots Rally” in Bromley on November 4 to “show solidarity” with its leaders, Paul Golding and Jayda Fransen. In May authorities charged the leaders with causing religiously aggravated harassment in connection with a trial of four Muslim men, at least three of whom were migrants from Afghanistan, accused of gang-raping a 16-year-old girl. Authorities said that, during the trial of the four men, Golding and Fransen had distributed leaflets, posted videos, and harassed individuals whom they believed were associated with the accused rapists. Approximately 50 Britain First supporters turned out; they were outnumbered by a counterprotest organized by groups including Unite Against Fascism. Golding and Fransen appeared before Medway magistrates on October 17 and pled not guilty. Their case was adjourned to 2018.
Barbara Fielding-Morris, an independent candidate for parliament in the June general election, posted anti-Semitic comments on a blog from September 2016 to February, praising Hitler for trying to “clear” Germany of Jews and accusing Jews of being “cowardly.” Fielding-Morris pleaded not guilty to three counts of incitement of hatred. A hearing was set for February 2018.
In September a gasoline bomb thrown at the central mosque in Edinburgh caused a minor fire and damage to a door. Police charged 29-year-old Thomas Conington with arson aggravated by religious and racial prejudice. Conington was convicted in June and sentenced to a minimum prison term of three years and nine months.
In October Tell MAMA reported an attack on Shia gravestones in the Pleasington Cemetery in Blackburn. The NGO said the desecration of Shia gravestones in a cemetery where other Muslim headstones were not touched showed anti-Shia hatred.
In June individuals defaced the Thornaby mosque in Stockton-on-Trees with anti-Muslim graffiti. The words “Muslim Cowards” were found spray-painted on the outside of the mosque. Police investigated the incident as a hate crime but did not charge anyone. Members of the Stockton-on-Trees community helped remove the graffiti, and the mosque organized a community day to clear up misconceptions about Islam.
On August 24, a severed pig’s head was left on the doorstep of an Islamic center in Newtownards, Northern Ireland. The wall of the building was also vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti, which the PSNI investigated as a hate crime. Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP for Strangford Jim Shannon and other local politicians condemned the incident.
On September 25, the Inverary Community Center in East Belfast was targeted with graffiti containing swastikas and stating, “No Muslims, No Blacks” and a severed pig’s head. The Belfast City Council, which owned the center, quickly removed the messages. DUP MP for East Belfast Gavin Robinson described the attack as “appalling.”
In December 2016, individuals spray painted the words “Saracen go home” and “Deus Vult,” a Latin phrase associated with the Crusades meaning “God wills it,” on the walls of a mosque in Cumbernauld, Scotland. Police treated the vandalism as a hate crime; they made no arrests.
In February the Jewish community in Belfast held a rededication ceremony for 13 graves that unidentified vandals had destroyed in 2016. The Belfast Lord Mayor and representatives from the two largest Unionist parties attended the ceremony.
On January 21, unidentified vandals threw a brick with images of swastikas and anti-Semitic messages through the window of a Jewish home in the Edgware district of London. On the same day, unidentified individuals defaced the personal property of a Jewish resident in Mill Hill in London with swastikas.
On March 17, a Belfast mural honoring the life of Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson was defaced with the words “scum” and “Nazi.” Patterson was an Irish Zionist who commanded a volunteer force known as the Jewish Legion during World War I. The PSNI treated the incident as an anti-Semitic hate crime.
According to press reports, members of St. Editha’s Church in Tamworth, Staffordshire, England, discovered anti-Christian messages on the walls and doors of the church in July. Messages said “God has failed” and “Deliver us from evil.” Police stop-searched and interviewed two teenagers in connection with the incident.
There were a number of interfaith efforts throughout the year. In January a London synagogue raised money to house a Muslim refugee family in the synagogue. In March an estimated 1,500 Jews participated in the Sadaqa Day of Muslim-led social action, according to British newspaper Jewish News. Muslims in turn participated in Mitzvah Day, the sister initiative to the Muslim event. Muslims and Jews collaborated on 15 joint Sadaqa Day and Mitzvah Day projects. Also in March Muslim youth, police officers, and hundreds of others linked hands on Westminster Bridge in honor of those who died in the Westminster terror attack. Children held signs which read, “Islam says no to terror.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In March U.S. embassy and Department of State officials engaged with multiple FCO and Ministry of Defense representatives to assess common goals for engaging religious minority populations at risk of radicalization, building religious tolerance, and preventing recruitment by violent extremist groups.
The embassy facilitated three two-way exchange programs during the year to bring together religious leaders, police officers, academics, local government representatives, and Home Office officials to discuss issues surrounding religious tolerance and combating the risk of violent extremism among members of religious minorities and to share best practices. Partnered cities included London and Los Angeles, Birmingham and Denver, and Manchester and Boston. Participants from each city visited their partner city before hosting a delegation in return.
The Consulate General in Belfast invited religious leaders on April 3 to discuss challenges in their communities, including those pertaining to religious freedom and tolerance. Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim leaders participated.
On November 20, the Consulate General in Edinburgh hosted an interfaith Thanksgiving dinner. Consulate general staff and representatives of the Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, and Bahai communities discussed the importance of collective group efforts to promote religious tolerance in their specific communities, and how to include and recruit the next generation to work for religious freedom.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and affirms the state supports no religion. Legal statutes prohibit discrimination based on religion. The government (the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) together with the Latin American Jewish Congress sponsored an academic event titled “Anti-discrimination Law – Hate Crimes” to raise awareness of discrimination based on religion. The parliament approved a bill to establish March 19 as the date to commemorate secularism. The government supported several events commemorating the Holocaust, including one held in the parliament and through a nationally broadcast message. Some minority religious groups said the government gave greater attention to other religious groups, particularly Christian and Jewish groups.
In October unknown individuals twice vandalized the Holocaust memorial in Montevideo with anti-Semitic graffiti. On both occasions, local authorities immediately removed the graffiti and condemned the act of vandalism. On May 12, there were anti-Semitic messages posted online following a basketball game involving a Jewish team. The Interreligious Forum of Uruguay (IF), comprising representatives of different religious groups and spiritual expressions, continued its efforts to promote respect for religious diversity and tolerance through expanding opportunities for dialogue to strengthen relationships between religions and with members of society as a means to reduce societal-based discriminatory behavior.
U.S. embassy officials met with representatives from various government entities, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Honorary Commission against Racism, Xenophobia, and All Forms of Discrimination (CHRXD) within the Ministry of Education and Culture, to discuss issues connected to religious freedom. Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including several minority religious groups and members of the IF, to discuss areas of interfaith collaboration and hear concerns on faith-related issues, such as legal avenues to practice freely Muslim burial rituals, anti-Semitic vandalism, and tensions between the government and religious organizations.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 3.4 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2014 poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of the population self-identifies as Christian (42 percent Catholic and 15 percent Protestant), 37 percent as religious but unaffiliated, and 6 percent as other. Groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, Bahais, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Valdense Church, Afro-Umbandists (who blend elements of Catholicism with animism and African and indigenous beliefs), Buddhists, and members of the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification (Unification Church), and Brahma Kumaris. According to the poll, 0.3 percent of the population is Jewish and 0.1 percent Hindu. Although the 2014 Pew Center poll states 0.1 percent of the population self-identifies as Muslim, academics familiar with the Muslim community say Muslims constitute approximately 1 percent of the population.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states, “the State supports no religion.” The penal code prohibits discrimination based on religion.
The constitution accords the Catholic Church the right to ownership of all its churches built wholly or partly with state funding, with the exception of chapels dedicated for use by asylums, hospitals, prisons, or other public establishments.
Religious groups are entitled to property tax exemptions only for their houses of worship. To receive such exemptions, a religious group must register as a nonprofit with the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC) and present a dossier with the organization’s structure and objectives. The ministry examines the dossier and determines if the religious group is eligible to receive a tax exemption. The MEC routinely registers groups submitting the required paperwork. If approved, the group may request a property tax exemption from the taxing authority, usually the municipal government.
Each local government regulates the use of its public land for burials. Many departments allow the services and rites of all religions in their public cemeteries.
The National Institute of Human Rights, an autonomous branch of the parliament, and the MEC’s CHRXD enforce government compliance with antidiscrimination laws. Both organizations receive complaints of discrimination, conduct investigations, and issue rulings on whether discrimination occurred. The ruling includes a recommendation on whether the case should receive a judicial or administrative hearing. Only the courts or the Ministry of Labor may sanction or fine for discrimination. The National Institute of Human Rights and the CHRXD provide free legal services to complainants.
In 2014 the corrections authority passed a protocol on the rights and obligations of inmates regarding religious activities in prison. The protocol regulates religious issues in prisons, including standardizing access for religious officials and religious meeting spaces. Several prisons in the country have a dedicated space for religious practices.
The constitution prohibits religious instruction in public schools. Public schools close on some Christian holidays, although, in deference to its secular nature, the government does not officially refer to holidays by their Christian names. Students belonging to non-Christian or minority religious groups may be absent from school on their religious holidays without penalty. Private schools run by religious organizations may decide which religious holidays to observe.
In order for religious workers to work in the country, they must provide certification from their church to confirm the identity of an applicant and to guarantee financial support. According to regulations, the state must enforce these standards equitably across all religious groups.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The CHRXD 2016-17 report covering incidents of discrimination included21 formal complaints of discrimination. Of those complaints, 1.8 percent concerned religious discrimination. Of the 44.6 percent that were racial discrimination cases, 12 percent targeted Jews. The CHRXD and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked to develop and prepare the “System for the Monitoring of Recommendations,” a computer tool to monitor and report progress related to issues of discrimination. They expected to launch the system in 2018.
In March the Uruguayan Central Jewish Committee (CCIU) organized an academic event titled “Anti-discrimination Law – Hate Crimes” to mark the one year anniversary of the killing of Jewish businessman David Fremd by a Muslim convert. In October 2016 a court ruled the killer, Carlos Peralta, should be sent to a psychiatric center rather than prison. The event was sponsored by the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Latin American Jewish Congress and was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Minister Nin Novoa, who participated in the event.
The government organized workshops throughout the year to raise awareness of societal discrimination and to promote tolerance. Parliament established March 19 as the date to commemorate secularism in the country. An opposition party representative promoted this legislative initiative with the stated purpose of reinforcing secularism as the base of a “respectful coexistence” in society.
CHRXD sources said the government was not invited to any civil society-organized interfaith dialogues during the year. Religious leaders also noted that while the national government seemed to make little effort to convene an interfaith dialogue, local government officials in Montevideo provided support to interfaith events.
The country’s commitment to secularism at times continued to generate tensions within the Catholic and evangelical Christian communities, who said government stances on sex education, gender, and abortion threatened their rights to practice their religion. Differing interpretations of the term “secularism” continued to lead to disagreements on the state’s role in enforcing the country’s secularism laws. In July the Secondary Education Council, a government agency within the National Public Education Administration, suspended the director of a public high school in the Department of Salto for allowing a workshop on sexuality and reproduction that included models of human fetuses and booklets with religious images. The suspension was purportedly due to the director’s violation of secularism laws after religious materials were allowed into the classroom as part of the presentation. Afterward, a legislator filed a complaint in parliament against the director’s suspension, stating the suspension was a violation of the same laws enforcing secularism. The complaint was pending at year’s end. The incident engendered considerable nationwide controversy and debate about secularism in the country.
Minority religious groups such as Bahais, Umbandists, Buddhists, and Hindus reported no cases of government-based discrimination or intolerance. They continued, however, to state the government demonstrated more interest in other religious groups, particularly Christian and Jewish groups, and there were few to no opportunities for direct dialogue with the government on religious freedom during the year.
The Montevideo city authorities’ denial in May of the Archbishop of Montevideo’s request to install a statue of the Virgin Mary on a major public route engendered controversy between representatives of the Catholic Church and some politicians. A representative of the Catholic Church said the decision had generated tensions between local Catholics and the government, especially because in the past the local government had allowed the placement of other statues, including one of Confucius and one of the Umbandist deity Iemanya, along the same stretch of road.
The Muslim community continued to request space from the government in a public cemetery in Montevideo to practice its burial rites. The Egyptian Islamic Center of Uruguay formally requested a grant of land in a state cemetery, leading to debate among several political leaders in Montevideo. Some leaders said as a minority group, the Muslims should have government support to use public space for a cemetery; others opposed the idea, citing the local government’s rejection of a request to place a statue of the Virgin Mary on public land, in addition to the potential risks of creating a precedent. The request was pending at year’s end.
As in previous years, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs supported activities to commemorate the Holocaust. The parliament organized a special session in January to honor Holocaust victims. Also in January, Minister of Education and Culture Maria Munoz issued a nationally broadcast message commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day. In her speech, she announced the naming of a Montevideo public high school after Warsaw Ghetto Uprising leader Mordechai Anielewicz. The “Shoa Project,” an online educational tool on the Holocaust, launched a contest during the year for high school teachers to raise awareness of Holocaust resistance fighters.
In October Defense Minister Jorge Menendez met with representatives of the Uruguay Jewish Central Committee and the country’s four main political parties to decide how to dispose of an 800-pound bronze Nazi eagle and swastika from a German World War II cruiser scuttled in Montevideo harbor following the 1939 Battle of Rio Plata. While a representative of the governing Broad Front coalition suggested displaying the piece in a future museum dedicated to the battle, CCIU President Israel Buszkaniec expressed concern the piece could attract neo-Nazis to the country and create a “Nazi sanctuary.” At year’s end no decision about the piece’s disposition was made.
In December the government awarded a prize to a public school and its staff in Maldonado Department in recognition of their work in raising awareness of the negative consequences of discrimination in all its forms, including religious discrimination.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Representatives of some minority religious groups, such as Bahais, Umbandists, Buddhists, and Hindus, stated that society’s lack of knowledge and understanding of their religious beliefs sometimes led to acts of discrimination. Members of these groups also said they were negatively targeted for their religious beliefs, including through verbal attacks in public.
Civil society representatives, including representatives of Jewish organizations, reported continued comments and activities on the internet and social media sites disparaging their religious beliefs and practices. On May 12, anti-Semitic messages were posted online following a basketball game in which a Jewish organization’s team was defeated; other social media posts alluded to Nazi experiments perpetrated during World War II.
The Zionist Organization of Uruguay presented the 2017 Jerusalem Prize to prominent national figures including government authorities and academics for their work to promote and defend the human rights of the Jewish people and encourage peaceful coexistence among persons of different beliefs.
In October unknown individuals vandalized the Holocaust Memorial in Montevideo with anti-Semitic graffiti twice in the same week. On both occasions, local authorities immediately removed the graffiti. Montevideo Mayor Daniel Martinez and city official Carlos Varela condemned the acts of vandalism, announced authorities would monitor the monument, and asked citizens to practice good sense, tolerance, and peace. There were also reports of anti-Semitic graffiti such as swastikas painted near bus stops.
The Jewish-Christian Council, together with Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Anglicans, continued to organize interfaith conferences, seminars, and academic activities whose goal was promotion of interfaith tolerance and coexistence.
The IF, a group of representatives from different religions and spiritual expressions, including Brahma Kumaris, Mormons, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Bahais, continued to promote interfaith understanding and to foster respect for religious diversity through expanding opportunities for dialogue.
IF representatives said they sought greater dialogue and collaboration with other religious groups, in addition to engaging the national and local governments. The IF said the country enjoyed a “relatively high level of religious freedom” but expressed concern for what it called occasional incidents of discrimination.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials maintained regular contact with government entities, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the CHRXD, and the National Institute of Human Rights to discuss issues related to religious freedom. These included the need for government activities to support interfaith dialogue and the new law commemorating a national day of secularism. Embassy officials also requested information regarding specific acts of discrimination based on faith.
Embassy officials met throughout the year with religious leaders, including several minority religious groups, and with members of the IF to discuss areas of interfaith collaboration and hear concerns about faith-related issues, such as legal avenues to practice freely Muslim burial rituals, acts of vandalism related to religions, and tensions between the government and religious organizations.
In January the Ambassador participated in an International Holocaust Remembrance Day activity held in parliament. The Ambassador attended an event and promoted tolerance via social media to support the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust organized by the Israeli community in April. In May the Ambassador met with the president of B’nai B’rith International to discuss the importance of religious freedom, tolerance, and respect for religious diversity. The Ambassador met in September with representatives from the American Jewish Committee to discuss acts of discrimination faced by Uruguay’s Jewish community, including anti-Semitic messages posted on social media.
Embassy officials participated in a July roundtable with representatives of several minority religious groups, including the Bahais, Umbandists, Buddhists, Hindus, and the Valdense Church to hear concerns regarding religious tolerance.
During the year embassy officials met with representatives from the Catholic Church, the Jewish faith, and the IF to discuss areas of interfaith collaboration and to hear their concerns on interfaith issues.
The embassy extensively utilized social media to highlight respect for religious diversity and tolerance, including in covering its July roundtable with minority religion representatives, the commemoration of International Religious Freedom Day on October 27, and to feature regular participation by the Ambassador and other U.S. embassy officials in events promoting religious diversity and tolerance throughout the year.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion or belief and separation of government and religion. Constitutional rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society. The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality. The law requires religious groups to register with the government and declares religious activities of unregistered groups to be illegal. It bans a number of religious groups as “extremist.” The law restricts public speech or proselytism, censors religious literature, and limits home possession of religious materials of all types and formats. Raids of unregistered religious group meetings, legal and illegal searches, and seizure of outlawed religious materials by law enforcement officers (including cell phones and laptops that government officials said contained religious materials) from private residences resulted in a combination of fines, corrective labor, and prison sentences. On February 2, authorities arrested 20 Shia Muslim men in Bukhara for disorderly conduct. The government released some of them immediately, imprisoned five for 15 days and subsequently fined four of them, and convicted one and sentenced him to a five-year term. Government officials conducted customs searches and seizures on individuals arriving on international flights or crossing national borders, looking for contraband religious material. Reports from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) indicate prison authorities abused prisoners and charged some with organizing extremist religious activities from within prisons, resulting in lengthened sentences. NGO monitors reported, however, that in the fall prison authorities discontinued the practice of arbitrary extension of prison sentences for religious convicts. In May the Initiative Group of Independent Human Rights Defenders of Uzbekistan (IGIHRDU) reported three brothers who were due to be released after serving multiple-year prison terms for “religious extremism” had their sentences extended. Prisoners held on religious extremism charges were unable to practice their religion. Members of religious communities that have had registration applications denied by the government, including the 22 organizations labeled as “extremist,” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecution. Authorities continued to impose strict penalties on individuals found worshiping outside an authorized location, and the government failed to register non-Sunni Muslim and other religious groups and their places of worship. The government had not registered a new non-Sunni Muslim house of worship in eight years. Authorities fined members of some groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities. Several groups remained unable to register their churches after attempting to do so annually for the past 11 years. The Jewish community remained unable to register a central office due to a regulation requiring synagogues in at least eight of the country’s 14 administrative units (12 provinces, the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan and the city of Tashkent). Following a gathering of senior Muslim officials in June, President Mirziyoyev announced a new governmental approach to regulating religion. Throughout the summer and into the fall, media and religious groups reported authorities allowed children and teenagers under the age of 16 to practice religion alongside their parents in mosques for the first time. Civil society groups stated that plainclothes police reduced their surveillance of Muslim worship and were replaced by uniformed officers. Civil society groups also said the government removed several thousand names from a security watch list; allowed increased numbers of applicants to go on the Hajj; and permitted open celebration of Ramadan iftars. In honor of Constitution Day, December 7, the president pardoned 2,700 convicts, including 763 “religious prisoners,” the largest one-time release of prisoners of conscience in the country’s history. A leading civil society association that monitors prison conditions estimates 7,000 inmates remain held on religious charges. Individuals who deviated from traditional ethnoreligious beliefs and practices continued to report police harassment. According to media sources, NGOs, and religious congregations, law enforcement officers closely monitored and raided meetings of unregistered Christian groups and detained their members. The government limited access to religious publications to only a registered legal address. Courts continued to sentence individuals and members of religious groups to administrative detention and fines following court-authorized searches of their homes for private collections of religious materials and literature. Members of the Shia community, Pentecostals, Evangelical Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all reported police raided private homes of members to either disrupt private gatherings or search for contraband literature. In March the Jehovah’s Witnesses filed an application with the UN Human Rights Council alleging the government had repeatedly violated their human right to profess a religious belief. The government cancelled a summer camp for Catholic youth in the Fergana Valley and surveilled Catholic masses. During the year, all minority religious groups that attempted to register a new house of worship failed.
NGOs and private persons continued to report social pressure on individuals, particularly among the majority Muslim population, against religious conversions. Ethnic Uzbeks who converted to Christianity reportedly suffered continued harassment and discrimination, including pressure upon them from national and local authorities to repudiate their new faith and on their family members to convince them to do so. Members of religious groups perceived as proselytizing, including evangelical, Baptist, and Pentecostal Christian Churches, stated they continued to face greater societal scrutiny and discrimination. A number of media organizations continued to publish articles and broadcast television programs critical of proselytism and defaming minority religious groups they regarded as “nontraditional.”
Senior officials from the Department of State met with government officials and recommended tangible steps the government could take to improve its record on religious freedom, including removing restrictions on religious practice and increasing tolerance of minority religions. Embassy officers urged the government to include religious prisoners of conscience in its annual amnesty and met with government officials to discuss the nonregistration of religious communities, limitations on religious expression, and restrictions on the publication and dissemination of religious literature.
Since 2006, Uzbekistan 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 December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Uzbekistan as a CPC and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompanies the designation as required in the important national interest of the United States.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 32 million (July 2017 estimate). According to government figures from the 1989 census, the last time it collected data on religious beliefs or affiliation, approximately 93 percent of the population is Muslim. Most are Sunni of the Hanafi School; the government states approximately 1 percent of the population is Shia of the Jaafari School, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand. Approximately 4 percent of the population is Russian Orthodox, according to news reports, and Russian migration statistics indicate this number continues to decline as ethnic Russians and other ethnic Slavs emigrate. The government states the remaining 3 percent includes small communities of Roman Catholics, ethnic Korean Christians, Baptists, Lutherans, Seventh-day Adventists, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Bahais, members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, and atheists. The Jewish community estimates 6,000 Ashkenazi and fewer than 2,000 Bukharan Jews remain, concentrated in Tashkent, Bukhara, Samarkand, and the Fergana Valley. The Jewish population continues to decline because of emigration.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the freedom of religion or belief, including freedom of not professing any religion, but also contains limitations. Constitutional rights may not encroach on lawful interests, rights, and freedoms of other citizens, the state, or society. The law allows for restricting religious activities when necessary to maintain national security, the social order, or morality. The constitution establishes a secular framework providing for noninterference by the state in the affairs of religious communities, separates the state and religion from each other, and prohibits political parties based on religious principles.
The law criminalizes unregistered religious activity; requires official approval of the content, production, and distribution of religious publications; and prohibits proselytism and other missionary activities.
The administrative and criminal codes specify sanctions for violations of the law and other statutes on religious activities. The administrative code punishes illegal production, storage, or importation of religious materials. It criminalizes unapproved religious meetings, street processions, or other religious ceremonies and punishes private entities for leasing premises or other property to, or facilitating gatherings, meetings, and street demonstrations of, religious groups without state permission. It punishes unauthorized religious activity, failure to properly register a religious organization under the law, and facilitating children’s and youth meetings, as well as vocational, literature, and other study groups related to worship. The penalty for violating these provisions ranges from fines of 50 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage (172,240 som) ($21) or up to 15 days imprisonment, while the other violations of the law described carry fines only.
The criminal code distinguishes between “illegal” groups, which are those not registered properly, and “prohibited” groups viewed as “extremist.” It criminalizes membership in organizations banned as terrorist groups. It is a criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of four million to eight million som ($500 to $1,000), to organize or participate in an illegal religious group. The law also specifically prohibits persuading others to join illegal religious groups with penalties of up to three years in prison. The criminal code provides penalties of up to 20 years in prison for organizing or participating in the activities of religious extremist, fundamentalist, separatist, or other prohibited groups. Aside from joining an extremist group, charges of religious extremism may include the offenses of attempting to overthrow the constitutional order and terrorism.
The criminal code punishes proselytism – the attempt to convert persons belonging to a certain religion to another religion – with up to three years in prison, proscribes efforts to draw minors into religious organizations without parental permission, and prohibits all individuals except clergy and individuals serving in leadership positions of officially recognized religious organizations from wearing religious attire in public places. Any religious service conducted by an unregistered religious organization is illegal.
The law requires all religious groups to register with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). Among the requirements, the law states each group must present a membership list of at least 100 citizens ages 18 years or older belonging to the group and a charter with a legal, physical address to the local branch of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ). The law states a religious organization may carry out its activities only after the MOJ registers it. Religious educational establishments acquire the right to operate after registering with the MOJ and receiving the appropriate license. Individuals teaching religious subjects at religious educational establishments must have a religious education and carry out their work with the permission of the appropriate agency of the government. These provisions make it illegal to practice any form of religion or belief with others without first obtaining registration as a juridical entity.
The law imposes registration requirements, such as a permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units for central registration and the application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality. The applicants also require the concurrence of the Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA, which reports to the Cabinet of Ministers) and the mahalla (neighborhood) committee. The government says it does not review mahalla decisions and activities, but reports continue to state there is ongoing coordination.
The law also requires notarized documents stating the leading founding members have the religious education necessary to preach their faith, the group’s sources of income, and CRA concurrence to registration. The law requires local governments to concur in registration of groups in their areas and that the group presents a “guarantee letter” from local government authorities stating the legal and postal addresses of the organization conform to all legal requirements (including statements from the main architectural division, sanitary-epidemiological services, fire services, and locally selected neighborhood committees). By law, the MOJ may take one to three months to review a registration application. The MOJ may approve or deny the registration, or cease review without the issuance of a decision. Registered religious groups may expand throughout the country and have appropriate buildings, organize religious teaching, and possess religious literature.
The law limits the operations of a registered group to those areas where it is registered. The law grants only registered religious groups the right to establish schools and train clergy.
The CRA oversees registered religious activity. The Council for Confessions, under the CRA, includes ex-officio representatives from Muslim, Christian, and Jewish groups, and discusses ways of ensuring compliance with the law, the rights and responsibilities of religious organizations and believers, and other issues related to religion.
Under the law, state bodies, including neighborhood committees and nonstate and noncommercial public organizations, have wide-ranging powers to combat suspected “antisocial activity” in cooperation with police. These powers include preventing the activity of unregistered religious organizations, ensuring observance of rights of citizens to religious freedoms, prohibiting propagation of religious views, and considering other questions related to observance of the law.
The law requires religious groups to obtain a license to publish or distribute materials. The CRA reviews all materials produced and must approve them before distribution. Materials include books, magazines, newspapers, brochures, leaflets, audiovisual items including CDs and DVDs, and materials posted to the internet describing the origins, history, ideology, teachings, commentaries, and rituals of various religions of the world. The state forbids banned “extremist religious groups” from distributing any type of publications. Individuals who distribute leaflets or literature deemed extremist via social networks have been subject to criminal prosecution and have faced jail terms ranging from five to 20 years. In the summer, government religious authorities expanded the list of religious literature clerics could use in services. To receive a Bible, a “Bible application” must be completed and is subject to government clearance before an authorized version of the bible may be purchased.
According to the law, individuals in possession of literature by authors the government deems to be extremist, or of any literature illegally imported or produced, are subject to arrest and prosecution. The administrative code punishes “illegal production, storage, import, or distribution of materials of religious content” with a fine of 20 to 100 times the minimum monthly wage of 130,240 som ($16) for individuals. The fine for government officials committing the same offense is 50 to 150 times the minimum monthly wage. The administrative code permits the confiscation of the materials and the “corresponding means of producing and distributing them.” The criminal code imposes a fine of 100 to 200 times the minimum monthly wage or corrective labor of up to three years for these offenses for acts committed subsequent to a judgment rendered under the administrative code. In practice, criminal code violations for literature are rarely applied, if ever. Courts issue fines under the administrative code. In instances where an individual is unable to pay the fine, courts will issue an order garnishing wages.
The law permits only religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel and conduct religious instruction. Nine madrassahs, including one for women, and an Orthodox and a Protestant seminary are officially approved to train religious personnel and provide secondary education. The government-sponsored Muslim Board of Uzbekistan plans to open a half-dozen religious education schools in 2018. The Cabinet of Ministers considers madrassah-granted diplomas equivalent to other diplomas, enabling madrassah graduates to continue to university-level education. In addition, the Tashkent Islamic Institute and the Tashkent Islamic University provide higher education religion programs. The law does not permit private religious instruction absent state approval and imposes fines for violations. The law limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors. The law prohibits the teaching of religious subjects in public schools.
The law requires imams to have graduated from a recognized religious education facility and register for a license with the government. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan assigns a graduate to a particular mosque as a deputy imam before he can become an imam later.
The law allows those who object to military service based on their religious beliefs to perform alternative civilian service. The law restricts the activities of faith-based NGOs, which is how the government classifies religious congregations. It prohibits religious activities outside of formal worship, as well as religious activities intended for children under 16 years old without parental permission.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: According to NGOs, religious organizations, and expert observers such as the UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of and publicly profess or share one’s religion, faith, or belief with others. In his preliminary Uzbekistan trip report, the special rapporteur also said, “One of the primary ways in which the freedom of religion or belief is violated is through an overly broad interpretation of religious extremism.” The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations. The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred. Reports from NGOs indicated prison authorities physically abused prisoners, and charged some with organizing extremist religious activities from within prisons, which resulted in lengthened sentences. Authorities prevented prisoners held on “religious extremism” charges from practicing their religion.
The government continued to prohibit gatherings for worship in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist, and imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location.
For the eighth consecutive year, the government did not register a non-Sunni Muslim house of worship. The Jewish community remained unable to register a central office due to a regulation requiring synagogues (or other houses of worship) in at least eight of country’s 14 administrative units. Authorities fined members of some groups, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities. Law enforcement officers raided meetings and detained participants of unregistered religious groups and social gatherings where religious issues were discussed. The possession of religious literature uncensored by the CRA was heavily penalized and remained prohibited. Officials continued to search homes, offices, and spaces belonging to members of minority religious groups, at times without valid search warrants, and courts sentenced members of such groups to administrative detention or fines, including for possession of Bibles. The government continued to limit access to certain Islamic publications deemed extremist and arrested individuals attempting to import or publish religious literature without official permission. It also continued to arrest individuals in possession of literature deemed by the government to be “extremist.” State-controlled media accused missionaries and others engaged in proselytizing of posing a danger to society.
The government continued to ban Islamic groups it defined as “extremist” and criminalized membership in such groups, which included 22 religious organizations. Groups the government labeled as “extremist” were unable to practice their religious beliefs without risking criminal prosecutions. The government stated its actions against persons or groups suspected of religious extremism were not a matter of religious freedom, but rather a matter of preventing the overthrow of secular authorities and precluding incitement of interreligious instability and hatred. NGO sources reported the government continued its physical abuse of persons arrested and jailed on suspicion of “religious extremism” or of participating in underground Islamic activity.
According to UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief Ahmed Shaheed, who visited the country in September – the first such visit since 2012 – freedom of religion or belief was subject to excessive government regulations that prioritize security over freedom. The rapporteur stated the government continued to constrain the rights of its citizens to freely speak of, publicly profess, or share one’s religion, faith, or belief with others in defiance of its own laws and international obligations. He said the various criminal code provisions addressing extremism captured a wide range of activities and have the potential to restrict activities protected under international law. He also said the government imposed strict penalties on those worshipping outside an authorized location and it failed to register a non-Sunni Muslim house of worship in eight years.
Representatives of minority religious groups stated the government continued to prohibit peaceful gatherings for worship and other religious activities in communities where a registered house of worship did not exist. In some cases, Christians remained separated from an authorized gathering place by more than 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and gathered in private “house churches,” leaving them vulnerable to police harassment and abuse since such gatherings remained illegal.
Based on information gathered during the year from a leading civil society association that follows prison reform, the country’s prison system held approximately 7,000 inmates on charges relating to their religious beliefs or practices. According to a speech by the president on December 7, the total prison population was 57,000.
Minority religious groups said they continued to experience difficulties registering and conducting religious activities because of harassment by local authorities.
On May 26, IGIHRDU reported the Tashkent City Criminal Court charged 11 devout Muslims with “religious extremism” and sentenced them to five to six year prison terms. According to IGIHRDU, defendants reported that, during the investigation, authorities tortured and physically abused them and harassed their family members. The judge and prosecutor rejected their torture claims.
Prison administrators reportedly continued to charge prisoners convicted of religious extremism with organizing extremist cells while in prison, or with other offenses which served as grounds for extending their prison terms. Reports from independent media and rights activists continued to state that administrators charged prisoners incarcerated for religious extremism with alleged internal prison violations, making them ineligible to apply for an amnesty for which they otherwise would be eligible.
In May IGIHRDU reported that three brothers – Abdukarim, Akhmadillo and Abduvokhid Mirzaev, who were serving prison terms for “religious extremism” and attempts to overthrow constitutional order – received additional prison terms prior to the end of their prior sentences in January and April. Courts had sentenced Abdukarim Mirzaev to eight years in 2009; Akhmadillo Mirzaev to five years in 2006, and an additional six years in 2009; and Abduvokhid Mirzaev to 11 years in 2006. According to family members, prison authorities tortured all three men and denied them accommodation to practice their faith.
In September police raided the private Tashkent home of a Sunni Muslim woman who held regular gatherings of a women’s club at her home to discuss religious matters and Islam with neighbors. A Shaykhontokhur District administrative court convicted the organizer of teaching religion without a license, and fined her 13.8 million som ($1,680).
According to Shia community representatives, in Bukhara on February 2, the National Security Service (NSS) and police officers raided a gathering of 20 Shia men at a local restaurant for disorderly conduct. According to Centre1, an independent news publication founded by an exiled expatriate journalist, authorities released 15 of the detainees immediately while charging the other five – Jahangir Kulijanov, Shavkat Azimov, Alibek Khusanov, Jamshid Khasanov, and Sharof Sharapov –with harassing a woman and refusing to obey police orders; authorities sentenced the men to 15 days in jail. Detainees reported authorities physically abused them while in detention, placed them in solitary confinement, and provided no access to lawyers. Authorities searched the men’s homes, and found unauthorized religious literature and materials, including a video sermon of Moscow-based Imam Amin Ramin, who created a popular lecture series in Russian on the history of Shia Islam and the faith’s basic tenets. In May the government charged Kulijanov and Azimov with illegally establishing a public association or religious organization. Later in the month, authorities charged Kulijanov with possession, production, and dissemination of materials deemed a threat to public order. On August 22, a Bukhara District Court judge ordered Azimov and Kulijanov each to pay an 8,190,000 som ($1,000) fine on the illegal religious association charge. In November a court in Bukhara convicted Kulizhanov of illegal possession of religious material and violating the law on religious organizations and sentenced him to five years in jail. According to human rights activists, the prosecution provided what it said was evidence of alleged appeals to religious discord, but similar passages could be found in officially authorized literature used in mosques. Human rights defenders said the lack of a competent expert on Shia Islam led to an inaccurate interpretation.
President Mirziyoyev took several steps regarding improving relations with the Sunni Muslim community: the government cleared 16,000 persons from a security watch list of potential religious extremists; dispatched imams to prisons to begin a course of rehabilitation with religious prisoners; and lifted sanctions on the day-to-day practice of Islam, including public prayer to youth participation in mosques. A dedicated Islamic prayer room with a separate space for ablution was opened for the first time at Tashkent International Airport; the government has also announced plans to open prayer rooms in train stations. Authorities recently allowed major mosques to use loudspeakers for calls to prayer for the first time in more than a decade. In November the government approved fee-based courses on Arabic language and Quranic studies for the general public. In honor of Constitution Day, December 7, the president pardoned 2,700 convicts, including 763 “religious prisoners,” the largest one-time release of prisoners of conscience in the country’s history.
Religious groups and human rights activists reported armed law enforcement officers continued to raid meetings of unregistered groups and detain their members. Courts continued to sentence members of minority religious groups to administrative detention following searches, at times without valid search warrants, of homes and offices.
In March Forum 18, an Oslo-based NGO that chronicles religious rights abuses in Central Asia, reported that on February 28, three police officers, including an antiterrorist officer, entered the residence of Protestant couple Andrei and Tursuna Li in Uchtepe District, Tashkent Region, under the guise of conducting a passport check. Officers confiscated two Bibles in Russian, two Bibles in Uzbek, and a concordance (Bible index) in Russian. They also seized two mobile phones and a laptop computer. Li stated they had purchased the Bibles from the officially registered Bible Society. Authorities told Forum 18 that the confiscated materials were being examined by a religious expert pending a decision on whether to press charges.
Forum 18 reported the Council of Baptist Churches said that on March 11, two officers of the Yashnobod District Antiterrorist Police, Tashkent City, raided the home of a Baptist couple, Konstantin and Susanna Binkovsky. According to the couple, the officers stated it was part of a regular inspection for security reasons on the eve of the Novruz holiday (Persian New Year). As soon as the officers entered the Binkovskys’ home, however, they asked the couple whether they had religious literature. The officers confiscated a family Bible, other Christian books, and a paper notebook with notes without a warrant and made no official record of the search. The same day officers took Konstantin Binkovsky to Yashnobod District police station. According to Susanna Binkovsky, officers questioned them and ordered them not to disclose publicly information concerning the raid. Once the Baptists published information about the raid and literature seizure on the internet, the same officers came back to the Binkovskys’ home and threatened the couple with arrest.
On April 6, authorities raided the home of Alla Dobronravova, a member of an officially registered Baptist church in Navoi, while she was hosting her daughter and son-in-law at her residence, Forum 18 reported. Police confiscated Christian materials, including five books, two songbooks, two DVDs, and two personal paper notebooks with notes. Officers also told Dobronravova she might be charged with illegal production, storage, or import into the country, with the intent to distribute or actual distribution, of religious materials. For individuals, this would involve fines between approximately 3.4 million som ($420) and 17.2 million som ($2,100), plus confiscation of the materials and any items used to manufacture or distribute them.
On April 20, Nukus Criminal Court sentenced four Protestant men – identified only as Marat, Joldasbai, Atamurat, and Salamat – to 15-day jail terms for worshiping together at a private residence. Forum18 reported authorities freed the four from custody on May 5. According to Centre1, the NSS deprived the men of food rations as a form of punishment while in prison.
In May Forum 18 reported that authorities fined two visiting female Protestants from Turkmenistan in Khorezm Region. Customs officials searched the women as they prepared to cross back into Turkmenistan and discovered Christian materials on their mobile phones. The materials included sermons, songs, and the Bible in Uzbek. Officials confiscated the women’s mobile phones and passports, preventing them from leaving. Over the next few days, officials summoned the women for questioning each day, often for several hours at a time. Authorities then fined them 172,240 som ($21), each under the Administrative Code and allowed them to return to Turkmenistan.
On June 18, law enforcement in Karshi, Kashkadarya Region, raided a meeting for worship organized by the Council of Baptist Churches for approximately 200 deaf church members. On July 21, the Karshi City civic court tried five church members – Viktor Tashpulatov, Mikhail Balykbayev, Jahongir Shadmonov, Svetlana Andreychenko, and Munira Gaziyeva – on charges of conducting unsanctioned worship. The court sentenced Tashpulatov and Balykbayev to five-day jail terms. The three others each received a fine of 449,325 som ($56).
According to religious freedom advocates, on July 23, 25 police officers in Urgench, Khorezm Region, conducted an unauthorized raid during the Sunday morning worship meeting of a group of 27 local Protestants in the home of Ahmadjon and Yelena Nazarov. According to witnesses, some of the officers carried automatic weapons and only six wore police uniforms. Police confiscated a children’s Bible, a personal notebook with notes, sheets of paper with Christian songs, and three mobile phones. The officers detained all of the worshippers and took them to the Urgench City police station, where, according to victims, they were harassed, including subjecting females to strip searches.
In August, according to Forum 18, police raided a private home where Pastor Ahmadjon Nazarov and fellow Protestant worshipers were meeting. Participants were taken to police headquarters for questioning and released. In October Judge Bakhtiyar Torebayev fined some of the worshipers detained in August, including Nazarov, while others were given warnings.
On November 10, police in Andijan raided the private apartment of Irina Stepanova, a member of the local state-registered Baptist church. Officials justified their search with a claim that she “illegally stored a gun in her apartment.” Officials confiscated three Bibles, one Baptist songbook, Christian magazines, booklets, CDs and DVDs, and six personal notebooks. Andijan police opened a case against Stepanova with a possible penalty of a fine between approximately 3.4 million som ($420) and 25.8 million som ($3,150).
On November 19, 14 officials raided the private home of Stanislav Kim in Urgench during Sunday morning worship, according to Forum 18. Police arrested nine adults and interrogated and threatened them for two hours at the police station. Officials confiscated Christian books and detained other worshippers for police questioning. Three congregants were fined and two served 15-day sentences in custody. The other four were released from custody.
Media reported authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, and made several arrests of individuals based on their participation in such gatherings. In one case, police raided a private home in Nukus where more than a dozen Baptists gathered for a dinner party service. Police found no religious materials but issued a fine for illegal worship outside a registered premise.
According to human rights activists and religious community representatives, the government reviewed the content of imams’ sermons as well as the volume and substance of Islamic materials published by the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan (Muftiate, the highest Sunni Muslim authority in the country). The government ensured its control over the Muftiate through the CRA and by selecting the Muftiate’s staff. The government did not legally limit the volume of public calls to prayer, although many mosques did so.
The government stated most prisons continued to set aside special areas for inmates to pray, and prison libraries had copies of the Quran and the Bible. Family members of prisoners reported, and the UN special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief confirmed during his October visit to the maximum security Jaslyk prison, that prison authorities did not allow prisoners suspected of religious extremism to practice their religion, including reading the Quran or praying privately. According to the UN special rapporteur, reported restrictions included not permitting inmates to pray five times a day or refusing to adjust work and meal schedules for the Ramadan fast.
Authorities continued to fine representatives of registered religious groups, or representatives of groups that had unsuccessfully attempted to register, for engaging in religious activities, including fining members of Jehovah’s Witnesses for congregating in a place other than their sole registered house of worship in Tashkent Region. In October Jehovah’s Witnesses reported law enforcement personnel raided the houses of Bayrambay Begzhanov and Zhanar Alekbaeva, members of the congregation, and confiscated religious literature and a mobile phone with religious publications on it. On October 3, the Chirchik City Administrative Court in Tashkent Region charged the two with illegal production, storage, and distribution of religious materials and fined them 1,497,750 som ($190) and 2,995,500 som ($370) respectively.
In Tashkent on February 4, authorities arrested Lidiya Sisoyeva of the Jehovah’s Witnesses for sharing her beliefs with others. Officials searched her personal belongings and seized a mobile phone and tablet computer; they were subsequently fined under the administrative code. On February 14, police arrested two female Jehovah’s Witnesses, Svetlana Andreeva and Alfiya Ganieva, while they were peacefully proselytizing. Police officers seized two mobile phones and a tablet computer; the two women were subsequently fined under the administrative code. In Fergana, on July 2, police officers arrested two female Jehovah’s Witnesses, Anastasiya Berezeva and Gulnara Islamkulova, after they were proselytizing; they were subsequently fined under the administrative code.
During the year the Jehovah’s Witnesses recorded 245 episodes of “hostile acts” against their members, ranging from physical abuse in police detention and threats of physical violence against family members, to home raids, unlawful searches and seizures of personal property, and employment discrimination – a decrease from 264 such acts in 2016. In March the international Jehovah’s Witnesses organization filed a petition with the UN Human Rights Council alleging egregious violations of their members’ right to practice their faith in the country.
Many religious group representatives reported they were unable to meet the government’s registration requirements, which included the need for permanent presence in eight of the country’s 14 administrative units to acquire central registration, and application by 100 members for registration in a specific locality. Their inability to register left them subject to criminal sanction for engaging in “illegal” religious activities.
As in previous years, the MOJ continued to explain denials of registration by citing alleged failures of religious groups to report a valid legal address or to obtain guarantee letters and necessary permits from all local authorities. Some groups stated they did not have addresses because they continued to be reluctant to purchase property without assurance their registration would be approved. Other groups stated local officials arbitrarily withheld approval of the addresses because they opposed the existence of Christian churches with ethnic Uzbek members. In response, some groups reported providing congregation membership lists with only Russian-sounding surnames.
Churches that previously attempted to register reportedly remained unregistered. These included the Bethany Baptist Church in the Mirzo-Ulugbek District of Tashkent; the Pentecostal church in Chirchik; Emmanuel Church and Mir (Peace) Church of Nukus, Karakalpakstan; Hushkhabar Church in Gulistan; the Pentecostal church in Andijon; and the Adventist Church, Greater Grace Christian Church, Central Protestant Church, and Miral Protestant Church, all in Samarkand. Catholic congregations in Navoi and Angren were unable to register their churches after 11 years of unsuccessful attempts.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that, despite continued efforts to engage with the government, they had no success in registering new congregations despite their growing numbers. They currently only have one registered site, on the outskirts of Tashkent, which does not adequately meet their needs.
According to the CRA, the number of registered Sunni mosques reached 2,042, the highest number since 1998. Anecdotal reports said a small number of unregistered “neighborhood mosques” continued to function for use primarily by elderly or disabled persons who did not live close to larger, registered mosques. The neighborhood mosques remained limited in their functions, and were not assigned registered imams.
Non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious groups reported they continued to have particular difficulties conducting religious activities in Karakalpakstan because all non-Muslim and non-Orthodox religious communities continued to lack legal status there.
The Jewish community remained unable to register a central office because it did not have synagogues in at least eight of the country’s 14 administrative units, as required by law. Despite the community’s efforts to have additional rabbis recognized, the MOJ accredited only one rabbi, a Bukharan, in 2014, and none since. The Ashkenazi Jewish community continued to lack a rabbi. Members of the Jewish community said the rabbi shortage limited faith practices, religious interest, and growth of the community. Jews expressed concern over the future of their congregations once the current generation of adherents either emigrated or passed away.
The government continued to prohibit training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize training received outside the country.
Media reported security services continued to conduct surveillance of Muslim communities by filming participants at Friday prayer services at local mosques. Parishioners at Catholic masses also reported surveillance and that authorities prohibited a summer camp for children in the Fergana Valley, citing security threats. Other communities, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, reported surveillance of their facilities.
The government and local imams continued to discourage public displays of religious adherence considered to be foreign-influenced. For example, media reported authorities questioned women in Surkhandariya and the Fergana Valley for wearing the hijab and encouraged them to remove it or wear it in the more traditional style of tying the scarf at the back of the neck.
According to civil society monitors, Muslims could openly celebrate Ramadan iftars in public for the first time in recent memory. According to the NGO Freedom House, for the first time in many years, the government allowed all-night prayers during Ramadan.
State-controlled and -influenced media continued to accuse missionaries of posing a danger to society and sowing civil discord. In Karshi on May 18, the regional state broadcaster aired a documentary that encouraged residents actively to resist Jehovah’s Witnesses in their neighborhoods because of the potential harm a conversion may have for family and social unity. Regional authorities also initiated an “antimissionary marathon” with posters in the central square.
Mahalla committees and imams continued to identify local residents who could potentially become involved in extremist activity or groups, including those who prayed daily or otherwise demonstrated active devotion. Muftiate authorities stated they and mahallacommittee members regularly made home visits in the mahalla’s district to check on a family’s spiritual needs.
The government continued to provide logistical support, including charter flights, for a limited number of selected Muslims to participate in the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses. The government increased the number of Hajj pilgrims to 7,500 from 5,200 the previous year, the first increase since the founding of the country 26 years ago, although this number still represented only approximately a third of the country’s allotment allowed by Saudi Arabia. Religious authorities continued generally to limit access to the Hajj to persons over 40 years old. Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the Muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims. According to reports from sources in the human rights community in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it was exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and bribery. Officials have established a commission to review participation eligibility.
The government continued to control access to Islamic publications and to require a statement in every domestic publication indicating the source of its publication authority. According to marketplace shoppers, it remained possible, although uncommon, to obtain a few imported works in Arabic from book dealers in second hand stores or flea markets, but any literature not specifically approved by the CRA was rare.
A number of government entities, including the Ministry of Interior, NSS, Customs Service, and local police, continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature and the equipment used to produce it.
The CRA continued to block the importation of both Christian and Islamic literature.
According to worshippers, the authorities continued to confiscate, and in some cases destroy, religious literature in the Uzbek and Russian languages imported legally or produced in country, as well as religious items such as prayer beads or incense.
Members of registered minority religious communities reported they continued to encounter difficulties when entering and leaving the country because authorities seized religious literature for alleged customs violations. In January Forum 18 reported customs officials at Tashkent airport confiscated Qurans and other Muslim books from pilgrims returning from the Umrah pilgrimage.
The government continued to block access to several websites containing religious content, including Christian- and Islam-related news sites, and to websites run by Forum 18.
On June 1, after a 23-year project, government translators finalized the first complete Bible in the Uzbek language. The government subsequently authorized the publication of 3,000 copies, which it conceded would not be enough to satisfy local demand. The government continued to allow the following groups to publish, import, and distribute religious literature upon review and approval by the CRA: the Bible Society of Uzbekistan, the Muftiate, Tashkent Islamic University, Tashkent Islamic Institute, and the offices of the Russian Orthodox, Full Gospel, Baptist, and Roman Catholic Churches.
Christian groups stated they need more than the single authorized version of the Bible in Uzbek to practice their faith. Religious leaders commented they continued to lack access to other important religious materials and texts to explain the teachings and tenets of their faiths in the Uzbek language.
Following a gathering of senior Muslim officials in June, President Mirziyoyev called for a new governmental approach to regulating religion. As a result, media and religious groups reported authorities began permitting children and teenagers under the age of 16 to worship alongside their parents in mosques for the first time beginning in the summer. Civil society groups stated that plain-clothes police reduced their surveillance of Muslim prayer services, and were replaced by uniformed police officers.
In November the Kukcha mosque in Tashkent broadcast the call to prayer over its loudspeakers for the first time since 2005.
Representatives of a registered Christian group and of the Bahai community stated children were able to attend community-sponsored activities and services with the permission of their parents, such as Sunday school. Eyewitnesses continued to report large numbers of children in attendance at both places of worship.
In June religious authorities inaugurated a new Islamic theological seminary in Bukhara to prepare more imams for pastoral roles, and the government in conjunction with the Muftiate launched online courses on religious subjects such as jihad and sharia.
Media reported that as of the new year, officials would require hotels to furnish at least 10 percent of rooms with Islamic prayer mats and religious books such as the Quran, Bible, and Torah, and 30 percent of rooms with an indicator specifying the direction of Mecca.
The government continued to fund an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites. No Islamic religious institutions in the country are privately funded because of a government prohibition. In June the government approved a branch of the Tashkent Islamic University on the premises of the Burkhaniddin Naqshband Sufi Shrine. Officials stated Sunni clerics who obtained their qualifications at religious schools abroad were allowed to preach within registered premises.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Activists and human rights groups acknowledged the existence of social pressure among the majority Muslim population against conversion. There were reports that ethnic Uzbeks who have converted to Christianity faced harassment and discrimination. Some reported that social stigma for conversion from Islam resulted in difficulties in carrying out burials of their dead and forced such groups to bury individuals in distant cemeteries or to allow burials only with rituals of another faith.
Religious groups known to proselytize faced greater social scrutiny, and their neighbors regularly called police to report their activities.
On January 31, the progovernment website Podrobno.uz published an editorial criticizing the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stating the organization’s activities were “extremist and totalitarian” and “banned in many countries.”
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In meetings and official correspondence with government officials, senior officials from the Department of State and other senior U.S. government officials addressed religious freedom concerns with the country’s leadership. They raised issues such as prisoners of conscience, impediments to registration of religious groups, and overly broad application of antiterrorism statutes with the president, foreign minister, and CRA. Embassy officials met with several government officials, including at the National Human Rights Center and the CRA, to raise concerns about the imprisonment of individuals for their religious beliefs. U.S. officials continued to urge the government to amend the religion law to allow members of minority religious groups to practice their faiths freely outside registered houses of worship, relax requirements for registering a faith-based organization, provide protection for public discourse on religion, and remove restrictions on the importation and use of religious literature, in both hardcopy and electronic versions. U.S. officials urged the government to commit to implementing United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 16/18 on religious freedom (adopted in 2011), including holding workshops on religious freedom and tolerance. They also discussed the difficulties faced by religious groups and faith-based foreign aid organizations with regard to their registration and the destruction of their religious literature. U.S. officials continued to engage the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to identify concrete steps that could be pursued in a collaborative manner to address challenges and implement recommendations for improving religious freedom conditions.
The embassy also advised several visiting senior officials from United Nations bodies responsible for human rights, including the special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief. Embassy representatives frequently discussed religious freedom cases with foreign diplomatic colleagues to coordinate efforts on monitoring court cases and contacting government officials for updates on police cases.
In its public outreach and private meetings, the embassy drew attention to ongoing concerns of Christian communities regarding their inability to register a house of worship, of evangelical Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses concerning discussion of their beliefs openly in public, and regarding the prosecution of several Shia, after they had expressed core beliefs that Sunni Muslims said were heretical. Embassy officers and visiting U.S. officials met with representatives of religious groups and civil society, and with relatives of prisoners, to discuss freedom of conscience and belief. Embassy engagement included meetings with the leaders of the Baptist and Catholic Churches to discuss issues related to registration of congregations, with members of the Jehovah Witnesses to address their concerns about increasing police raids on parishioner homes, with expatriate Bukharan Jews and those still living in Bukhara to discuss their concerns about the future of their community, as well as reaching out to other communities to discuss security measures imposed by the government.
Since 2006, Uzbekistan 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 December 22, the Secretary of State redesignated Uzbekistan as a CPC, and announced a waiver of the sanctions that accompanies designation as required in the important national interest of the United States.