The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship with some restrictions. The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including blasphemy and religious insult, punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. The government continued enforcing the blasphemy laws, leading to the arrests of at least five citizens in four separate cases. The constitution prohibits proselytizing, and no rite of worship may “disturb public order or offend moral principles.” At least 28 different religious communities are officially registered with the government under various laws, and a 2014 law outlines the procedures for other groups to obtain government recognition. Religious groups without legal recognition are able to function but may face administrative difficulties and additional tax burdens. The Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim minority of Thrace and the Catholic Church receive some government benefits not available to other religious communities. A court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community. The government granted a permit for the first time for a polytheistic group to operate a house of prayer. Some members of the Thrace Muslim community opposed the government’s appointment of muftis, advocating that the community elect them. The government amended a series of laws to allow private citizens and municipal authorities to apply for permits to operate crematory facilities for those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial in Greek cemeteries; to allow Muslim students in primary and secondary schools to be absent from school on Islamic religious holidays; and to establish an administrative committee for a mosque in Athens. The law also allowed for the descendants of deceased Greek Jews born in the country prior to May 9, 1945 to obtain Greek citizenship. The government improved the process for mosque modifications in Thrace. Jehovah’s Witnesses said, the government did not approve their requests to be exempted from military service in several instances. The criminal trial of 69 members and supporters of the Golden Dawn (GD) political party, widely considered anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim, continued. They were charged with multiple attacks, including several against Muslim migrants, from 2011 to 2014. GD members of parliament (MPs) continued to make anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim comments. The government continued to fund Holocaust education programs and commemorate Greek Holocaust victims.
Media reports of incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discrimination and hate speech continued, including some directed at immigrants. Jehovah’s Witnesses continued to report incidents of discrimination by some private citizens while preaching or when distributing information material in Athens and in other cities. There were reports of vandalism against religious properties, including Holocaust memorials and a Greek Orthodox church. Police launched investigations and made some arrests; however, the prosecutor had not filed charges in these cases by the end of the year.
The U.S. Ambassador, visiting U.S. officials, and other embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the minister of education and the secretary general for religious affairs. They confirmed minority communities could apply for and establish houses of worship, learned about government initiatives that affect the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants, and expressed concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric. Embassy officials also engaged the archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Church and other metropolitans, as well as members of the Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Bahai, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Jehovah’s Witness communities to promote religious tolerance and encourage interfaith dialogue. The embassy sponsored two international exchange participants for a program on minority migrant integration and tolerance. The embassy promoted religious tolerance through the Ambassador’s remarks via social media, including his remarks at the Conference on Religious Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the population at 10.8 million (July 2017 estimate), of whom it estimates 98 percent are Greek Orthodox, 1.3 percent Muslim, and 0.7 percent other religions. According to a 2015 poll by Kappa Research Firm, a local private research firm, 81.4 percent of the population self-identifies as Greek Orthodox, 2.9 percent identifies with other religious groups, and 14.7 percent is atheist.
Muslims constitute a number of distinct communities including, according to the Council of Europe’s European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, approximately 100,000-120,000 individuals in Thrace descending from the Muslim minority officially recognized in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. According to local religious leaders and migrant activists, approximately 150,000 Muslim immigrants and foreign workers from Southeastern Europe, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa continue to reside mostly in and around Athens, clustered together based on their countries of origin. Additionally the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimated that approximately 49,000 recently arrived migrants and asylum seekers remained in the country at year’s end – mostly from Muslim-majority countries.
Other religious communities report that their members combined constitute between 3 and 5 percent of the population. These include Old Calendarist Orthodox, atheists and agnostics, Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, members of polytheistic Hellenic religions, Scientologists, Bahais, Mormons, Sikhs, Seventh-day Adventists, Buddhists, and members of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKON).
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution recognizes Greek Orthodoxy as the “prevailing religion.” The constitution states freedom of religious conscience is inviolable and provides for freedom of worship under the protection of the law with some restrictions. The constitution prohibits proselytizing, and no rite of worship may “disturb public order or offend moral principles.” The constitution allows prosecutors to seize publications that offend Christianity or other “known religions.” The law prohibits offenses against “religious peace,” including blasphemy and religious insult, which are punishable by prison sentences of up to two years. Blasphemy cases may be brought before civil and criminal courts. Development of religious conscience among citizens is listed as one of the goals of state education according to the constitution. Greek Orthodox priests and government-appointed muftis and imams in Thrace receive their salaries from the Greek government but are not considered to be state officials.
The constitution stipulates ministers of all known religions shall be subject to the same state supervision and the same obligations to the state as clergy of the Greek Orthodox Church. It also states individuals shall not be exempted from their obligations to the state or from compliance with the law because of their religious convictions.
The Greek Orthodox Church, the Jewish community, and the Muslim minority of Thrace have long-held status as official religious legal entities. The Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, two evangelical Christian groups, and the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian Apostolic, and Assyrian Orthodox Churches automatically acquired the status of religious legal entities under a 2014 law. The same law also provides for groups seeking recognition to become religious legal entities under civil law. The recognition process involves filing a request at the civil court, providing documents proving the group has open rituals and no secret doctrines, supplying a list of 300 signatory members who do not adhere to other religious groups, demonstrating that there is a leader who is legally in the country and is otherwise qualified, and showing that their practices do not pose a threat to public order. Once the civil court recognizes the group, it sends a notification to the Secretariat General for Religions.
With legal status, the religious group may legally transfer property and administer houses of prayer and worship, private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities. Some religious groups have opted to retain their status as civil society nonprofit associations that they acquired through court recognition prior to the 2014 law. Under this status, religious groups may operate houses of prayer and benefit from real estate property tax exemptions, but they may face administrative and fiscal difficulties in transferring property and operating private schools, charitable institutions, and other nonprofit entities.
The law allows religious communities without status as legal entities to appear before administrative and civil courts as plaintiffs or defendants.
A religious group that has obtained at least one valid permit to operate a place of prayer is considered a “known religion” and thereby acquires legal protection, including a tax exemption for property used for religious purposes. Membership requirements for house of prayer permits differ from the requirements for religious legal entities. The granting of house of prayer permits is subject to approvals from local urban planning departments attesting to the compliance of a proposed house of prayer with local public health and safety regulations, and the application requires at least five signatory members of the group. Once a house of worship receives planning approvals, a religious group must submit a file including documents describing the basic principles and rituals of the religious group, as well as a biography of the religious minister or leader; the file must be approved by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs. The leaders of a religious group applying for a house of prayer permit must be Greek citizens, European Union nationals, or legal residents of the country and must possess other professional qualifications, including relevant education and experience. A separate permit is required for each physical place of worship.
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne gives the recognized Muslim minority of Thrace the right to maintain mosques and social and charitable organizations (auqafs). Government-appointed muftis are allowed to practice sharia and render religious judicial services in the area of family law for those members of the Muslim community in Thrace who opt to use the services of a mufti instead of civil courts. The government, in consultation with a committee of Muslim leaders, appoints three muftis in Thrace to 10-year terms of office, with the possibility of extension. Civil courts in Thrace routinely ratify the family law decisions of the muftis. The muftis also appoint imams to serve in the community’s mosques.
The law protects an individual’s right to predetermine his or her form of funeral service and burial location in the presence of a notary. Individuals are allowed to designate the location and the method of funeral service under conditions that relate to public order, hygiene, or moral ethics, as well as a person responsible for the execution of funeral preferences. On July 28, the parliament amended existing legislation to allow private citizens and municipal authorities to apply for permits to operate crematory facilities to benefit those whose religious beliefs do not permit burial in Greek cemeteries. On October 18, the parliament passed an amendment changing the use of land in Eleonas region, in central Athens, thus paving the way for the construction by the local municipality of a crematory facility.
All religious groups are subject to taxation on their property used for nonreligious purposes. Property used solely for religious purposes remains exempt from taxation, as well as municipal fees, for groups classified as religious legal entities or “known religions.”
A law passed by parliament on August 8 exempts monasteries on the peninsula of Mount Athos from paying pending property tax on any properties owned inside or outside Mount Athos.
Home schooling is not permitted for children. The law requires all children to attend nine years of compulsory education in state or private schools and one year of compulsory preschool education in accordance with the official school curriculum. Greek Orthodox religious instruction in primary and secondary schools is included in the curriculum. School textbooks focus mainly on Greek Orthodox teachings; however, they also include some basic information on some other “known” religions – ones the courts define as having “open rituals and no hidden doctrines.” Students may be exempted from religious instruction upon request, but parents of students registered as Greek Orthodox in school records must state the students are not Greek Orthodox believers in order to receive the exemption. There are no private religious schools, although certain foreign-owned private schools and individual churches may teach optional religious classes on their premises, which students may attend on a voluntary basis. The law provides for optional Islamic religious instruction in public schools in Thrace for the recognized Muslim minority and optional Catholic religious instruction in public schools on the islands of Tinos and Syros.
A law passed on August 4, effective for the 2017-2018 school year, enables members from the Muslim minority and Catholic communities who teach in state schools to retain these positions if they are also called to serve as muftis or bishops. The law also provides for excused absences for Muslim students in primary and secondary school for Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha and the following day.
The government operates secular Greek-Turkish bilingual schools and two Islamic religious schools in Thrace. The law in Thrace provides for Islamic religious instructors to teach Islam to the Muslim minority in Greek-language public schools in lieu of mandatory twice weekly Greek Orthodox religious courses. Muslim students in Thrace wishing to study the Quran may also attend after-hours religious classes in mosques.
The law establishes an annual 0.5 percent quota for admission of students from the recognized Muslim minority to universities, technical institutes, and civil service positions. Two percent of students entering the national fire brigade school and academy should be from the Muslim minority in Thrace. On February 14, the parliament amended existing legislation to standardize and simplify the certification process for teaching staff from the Muslim minority in Thrace.
The law provides for alternative forms of mandatory service for religious conscientious objectors in lieu of the nine-month mandatory military service. Conscientious objectors are required to serve 15 months of alternate service in state hospitals or municipal and public services.
The law prohibits discrimination and criminalizes hate speech on the grounds of religion. Individuals or legal entities convicted of incitement to violence, discrimination, or hatred on the basis of religion, among other factors, may be sentenced to prison terms of between three months and three years and fined 5,000 to 20,000 euros ($6,300 to $24,000). Violators convicted of other crimes motivated by religion may be sentenced to an additional six months to three years, with fines doubled. The law criminalizes approval, trivialization, or malicious denial of the Holocaust and “crimes of Nazism” if that behavior leads to incitement of violence or hatred, or has a threatening or abusive nature towards groups of individuals. The National Council against Racism and Xenophobia, an advisory body under the Ministry of Justice, Transparency, and Human Rights, is charged with preventing, combating, monitoring, and recording racism and intolerance and protecting individuals and groups targeted on several grounds, including religion. The National Commission for Human Rights, comprised of government and nongovernmental organization (NGO) members, serves as an independent advisory body to the government on all human rights issues.
An amendment passed by the parliament on March 28, allows the descendants of deceased Greek Jews born in the country prior to May 9, 1945 to obtain Greek citizenship.
The law requires all civil servants, including cabinet and parliament members, to take an oath before entering office; individuals are free to take a religious or secular oath in accordance with their beliefs. Witnesses in trials must also take oaths before testifying in court, and can also select between a religious and a secular oath in both civil and criminal cases.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph: The government continued enforcing the blasphemy laws, leading to the arrests of at least five citizens in four separate cases. All blasphemy cases during the year related to statements against Orthodox Christianity. Charges against six of the organizers of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex (LGTBI) group Thessaloniki Pride for malicious blasphemy were dropped, but the case remained open as authorities continued to search for the individuals who created the artwork cited in the complaint. A soccer player was suspended for several games because he “cursed the divine.” An appeals court annulled the sentence of a blogger convicted in 2014 of “habitual blasphemy and offense of religion.” The criminal trial of 69 party members and supporters from the GD political party, widely considered anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim by scholars, media, and other observers, on charges including murder, membership in a criminal organization, conspiracy, weapons possession, and racist violence, continued through the end of the year. Some of the victims were Muslim migrants. A court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community. The government approved, for the first time, a permit to operate a prayer house for the Supreme Council of Ethnic Greeks (YSEE). Two religious groups – an Old Calendarist and an evangelical Christian – applied to courts seeking legal recognition. Religious groups without religious entity status and no house of prayer permits were still able to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government continued to provide funding and other benefits to the Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, the Muslim community of Thrace and the Catholic Church. Muslim leaders continued to criticize the lack of Islamic cemeteries outside of Thrace and the absence of a mosque in Athens. Deputy Foreign Minister Ioannis Amanatidis issued a statement on May 25 supporting the opening of an Athens mosque. GD MPs made anti-Semitic references, portraying Jewish individuals as those with the most decision-making and economic power.
In January police announced the arrest of two individuals in Epirus who each accused the other of committing multiple crimes, including malicious blasphemy. In April police in Volos reported that a suspect refused to comply with police instructions. He was charged with resisting arrest, insulting an officer, and malicious blasphemy, and sentenced to a 17-month suspended prison sentence, only to be served if he repeats the offense within three years. According to police statistics, another individual in central Greece was charged with malicious blasphemy in March; additional details were not available in this case. In May, according to local press reports, coast guard officials in Rafina charged a 17-year-old with resisting arrest, criminal threats, physical injury to an officer, and malicious blasphemy. In February a soccer player was suspended for four games by the soccer association in northern Greece because he “cursed the divine.” On March 2, an appeals court annulled the 10-month sentence of a blogger convicted in 2014 of “habitual blasphemy and offense of religion” for creating a satirical page on social media mocking a dead Orthodox monk who was later proclaimed a saint. The acquittal was the result of a legal provision that cleared a backlog of misdemeanor offenses committed up until March 31, 2016.
According to research conducted by the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), in 2016 the Hellenic (national) Police opened 254 cases for malicious blasphemy involving 328 defendants, 312 of whom were Greeks and 16 foreigners. The Hellenic Police arrested 159 of these suspects; in the vast majority of cases, malicious blasphemy was not the only charge. Additionally, in 2016 police opened 43 cases for disturbing the religious peace; 46 individuals were arrested in these cases.
In October, according to GHM, authorities dropped malicious blasphemy charges against the organizers of Thessaloniki Pride after concluding that the group was not responsible for producing the poster cited in the case. In 2016 Metropolitan of Kalavryta Amvrosios and five private citizens had filed separate police complaints for malicious blasphemy and offending religion against a group of six individuals involved in the organization of the Thessaloniki Pride. The complaint centered on an unofficial version of the 2016 Thessaloniki Pride poster, which featured an artistic depiction of Jesus on a cross with the text, “He was crucified for us too.” At the end of the year, the case remained open and had been referred to the cyber police to identify the creators of the poster.
The criminal trial of 69 GD party members and supporters, including 18 of its current and former MPs, continued through the end of the year, with the examination of witnesses. The charges were related to a string of attacks, including against Muslim migrants and Greeks; they included murder, conspiracy, weapons possession, and membership in a criminal organization.
On April 12, the media reported that the national police took precautionary measures to protect the three Coptic churches in Athens following attacks against Copts in Egypt. Measures included adding undercover police, frequent patrolling around the churches’ locations, and contacting the churches’ leaders to urge them to establish direct communication with police if they noticed something unusual or suspicious.
Early in the year a court granted legal recognition to the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community as a religious entity. Two religious groups – an Old Calendarist and an evangelical Christian – applied to courts seeking legal recognition as religious entities. Rulings for these two applications were pending at year’s end.
Religious groups without religious entity status and no house of prayer permits, including Scientologists and the ISKCON, were still able to function as registered nonprofit civil law organizations. The government did not legally recognize weddings conducted by members of those religious groups, whose only option was a civil marriage.
The government approved permits for 18 houses of prayer, including the first prayer house for the YSEE, a polytheistic group revering the ancient Hellenic gods. The government did not deny any applications for permits during the year. The government granted 12 permits to Jehovah’s Witnesses. It also granted a permit to a group of Muslims from Bangladesh and three permits to Pentecostals. The government revoked one permit at the request of a small religious community that no longer wished to operate its house of prayer. There were no pending applications at year’s end.
The government continued to provide funding for religious leaders’ salaries and other benefits to the Greek Orthodox Church and, to a lesser extent, to the Muslim community of Thrace and the Catholic Church. The government also supported seminars for teachers to raise awareness of the Holocaust among students and funding for educational visits for students to Auschwitz.
The government continued to provide direct support to the Greek Orthodox Church, including for religious training of clergy and funding for religious instruction in schools. Greek Orthodox priests continued to receive their salaries from the state. Some Greek Orthodox officials stated this direct support was given in accordance with a series of legal agreements with past governments, and in exchange for religious property previously expropriated by the state. The Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs continued to partially fund retirement pensions of Orthodox monks and monitor vocational training for Orthodox clergy.
The government continued to state that Muslims not part of the recognized minority created by the Treaty of Lausanne were not covered by that treaty and therefore did not have the rights related to it, such as the right to bilingual education, special quotas for university entry and jobs in the public sector, the optional use of sharia in family and inheritance matters, and optional Islamic religious classes in public schools.
Some members of the Thrace Muslim community continued to object to the government’s practice of appointing muftis, pressing for direct election of muftis by the Muslim community. The government continued to state that government appointment was appropriate because the muftis had judicial powers and the constitution requires the government to appoint all judges. Academics and activists said the ability of courts in Thrace to provide judicial oversight of muftis’ decisions was limited by the lack of translation of sharia into Greek and lack of familiarity with sharia in general. On November 13, the prime minister announced the government’s plans to make the use of sharia in Thrace optional and consensual by all parties. The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs subsequently issued a draft legislative amendment and an explanatory framework. The bill was approved in principle by the relevant parliamentary committee on December 21 and scheduled for a plenary vote after the end of the year.
On November 13, the media reported that a Thessaloniki Misdemeanor Court convicted the unofficial mufti in Xanthi of impersonating a public authority and an unofficial local imam of disturbing the peace for unlawfully and violently preventing the official mufti from performing the funeral service for a Muslim soldier in Glafki village in 2016. The sentences were suspended for three years, only to be served if the defendants commit a repeat offense during this time. The defendants appealed the decision.
On March 28, the minister for education, research and religions issued a decision establishing a working group on the upgrading and modernization of the muftiates in Thrace. The group comprised four employees of the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs – three from the Directorate for Religious Administration under the Secretariat General for Religions and one from the General Directorate of the ministry’s Financial Services. The minister tasked the working group with drafting an analytical report on the existing situation and compiling recommendations for operational improvements. The decision also called for assistance from other individuals, including the head of the Directorate for Minority Education and the school advisor for the minority program in minority schools, a member of the Muslim minority. The group was granted full access to all archives, information, books, and financial data kept in the muftiates, with guarantees to respect data protection laws.
Some members of the Muslim minority in Thrace continued to criticize the appointment by the government, rather than the election by the Muslim community, of members entrusted with the administration of the auqafs, which oversee endowments, real estate, and charitable funds of the minority community. Muslim leaders also continued to criticize the lack of Muslim cemeteries outside of Thrace, stating this obliged Muslims to transport their dead to Thrace for Islamic burials. They also continued to state that municipal cemetery regulations requiring exhumation of bodies after three years because of shortage of space contravened Islamic religious law. Several MPs supported the Muslim leaders’ complaints. On May 19, 34 MPs from the ruling political party SYRIZA submitted a question in the parliament asking about the delayed implementation of a 2016 decision by the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church, which had been made at the request of the government, to grant 20,000 square meters (215,000 square feet) inside an existing cemetery at Schisto, in greater Athens, for the burial of Muslims. The MPs also inquired about the status of a similar government proposal to the Holy Synod for the granting of land inside the cemetery of Evosmos, in Thessaloniki. At least three sites continued to be used unofficially on an ad hoc basis for the burial of Muslim migrant and asylum seekers on Lesvos Island, in Schisto, and near the land border with Turkey in Evros.
At year’s end, there were still no crematories in the country. In 2016, three municipalities – Athens, Thessaloniki, and Patras – had initiated the process to establish crematories by searching for suitable land and seeking approval of the necessary municipal committees. The cities of Athens and Patras reportedly had identified suitable plots of land. The latter had also requested the issuance of a presidential decree pre-certifying the land transfer as constitutional in an effort to deter potential legal complaints.
The Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs continued to have three Islamic experts assigned to offer religious services in camps hosting Muslim refugees and migrants in the region of central and eastern Macedonia. The three included an imam from Xanthi, the director of one of the two Islamic religious schools in Thrace, and a scholastic expert in Islamic law and studies. Government authorities again issued directives to managers of reception facilities hosting migrants and refugees, instructing them to alter food distribution times and the type of food served to allow Muslims to observe the Ramadan fast.
A law passed by parliament on May 30 provided for the establishment of an “administrative committee for the Athens Islamic Mosque” as a nonprofit legal entity under private law, supervised by the minister of education, research and religions. Media and government sources reported progress on the construction of an official mosque in Athens, originally expected to be completed in August, but the mosque was not operational at year’s end. GD held protests against the mosque in January and throughout the year. MP Ilias Panagiotaros said at the January rally that GD would step up protests, and that “this mosque will not have a good end.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Amanatidis issued a statement on May 25 supporting the opening of the Athens mosque, commenting that such a measure would allow Greeks and other EU Muslims to perform their religious duties unhindered. He encouraged to vote in favor of the draft education bill with provisions for the operation of the mosque, which he said would enhance the country’s international image with respect to human rights. Passed on May 25, the law provided for the establishment of a seven-member administrative committee for the Athens Mosque as a nonprofit legal entity under private law, to be supervised by the minister of education, research, and religions and to include at least two Muslim community representatives. Committee members were officially named on August 21 and began their work soon after. The administrative committee was tasked with selecting the imams who will preach at the mosque, de-conflicting requests from various communities to use the space, and overseeing the general administration of the property.
On September 8, the Migration Ministry transferred 82 Yazidi Kurds from the Yiannitsa Migrant Center to an all-Yazidi migrant camp located at a former agricultural training facility in Serres. Yazidis at Yiannitsa had stated Syrian Sunni Arabs were harassing them because of the Yazidis’ religious beliefs. According to the NGO The Liberation of Christian and Yazidi Children, as of September 7, there were 2,535 Yazidis migrants in the country, with the majority living in an open air camp at the base of Mount Olympus.
On April 3, the Ministries of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs; Environment and Energy; and Culture and Sports issued a joint circular codifying the process for construction, expansion, repair, and demolition of existing or new mosques in Thrace. The government stated this codification was necessary to provide an accessible, transparent, unified, and coherent framework. Some religious groups, including Muslims, reiterated complaints from previous years that the house of prayer permit process – for example, requirements that buildings used for prayer have fire exits – constrained freedom of religion by making it difficult to find a suitable location.
Central and local government authorities continued to provide public space free of charge to groups of Muslims whose members requested places of worship during Ramadan and for other religious occasions.
On June 27, following discussions between the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs and the Greek Orthodox Church, the Standing Holy Synod of the Church of Greece approved guidelines provided by the ministry in 2016 on religious instruction. According to the guidelines, religious education should not be based solely on the official textbook, which primarily covers Greek Orthodox doctrine. The government stated students needed to become more familiar with other religions present in the country and the world. Some Greek Orthodox Church leaders had objected to the new guidelines, stating the government was disrespectful to the constitution and to the faith of the majority of the country’s citizens.
The government continued to provide funding to the Muslim minority in Thrace to select and pay salaries of teachers of Islam in state schools and the salaries of the three official muftis and some imams, in accordance with Greece’s obligations under the Lausanne Treaty. It also continued to fund Catholic religious training and teachers’ salaries in state schools on the islands of Syros and Tinos, as well as to fund awareness raising activities and trips for non-Jewish students to Holocaust remembrance events, and for Holocaust education training for teachers.
Some leaders of the recognized Muslim minority continued to press for fully bilingual kindergartens in Thrace, modeled after the already operating bilingual primary schools. Government authorities historically asserted that Greek-language kindergartens helped students to better integrate into the larger society, and that kindergarten classes are not mentioned in the Lausanne Treaty. In response to the Muslim community’s concerns, the Institute for Educational Policy, an agency supervised by the minister for education, research, and religious affairs, announced in March a plan to fund, under a pilot project, assistant teachers in kindergarten classrooms fluent in the child’s native language to facilitate the children’s integration into school life. This program had not yet begun at year’s end.
Some religious groups and human rights organizations continued to state the discrepancy between the length of mandatory alternate service for conscientious objectors (15 months) and for those serving in the military (nine months) was discriminatory. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported that in several instances, government committees, tasked with examining requests for exemption from military service as conscientious objectors on religious grounds, denied requests for unbaptized members of their community. The committees, consisting of two army officials, one psychologist, and two academics, decided that unbaptized individuals, despite studying the Bible and attending sessions jointly with Jehovah’s Witnesses, “are not yet ready to fully embrace their teachings.” The committees ordered the immediate conscription of those individuals into the armed forces and did not allow the applicants to defend their cases in person to the committee.
The Union of Atheists filed a complaint on August 1 with the Data Protection Authority and the ombudsman objecting to the listing of students’ religion on school transcripts; the inclusion of religion in the administrative school databases and university records; and the need for parents to officially declare and justify their request to have their children exempted from religion classes. The union argued that religious and philosophical beliefs constitute sensitive personal data and should not be recorded.
GD MPs, as well as the GD official website and weekly newspaper, continued making references to conspiracy theories portraying Jewish individuals as those with the most decision-making and economic power. On October 5, GD MP Elias Panagiotaros stated during an interview on the web-based television channel “Eleftheri Ora” that nonperforming business and household loans in the country would be administered by a company headed by the President of the Jewish Community in Athens, whom he incorrectly categorized as the President of the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KIS). Panagiotaros also said the company was successful because of the Jewish community’s connections to the minister of finance.
There continued to be numerous instances of anti-Semitism online. In May the European Jewish Press estimated there were at least 48 active anti-Semitic blogs in the country and called GD, which had issued more than 30 cases of anti-Semitic speeches and multiple anti-Semitic articles, “one of the most dangerous neo-Nazi parties in Europe.”
On July 18, the secretaries general for human rights and for religious affairs each independently referred the case of an excommunicated Old Calendarist monk, Father Kleomenis, to the public prosecutor, the racist crimes department of the police, and the cybercrime police department for investigation. The monk had posted a video on July 17 on social media showing him in front of the Jewish Martyrs Holocaust Monument in Larissa, cursing the Jews, denying the Holocaust, spitting, kicking, and throwing eggs at the monument, and calling for its destruction. The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church and the local Metropolitans of Larisa and Tyrnavos issued statements disassociating themselves from Kleomenis and condemning his actions. The Municipality of Larissa also issued a statement denouncing the attack. On July 19, the prosecutor in Larissa filed charges against Kleomenis and three more individuals for vandalizing the Holocaust memorial and for violating the law against racism.
On May 2, GHM announced it had filed a lawsuit against Greek Orthodox Metropolitan Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus on hate speech grounds. GHM’s lawsuit also referred to legislation about “aggravating” conditions when a “state official” commits a hate speech offense. The lawsuit was in response to a statement Seraphim publicized on the official website of the Archdiocese of Piraeus on April 28, in which he complained he had been selected by the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece to light the holy light of Easter at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, but that he was replaced because Israel declared him as persona non grata. In the statement, he quoted the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and referred to Freemasonry and other organizations as “the arms used by Zionism to secure infiltration and state manipulation.” He accused Israel of interfering with the Church’s issues. The KIS denounced Seraphim’s statement.
On January 26, the minister of education, research, and religious affairs, the president of the Jewish Museum of Greece, and the president of Yad Vashdem cosigned a memorandum of understanding regarding the implementation of programs on the teaching of Holocaust. One program entailed a July 9-12 seminar for 39 public high school teachers. The seminar was organized by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights in cooperation with the Jewish Museum of Greece, under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs.
On January 27, the minister for education, research, and religious affairs unveiled in a school in Athens an honorary plaque in memory of the Greek Jewish children killed in concentration camps during World War II. During the German occupation, German troops had ordered the school’s closure, and the pupils, along with their parents, had been arrested and sent to concentration camps in central Europe. Also on January 27, the Department for Preschool Education of the University of Thessaly, the local Jewish community, and the Piraeus Bank Foundation organized an event entitled “Approaching the Holocaust in the School and in the Museum.”
The head of the central board of Jewish communities, David Saltiel, welcomed the amendment passed in March allowing all descendants of deceased Greek Jews, mostly Holocaust survivors, to apply for citizenship as “a moral victory” and a “fresh step forward in the recognition of the history of the Holocaust and of Greek Jews.” The GD, the fourth largest party in the parliament, voted against the legislation.
On January 21, opposition MP Adonis Georgiadis posted on social media the following announcement: “In the past I’ve coexisted with and tolerated the views of people who showed disrespect to Jewish co-patriots, and for this reason I feel the need to apologize to the Jewish Community. I feel even sorrier for supporting and promoting the book of Kostas Plevris, which is insulting for the Jews. The Holocaust of the Jewish people constitutes the greatest disgrace of our contemporary culture and its sacrifice strengthened democracy, anti-racism, and the belief in the equality and freedom of nations.”
The Secretariat General for Religious Affairs funded in May an annual commemorative trip to Auschwitz for 82 high school students and 10 teachers from schools throughout the country. The students took part in a contest organized by the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, which involved producing a video on “The Kid and the Holocaust.” Participating schools were from the Athens, Thessaloniki, Chania, Arcadia, Aetoloakarnakia, and Evrytania regions.
On March 22, the minister for education, research, and religious affairs issued a statement expressing his sorrow for the damages caused to a mosque of historic significance in Thrace from a fire. The minister committed to take steps for the prompt investigation of the fire’s causes and to restore the mosque. Although no official report was made public, firefighters on the scene told local press that electric welding during restoration likely caused the fire.
The Inter-Orthodox Center of the Greek Orthodox Church organized a training program under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and funded by the German government entitled, “Getting to know and teaching Judaism through the coexistence of Christians and Jews in Greece.”
On September 8, in the garden of a former middle school in Thessaloniki and the location of the cultural foundation of the National Bank of Greece, a metal commemorative plate was placed in memory of 40 Jewish students sent to concentration camps in 1943.
On September 27, the Aristotle University Law School, the Aristotle University School of Theology, and the Religious Studies Institute of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople organized a conference on “Church and the Constitution: The issue of Constitutional Reform.” Participants discussed Greek Orthodox Church relations with the state, including whether constitutional reform should encompass continued reference to Orthodox Christianity as the official and dominant religion; whether the state should be involved with administrative matters of the Greek Orthodox Church; whether state officials should appoint priests or determine their number; and whether the Church should be involved with civil issues it opposes, such as the cremation of the dead.
From October 19-21, the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, the Jewish community in Thessaloniki, the Holocaust Memorial of the Jews in Skopje, and the Memorial de la Shoah in Paris, organized a training seminar on Holocaust education. The seminar, entitled “The Holocaust as a Starting Point: Comparing and Sharing” involved 40 teachers.
On October 29 and 30, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized for the second time an international summit on the protection of religious communities and civilizations in the Middle East, hosted by the minister of foreign affairs, with the participation of the Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, several Greek Orthodox metropolitans, representatives of Jewish, Catholic, Protestant communities from abroad, and two Muslim muftis from Thrace.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Summary paragraph: Incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim discrimination and hate speech, including against immigrants, continued. The Racist Violence Recording Network and the GHM reported several incidents of vandalism against religious property, including Holocaust memorials and a Greek Orthodox church. Jehovah’s Witnesses reported instances of societal discrimination when preaching or while distributing and displaying information and religious material in public. On October 23, hundreds of demonstrators, including members of parents and ecclesiastical associations, theologians, and clergy, nuns, and monks, gathered outside the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs to protest against the reforms to the government-mandated religious course. The protestors objected to five new chapters referring to Judaism and Islam.
Police statistics for 2016, the most recent year available, showed 84 potentially racially motivated incidents, 24 of which were believed to be linked to the victim’s religion. On September 28, the Ministry of Education published a report on acts against religious sites in 2016. According to the report, there were 209 incidents against Christian sites including vandalism, robberies, and arson attacks. The previous year the ministry recorded 147 such incidents. All targeted Greek Orthodox churches and cemeteries, except one incident against a Catholic site.
The report also recorded five incidents of vandalism against Jewish sites and one against a Muslim site.
The linking of “international Zionism” with alleged plans for the “country’s Islamization,” that was related to the ongoing construction of an official mosque in Athens, continued on ultranationalist blogs. During a May 21 protest, a group of Old Calendarist Orthodox followers, opposing the building of the mosque, chanted anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic slogans such as, “Islam out” and “Resist the plans of Jewish Zionists who want you servants in the world empire of the anti-Christ.”
On May 3, the Heinrich Boell Foundation, in cooperation with the Seat for Jewish Studies at the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, presented a study on anti-Semitism in Greece. The study showed that despite the small percentage of Jews in the country (approximately 0.05 percent) vandalism recorded against Jewish monuments and sites was proportionally higher than vandalism directed at other religious groups. The study found more than six out of 10 Greeks held anti-Semitic attitudes. Sixty-five percent of respondents in the study’s questionnaire “agreed” or “absolutely agreed” with the statements “Jews have been using the Holocaust to receive better treatment from the international decision-making centers” and “Israel treats Palestinians exactly like Nazis did the Jews.” When asked whether “Jews enjoy much greater power in the world of business,” more than 92 percent of respondents “agreed” or “absolutely agreed.” According to the findings, 64.3 percent of those surveyed believed that the proposed Holocaust Museum in Thessaloniki should be built by private funding, while 72.1 percent of respondents believed a Pontian (Greek-Russian) refugee museum should be built with government funding. The survey also indicated a large percentage of individuals were indifferent to the concept of a Holocaust museum and 11.3 percent opposed the idea altogether. The mayor of Thessaloniki said he was concerned about how to ensure future operating costs, given societal indifference to and rejection of the project.
Some metropolitan bishops of the Greek Orthodox Church made anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements and statements against Jehovah’s Witnesses in public letters and on social media, while others said Catholicism was heresy. On June 15, in a letter addressed to Metropolitan of Argolida, the Metropolitan of Gortynia in the Peloponnese stated Orthodox followers believed that Catholicism and ecumenism were heresies and that Christians should stay away from Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The KIS continued to voice concerns about anti-Semitic comments by some journalists in the media and some Greek Orthodox Church leaders. The KIS also reiterated its concerns that political cartoons and images in the media mocked political controversies through the use of Jewish sacred symbols and comparisons to the Holocaust or through drawing parallels among “Jews,” “Zionists,” and “Nazis,” equating the first with the latter. On May 16, the KIS denounced journalist and cartoonist Stathis (Stavropoulos) for his May 10 article published on the news site “enikos.gr.” The article, entitled “In Bloody Ink,” stated it is impossible to criticize Israel because doing so would be interpreted as anti-Semitism. The article included a cartoon depicting Israel killing free opinion.
On an Alpha television channel morning show on January 12, journalist Dimos Verykios stated, “Global finance is concentrated in three centers: they are actually dominating the planet. One center is the banks, the global banking system. Through this banking system, two main centers are ruling the game. One of these centers is the Jewish lobby, powerful, extremely powerful in America and elsewhere! In all big deals, one will meet a Jew! Or a Mason!”
Academics, activists, and journalists stated the Greek Orthodox Church continued to exercise significant social, political, and economic influence. Members of non-Orthodox religious groups reported incidents of societal discrimination, including being told by Orthodox followers that they were “heretics” or “not truly Greek.” Jehovah’s Witnesses reported incidents of societal discrimination while preaching or when distributing informational and religious material in Athens and in other cities. In five separate cases, the excommunicated Old Calendarist monk, Father Kleomenis, attacked and completely destroyed Jehovah’s Witnesses’ information carts. Kleomenis’ partners filmed the incidents for later posting on social media. The Jehovah’s Witnesses in response asked for police intervention. Charges were pending but no hearing had taken place by year’s end.
On March 30, the KIS reported vandalism of the Holocaust monument in Arta, western Greece, noting that the incident happened “only a few days after the remembrance events organized by the municipality of Arta for the deportation and extermination of the city’s Jews in the Nazi concentration camps.”
On June 27, an anarchist group called “Nuclear FAI-IRF” set fire to Saint Basil Church in central Athens. In its statement claiming responsibility, the group cited “the sexism that the Church perpetuates, the Church’s opposition to homosexuality, and the fact that Christianity treats bodily satisfaction and sexuality as non-sacred” as reasons for the attack. The group also stated it “deliberately targeted a profitable business, as the Church owns land and untaxed wealth which is hidden behind charities to supposedly promote its humanist profile.” On August 3, anarchists threw paint on the exterior walls of Saint Basil Church and broke the windows of the nearby Zoodochou Pigi Church. There was no government reaction to any of these incidents. The main opposition party, New Democracy, issued a statement accusing the government of treating anarchists in a lenient way.
On July 7, human rights activists reported on social media that unknown perpetrators had vandalized the Athens Holocaust monument by writing with a marker “Hi, my name is death!” On July 11, police reported the arrest of four male individuals for shattering the marble facade of the Holocaust monument in Kavala in the northern part of the country on March 30. By April 5, the city of Kavala had restored the monument. The city of Kavala, government officials, including the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and various political parties condemned the attack.
On September 15, the media reported on the application filed by a parent in Mytilene, Lesvos, requesting his child be exempted from the teaching of certain chapters of the restructured course of religious teaching in the official curriculum. The parent listed five chapters referring to Judaism and Islam, stating that the content “did not match his family’s religious beliefs” and objecting to the teaching of “prayers from other religious traditions” to his child. According to media, several parents in other schools also filed similar requests, and they returned the course’s new folder and book to the Ministry of Education, Research and Religious Affairs as “unacceptable.” On October 23, hundreds of demonstrators, including members of parents and ecclesiastical associations, theologians, clergymen, nuns and monks, gathered outside the headquarters of the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religions to protest against the new way the religious course was taught, arguing it was unconstitutional, anti-Orthodox, and antipedagogical.
On September 24, vandals desecrated a large banner advertising a cultural event in Thessaloniki entitled “Sacred Places” and bearing the symbols of the Jewish star, Muslim crescent, and Christian cross. The banner was spray-painted with the slogan “Jews Out,” and the Jewish star was ripped in half. The perpetrator was not identified by year’s end.
On December 1, unknown vandals stripped the inscriptions from two of the panels on the Athens Holocaust memorial. The secretary general for religious affairs and the city of Athens “’strongly condemned the attack.”’ The city of Athens said it would contribute to the monument’s restoration.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador, visiting officials, and embassy and consulate representatives met with officials and representatives from the Ministry of Education, Research, and Religious Affairs, including the minister of education and the secretary general for religious affairs. They discussed access for minority communities to establish houses of worship, and government initiatives that affect the Muslim minority in Thrace and immigrants. U.S. officials expressed concerns about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric.
On September 7, the Consul General in Thessaloniki visited a new Yazidi Kurd migrant camp in Seres, in which the government segregated the Yazidis from other migrant groups for their protection.
Embassy officials met with religious leaders, including the archbishop and other representatives of the Greek Orthodox Church, as well as members of the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Bahai, Mormon, and Jehovah’s Witness communities to promote interfaith dialogue, religious tolerance, and diversity, as well as to express concern about anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts and rhetoric. Through these meetings, the embassy monitored the ability of religious minority groups to freely practice their religion and the extent of societal discrimination against both indigenous religious minorities and newly arrived migrants from religious minorities. The embassy sponsored two participants for a U.S. government exchange program on minority migrant integration and tolerance. The embassy also promoted religious tolerance via social media, using several platforms to promote the Ambassador’s remarks at the Conference on Religious Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East, in which he emphasized tolerance, cultural and religious pluralism, and peaceful coexistence.
The Ambassador met with representatives from the Greek Orthodox Church, including Patriarch Bartholomew, Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki, Metropolitan Anthimos of Alexandroupolis, Metropolitan Iakovos of Lesvos, Metropolitan Markos of Chios, Metropolitan Dorotheos of Syros, and Deputy Metropolitan of Rhodes Ioannis. In all meetings with religious leaders and other members of the communities, the Ambassador discussed the role of the Greek Orthodox Church in responding to the needs of 49,000 asylum-seekers, mostly from Muslim-majority countries, remaining in Greece. The Ambassador also discussed with Greek Orthodox leaders the importance of religious tolerance and dialogue.
In March an embassy official met with Greek Orthodox and Catholic leaders on the island of Syros to emphasize the importance of interfaith dialogue and religious tolerance. On August 17, the Ambassador met separately with the local Orthodox Metropolitan and the former Roman Catholic Bishop in Syros, discussing the communities’ peaceful coexistence and mutual acceptance.
On July 10, the Ambassador delivered opening remarks on the Holocaust in Greece to 39 public school teachers at a seminar on teaching about the Holocaust. In his remarks he emphasized tolerance. The Ministry of Education, in cooperation with the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies, organized the seminar.
The Ambassador also met with representatives from the Athens and Thessaloniki Jewish communities, and the president and curator of the Jewish Museum in Athens, to discuss preserving Jewish history in Greece, combating anti-Semitism, and other concerns of the community. On January 27, the Ambassador laid a wreath at the Holocaust Monument in Athens in honor of the Day of Commemoration of the Greek-Jewish Martyrs and Heroes of the Holocaust.
The Thessaloniki Consul General participated in Holocaust Memorial ceremonies in Larissa, a wreath-laying in Hortiatis village, the National Day of Remembrance of the Greek Victims of the Holocaust in Thessaloniki, the Memorial Holocaust Walk in Thessaloniki, and a Holocaust Memorial event at the Thessaloniki Synagogue. On April 24, the Thessaloniki Consul General and her staff briefed members of the Jewish community and others about the killing by the Nazis of David Tiano, a Greek staff member of the consulate, and the need to never forget the Holocaust. She highlighted the new Human Rights and Holocaust Memorial Museum to break ground in 2018. In June the Thessaloniki Consul General attended a dinner to honor the longest living Thessalonikian Jew, Heinz Kounio, who survived the concentration camps.
In September the Thessaloniki Consul General attended a panel discussion at an exhibition which highlighted mixed religious communities that have coexisted throughout history. In her remarks, the Consul General highlighted the importance of societal respect of the freedom to worship.
On October 30, the Ambassador delivered introductory remarks for a video message from the special advisor for religious minorities in the Near East and South/Central Asia at the Second Athens International Conference on Religious and Cultural Pluralism and Peaceful Coexistence in the Middle East. In his introduction, the Ambassador highlighted the role religious freedom plays in combatting instability, human rights abuses, and religious extremism. The special advisor’s videotaped remarks further commented on the importance of protecting religious diversity.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government in order to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status. In April a court found the former mayor of San Juan La Laguna, Antonio Adolfo Perez y Perez, guilty of seeking to force out a community of ultraorthodox Jews in 2014 and sentenced him to one year in prison. Mayan spiritual leaders said the government continued to limit their access to some Mayan religious sites, including some located in national parks and in other protected areas where the government charges entrance fees. Non-Catholic groups, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, stated that some municipal-level authorities still discriminated against them in processing permit approvals and in local tax collection.
Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection work. Some Mayan religious groups reported land owners continued to limit their access to Mayan religious sites on private property.
The U.S. embassy regularly held meetings with government officials from the executive and legislative branches in addition to leaders of religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy, and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites. Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity in meetings with various civil society and religious groups. In December the embassy posted on Facebook a note on the importance of appreciating freedom of religion, including the right to worship and freedom of conscience.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 15.5 million (July 2017 estimate). According to a 2015 survey by ProDatos, approximately 45 percent of the population is Catholic and 42 percent Protestant. Approximately 11 percent of the population professes no religious affiliation. Groups that together constitute less than 3 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and adherents of the Mayan, Xinca, and Afro-Indigenous Garifuna religions.
Christian groups include the Full Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Central American Church, Prince of Peace Church, numerous independent evangelical Protestant groups, Baptists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Russian Orthodox, and Seventh-day Adventists.
Catholics and Protestants are present throughout the country, with adherents among all major ethnic groups. According to leaders of Mayan spiritual organizations, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergy, many indigenous Catholics and some indigenous Protestants practice some form of syncretism with indigenous spiritual rituals, mainly in the eastern city of Livingston and in the southern region.
Approximately 1,500 Jews and 1,200 Muslims of mostly Palestinian origin reside primarily in Guatemala City.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the free expression of all beliefs and the right to practice a religion or belief, in public and private. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church.
The constitution does not require religious groups to register for the purpose of worship, but non-Catholic religious groups must register for legal status in order to conduct activities such as renting or purchasing property and entering into contracts, and to receive tax-exempt status and tax exemptions for properties used for worship, religious education, and social assistance. To register, a group must file a copy of its bylaws, which must reflect an intention to pursue religious objectives, and a list of its initial membership, with at least 25 members, with the Ministry of Government. The ministry may reject applications if the group does not appear to be devoted to a religious objective, appears intent on undertaking illegal activities, or engages in activities that appear likely to threaten public order. All religious groups must obtain the permission of the respective municipal authorities for construction and repair of properties and for holding public events, consistent with requirements for nonreligious endeavors.
The constitution protects the rights of indigenous groups to practice their traditions and forms of cultural expression, including religious rites. The law permits Mayan spiritual groups to conduct religious ceremonies at Mayan historical sites on government-owned property.
The criminal code penalizes violation of the freedom of religious celebration and sentiment and the desecration of burial sites or human remains; however, charges are seldom filed under these laws.
According to the constitution, no member of the clergy of any religion may serve as president, vice president, government minister, or as a judge.
A Catholic priest and a nondenominational pastor serve as prison chaplains.
The constitution permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction. In general, public schools have no religious component in the curriculum. Private religious schools are allowed and can be found in all areas of the country.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain tourist visas, which authorities issue for renewable periods of three months. After renewing their tourist visas once, foreign missionaries may apply for temporary residence for up to two years.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In April a court found the former mayor of San Juan La Laguna, Antonio Adolfo Perez y Perez, guilty of threatening to expel a community of ultraorthodox (Haredi) Jews in 2014 and sentenced him to one year in prison.
Although the law permits Mayan spiritual groups to conduct religious ceremonies at Mayan historical sites on government-owned property, some Mayan leaders stated the government continued to limit their access to some religious sites and require them to pay to access the sites. The government maintained that there were no limitations to access; however, anyone seeking access to the sites must pay “processing fees.” Many Mayan religious and archeological sites are national parks or protected areas where the national government charges admission fees to all visitors. According to leaders from the Committee on the Designation of Sacred Sites, practitioners of Mayan spirituality generally were generally only able to obtain free access to sites only if they were accredited and issued an identification card by certain indigenous organizations as spiritual guides and had received written permission from the culture ministry 15 days before the scheduled ceremony/religious practice. Mayan leaders stated that written permission included long paperwork completed in Spanish. They said the process was difficult and expensive because it required travel to the capital, as well as fluency in Spanish, which many indigenous persons do not speak. The Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism (CODISRA), however, said it provided interpreters upon request to facilitate the process. Mayan advocates stated they should have access, within reasonable parameters, to all sacred sites (an estimated 2,000 locations on both public and private land).
Missionaries continued reporting they chose to remain on tourist visas to avoid what they called a complicated procedure to apply for temporary residence.
The Ministry of Education continued to consult with religious groups on a national values program called Living Together in Harmony (Vivamos Juntos en Harmonia) that integrated the groups’ shared values, such as honesty, fraternity, responsibility, and respect, without citing religion or religious teachings, into school curricula.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection work. Some private owners of land in locations, such as in Tikal National Park, considered sacred by Mayan religious groups, including caves, lagoons, mountains, and forests, continued to deny access to Mayans, according to Mayan spiritual groups.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials regularly met with the human rights ombudsman, CODISRA, and members of congress to discuss religious freedom issues, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access for Mayans to Mayan spiritual sites.
U.S. embassy officials met with leaders of major religious groups and representatives of faith-based nongovernmental organizations to discuss the importance of religious diversity. Embassy officials continued outreach to religious leaders, including the Catholic archbishop’s offices; the Evangelical Alliance (the largest organization of Protestant churches, representing more than 30,000 individual churches); the Jewish community; representatives from the Commission for the Designation of Sacred Places for the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna communities; and other organizations to strengthen understanding of religious freedom issues.
In December the embassy posted on Facebook a note on the importance of appreciating freedom of religion, including worship, in addition to emphasizing the right of all individuals to follow their conscience in how they pray.
The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religion. The Secretariat of Religious Affairs (SRA) continued to issue weekly themes for inclusion in Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. Although the SRA did not control sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives.
A land dispute between Christian and Muslim communities in Upper Guinea resulted in conviction of eight individuals for inciting riots and for the arson of a church.
The Ambassador met several times with the secretary of religious affairs and the grand imam of Conakry. He also met with the grands imams of Labe and Kankan. Each time, he delivered messages of religious tolerance and reconciliation among religious groups. The embassy hosted several iftars with Muslim and other religious leaders throughout the country, conveying each time the importance of religious freedom and interfaith harmony.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 12.4 million (July 2017 estimate). According to the SRA, approximately 85 percent of the population is Muslim, 8 percent is Christian, and 7 percent adheres to indigenous religious beliefs. Much of the population incorporates some indigenous rituals into its religious practices. Muslims are generally Sunni; however, Sufism is also present. Christian groups include Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and several evangelical groups. There is a small Bahai community. There are also small numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of traditional Chinese religious beliefs among foreign residents.
Muslims constitute a majority in all four regions of the country. Christians are most numerous in Conakry, large cities, the south, and the eastern Forest Region. Adherents of indigenous religious beliefs are most prevalent in the Forest Region.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution states the state is secular, prohibits religious discrimination, and provides for the right of individuals to choose and profess their religious faith. It recognizes the right of religious institutions and groups to establish and manage themselves freely. It bars political parties that identify with a particular religious group. These rights are subject only to “those limits that are indispensable to maintain the public order and democracy.”
By law, the SRA must approve all religious groups. Groups must provide a written constitution and application to the SRA along with their address and a fee of 250,000 Guinean francs (GNF) ($28). The SRA then sends the documents to the Ministry of Territorial Administration and Decentralization for final approval and signature. Once approved, the group becomes an officially recognized religion. Each registered religious group must present to the government a report on its affairs every six months. Registration entitles religious groups to value-added tax (VAT) exemptions on incoming shipments and select energy subsidies.
Unregistered religious groups are not entitled to VAT exemptions and other benefits. By law, the government may shut down unregistered groups and expel foreign group leaders. There is limited opportunity for legal appeal of these penalties.
Religious groups may not own radio or television stations.
The compulsory primary school curriculum does not include religious studies.
The imams and administrative staff of the principal mosque in Conakry and the principal mosques in the main cities of the four regions are government employees. These mosques are directly under the administration of the government. Other mosques and some Christian groups receive government subsidies for pilgrimages.
The SRA secretary general of religious affairs appoints six national directors to lead the Offices of Christian Affairs, Islamic Affairs, Pilgrimages, Places of Worship, Economic Affairs and the Endowment, and Inspector General. The SRA is charged with promoting good relations among religious groups and coordinates with other members of the informal Interreligious Council, which is composed of Muslims and members from Catholic, Anglican, and other Protestant churches as well as the SRA.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The SRA continued to issue mandatory weekly themes for inclusion in Friday sermons at mosques and Sunday sermons in churches. The stated purpose of the weekly guidance was to harmonize religious views in order to prevent radical or political connotations in sermons. Although the SRA did not monitor sermons at every mosque and church, its inspectors were present in every region and responsible for ensuring that mosque and church sermons were consistent with SRA directives. Clerics whom the SRA judged to be noncompliant were subject to disciplinary action. Discrepancies were often reported in the various sermons at mosques and other Islamic events, but the SRA had difficulty imposing disciplinary sanctions. The new secretary general met the imams of the capital, as well as leaders of communal and regional leagues, aiming to warn imams for any breach of the principles of Islam; he said imams who speak about politics, attack the president, or preach division between citizens would be subject to sanctions.
Saudi Arabia increased the country’s quota of pilgrims to 9,000 from 6,000 in 2016 and limited the age of travelers to Mecca to under 70. The SRA facilitated and organized the travel of 7,000 pilgrims who each paid approximately 40 million GNF ($4,400) toward the cost of travel.
The government subsidized the travel of Christians on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Greece, and Italy, providing 3.5 billion GNF ($389,000) compared to 2 billion GNF ($222,000) in 2016. The government decided in 2016 to rotate the benefits to different Christian groups in each subsequent year with Anglicans, Catholics, and Adventists receiving support for their 2017 pilgrimages.
According to the SRA, several unregistered religious groups operated freely but did not receive the tax and other benefits received by registered groups. The small Jehovah’s Witnesses community reportedly proselytized from house to house without interference, although neither it nor the Bahai community requested official recognition. Some groups stated they preferred not to have a formal relationship with the SRA.
Islamic schools were prevalent throughout the country and remained the traditional forum for religious education. Some Islamic schools were wholly private, while others received local government support. Islamic schools, particularly common in the Fouta Djalon region, taught the compulsory government curriculum along with additional Quranic studies. Private Christian schools, which accepted students of all religious groups, existed in Conakry and most other large cities. They taught the compulsory curriculum but did not receive government support and held Christian prayers before school.
The government allocated free broadcast time on state-owned national television for Islamic and Christian programming, including Islamic religious instruction, Friday prayers from the central mosque, and church services. Muslim programs received more broadcast time, while different Christian groups received broadcast time on Sundays on a rotating basis. The government permitted religious broadcasting on privately owned commercial radio.
The General Secretariat of Religious Affairs, through the National Directorate of Christian Affairs, initiated for the first time a conference of Christian religious leaders. The conference aimed to bring Christians of different denominations together to improve working relations and share information related to the work of churches and missions in the country. Another goal was to get the different Christian denominations to agree on a common program of awareness and prayer within the framework of the strengthening of national unity, which continued to be an important theme in the country.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In some parts of the country such as the middle and the upper regions, particularly strong familial, communal, cultural, social, or economic pressure discouraged conversion from Islam.
Members of the Bahai Faith again reported being discriminated against and shunned by their families because of their religious beliefs.
In March in Dabadou, Upper Guinea, a land conflict between Muslims and Christians about the ownership of a parcel of land adjacent to the local Catholic church resulted in physical altercations between the communities, injuring 11, and the burning of the church. Security forces arrested 18 individuals, including three women, in connection with the damage. In April the court charged eight of those arrested with “destruction of public buildings, intentional assault, and obstruction of the free exercise of religion.” Most of the sentences were six months suspended with the payment of a fine of 500,000 GNF ($56).
In the city of Labe in Middle Guinea, Islamic intrafaith rivalries between the majority Tidjani and the minority Wahhabi communities continued to exist, but according to French-language media, local religious and administrative authorities largely resolved these local conflicts by peaceful means.
The Kalima Catholic Mission still had not begun construction of a church despite authorization by the government in 2015. The Muslim community reportedly continued to lobby against the project. Religious authorities of both sides continued to work on resolving this issue.
Many Muslim students not enrolled in private Islamic schools received religious education at madrassahs, some of which were associated with mosques and others supported by local communities. Unlike the Islamic schools, the madrassahs did not teach the compulsory primary school curriculum. Although the government did not recognize the madrassahs or require them to register, it allowed them to operate freely. They focused on Quranic studies and instruction was in Arabic rather than French. Funds from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and other Gulf states supported some madrassahs. Most students in madrassahs also attended public or private schools teaching the compulsory curriculum, which did not include religious studies.
In February The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints opened a new branch in Conakry.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Ambassador met several times with the secretary of religious affairs and the grand imam of Conakry. He also met with the grands imams of Labe and Kankan. Each time, he delivered messages of religious tolerance. In addition, he organized an iftar that brought together religious leaders and senior politicians from the ruling coalition and the opposition to underscore religious tolerance.
Embassy officials consulted closely with the SRA and religious leaders, including the grand imams of Conakry, Kankan, and Labe; Catholic and Anglican bishops; and Islamic and Christian clergy. Embassy officers advocated for religious tolerance. Embassy officials also participated in several iftar celebrations nationwide to promote good relations and mutual understanding among religious groups and to relay a message of respect for religious freedom and national reconciliation, including religious acceptance, among groups.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. The government continued to limit the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion. Religious groups continued to report, however, that the government’s visa quotas allotted to them did not adversely affect their activities because the visa limitation rule was applied infrequently.
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.
The U.S. embassy hosted an interfaith forum on November 15 to highlight and promote tolerance among various religious groups, including the Muslim, Christian, Rastafari, and Hindu communities. A panel of religious leaders shared ways in which their respective faiths promoted their beliefs while adhering to religious tolerance principles. Embassy officials joined the Ministry of Social Cohesion on several occasions throughout the year at interfaith and religious events. To promote religious tolerance, U.S. embassy officials attended events hosted by Muslim and Hindu communities, including Eid and Diwali celebrations. Embassy officials used these activities to speak on acceptance, tolerance, and harmony in a multifaith cultural context. The embassy amplified its activities through discussions on social media about religious tolerance.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 738,000 (July 2017 estimate). According to the country’s 2012 census, 64 percent of the population is Christian, 25 percent Hindu, 7 percent Muslim (mainly Sunni), and less than 1 percent belong to other religious groups. Among Christians, Pentecostals comprise 23 percent of the national population; Roman Catholics, 7 percent; Anglicans, 5 percent; Seventh-day Adventists, 5 percent; Methodists, 1 percent; and other Christians, 21 percent. The 21 percent includes Christians who belong to the Assembly of God Church, Church of Christ, and African Episcopal Methodist Zion Church, among others. Groups that together constitute less than 1 percent of the population include Rastafarians and Bahais. An estimated 3 percent of the population does not profess a religious affiliation.
The membership of most religious groups includes a cross section of ethnic groups, although nearly all Hindus are of Indian descent and most Rastafarians are of African descent.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of religion and worship, including the right to choose and change one’s religion. An unenforced law prescribes a prison term of one year for a blasphemous libel conviction; however, the law exempts religious expression made in “good faith and decent language.”
There is no official system for formal registration of a religious group, but to receive government recognition, all places of worship must register through the deeds registry. The deeds registry requires an organization to submit a proposed name and address for the place of worship, as well as the names of executive group members or congregation leaders. Once formally recognized, a place of worship falls under legislation governing nonprofit organizations, allowing the organization to conduct financial operations, buy property, and receive tax benefits in its name.
Foreign religious workers require a visa from the Ministry of Citizenship. Religious groups seeking to enter an Amerindian village for the purpose of proselytizing must apply for and obtain the permission from the village council. An application to a village council must include the name of the group, the names of its members who will be going to the village, their purpose, and estimated date of arrival.
There are both public and private religiously affiliated schools. Private schools are operated entirely by private groups and are not funded by the state. Students of private schools must pay fees to attend, and the state does not control those fees. Religious education is compulsory in all private schools with a religious affiliation. All students attending a private school of religious affiliation must participate in religious education, regardless of a student’s religious beliefs. There is no religious education in public schools, whether religiously affiliated or not. Most public schools’ religious affiliations are Anglican or Methodist.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Created in 2015, the government’s Ministry of Social Cohesion’s mandate includes promoting interfaith harmony and respect for diversity. In February President David Granger said the state was responsible for ensuring social cohesion and interfaith harmony is not left to chance, the main reasons his government had established the ministry. In March the ministry held several “harmony villages” across the country to promote tolerance of various cultures and ethnic and religious identities. In May the ministry launched a five-year strategic plan to promote social cohesion.
Representatives of the Rastafarian community said that a law criminalizing the possession of 15 grams or more of marijuana infringed on their religious practices. A representative of the Rastafari Council said some members of his community faced extra scrutiny from law enforcement officials who believed Rastafaris carried marijuana on their person. According to the same representative, the Rastafari community perceived they were employed at lower rates than other citizens. The council petitioned the government to legalize the use of small amounts of marijuana for religious purposes, but authorities reportedly did not consider the proposal, saying that reviewing drug legislation was not a state priority at that time. On August 17, the Alliance For Change, a faction of the coalition government, said that it would advance the concerns of the Rastafarian group at parliament.
The government continued to maintain regulations limiting the number of visas for foreign representatives of religious groups based on historical trends, the relative size of the group, and the president’s discretion; however, religious groups continued to report the visa quotas the government allotted to them did not adversely affect their activities, as the visa limitation rule was rarely applied.
In March foreign Christian missionaries proselytized in some urban public schools. Representatives of the Hindu community stated that proselytizing in public schools is unconstitutional and the government should denounce it. In April the government stated that proselytizing in public schools is prohibited, and it disciplined the administrators of three public schools for permitting religious proselytizing by the foreign Christian missionaries in the three schools.
The Guyana Defense Force (GDF) continued to coordinate with civilian religious groups to provide military personnel with access to religious services. Leaders of the three major religious groups – Christian, Hindu, and Muslim – conducted prayer services and counseling on GDF bases.
Government representatives met with leaders of various religious groups to promote social cohesion and discuss tolerance of diversity. Government officials also participated regularly in the observance of Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious holidays throughout the year.
In February the president, first lady, and government ministers participated in an interfaith ceremony, whose stated purpose was to celebrate the country’s religious freedom and diversity.
The government continued to declare holy days of the country’s three major religious groups as national holidays.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom. Interfaith efforts conducted by the Inter-Religious Organization of Guyana led to oral pledges to promote social cohesion and respect for ethnic and religious diversity.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials joined the Ministry of Social Cohesion on several occasions throughout the year at interfaith and religious events. After these events, embassy officials engaged in social media discussions on religious tolerance in the country’s pluralistic society.
On November 15, in observance of United Nation’s International Day of Tolerance, the embassy convened a panel of Muslim, Christian, Rastafari, and Hindu representatives to highlight and promote tolerance among various religious groups. The panel comprised leaders from the Central Islamic Organization, Council of Churches, Rastafari Council, and Pandits Council, representing local Hindu temples. The audience, which included civil society leaders and members of various faith communities, engaged with panelists and made comments on the role that religious tolerance played in the country. The panelists pledged to hold regular interreligious dialogues and continue collaborating on humanitarian projects to maintain their peaceful coexistence. Embassy representatives met with representatives of the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious groups and discussed issues relating to religious tolerance. Embassy representatives attended various religious events hosted by the Muslim and Hindu communities. Embassy officials also attended interfaith functions hosted by the government to support and advance religious tolerance and inclusion. At these events, embassy officials spoke on acceptance, tolerance, and harmony in a multifaith cultural context. The embassy amplified its activities through discussions on social media about religious tolerance.
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions; however, the government officially recognizes only the Roman Catholic Church. It classifies all other religious groups as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) or as unregistered religious organizations, according them fewer rights and privileges than the Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups said the government continued to levy income taxes on the salaries of non-Catholic clergy and tax non-Catholic religious materials received from abroad. Some sectors of society continued to oppose the political activism of some religious groups and the government’s close ties with evangelical Protestant groups and the Catholic Church. Seventh-day Adventists continued to state that some educational institutions and private sector places of employment did not respect their religious observance on Saturdays. Jehovah’s Witnesses said certain public educational institutions continued to require them to salute the national flag and sing the national anthem, activities contrary to their faith. Representatives of several churches said they were concerned over the government’s handling of judicial cases or investigations of legal issues raised by the churches. Some Muslims reported private sector offices continued to deny women the right to wear the hijab, while some Christian groups reported being obliged to wear clothing not conforming to their beliefs in government environments. Representatives of the Jewish community said there were cases of anti-Semitic rhetoric in some political discourse.
Some religious organizations said actively religious individuals and religious leaders were more vulnerable to societal violence because of their prominent positions in society and their efforts to combat gang and other related criminal activities. In March the Evangelical Fellowship of Honduras (CEH), an umbrella group comprising several evangelical Protestant groups, presented a study finding that between 2005 and 2015, at least 31 evangelical Protestant pastors were victims of homicides during robberies and kidnappings, or for refusing to pay extortion payments to gangs, among other reasons. Religious groups stated some media reported incorrect and inflammatory information about the activities of religious leaders. Representatives of the Jewish community expressed concern about anti-Semitic statements on social media.
U.S. embassy officials engaged the vice minister of human rights and the minister of social development and inclusion on the importance of equal rights and privileges for members of all religious groups as a key component of religious freedom. Embassy representatives emphasized that according all religious groups the same rights and privileges as the Catholic Church would be a positive step. The embassy continued to support modifying registration processes for civil society organizations, including religious groups. Embassy officials discussed with religious leaders and other members of a wide range of religious communities their concerns over the government’s unequal treatment of religious groups in the country, including regarding religious observance at school and legal recognition for religious organizations.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9 million (July 2017 estimate). The Catholic Church states it has approximately 6.85 million adherents, constituting 77 percent of the population. According to a 2016 survey by a local marketing research and public opinion company, 48 percent of respondents self-identified as evangelical Protestants, 41 percent as Catholics, 3 percent as other, and 8 percent as unaffiliated.
In the 2015 Latinobarometro regional public opinion survey, 43.6 percent of respondents identify as Catholic, 42.1 percent as evangelical Protestant, 1.8 percent as other, and 12.4 percent as unaffiliated. Other religious groups, with their stated number of adherents, include Seventh-day Adventists (144,000); The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) (165,000); the Evangelical Moravian Church (35,960); Jehovah’s Witnesses (23,500); and a variety of Anabaptist and Mennonite groups (18,000). Additionally there are small communities of Episcopalians, Lutherans, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Bahais. Evangelical Protestant churches include the Church of God, Assemblies of God, Abundant Life Church, Living Love Church, International Christian Center, and various Great Commission churches. A number of evangelical Protestant churches have no denominational affiliation. The Moravian Church has a broad presence in the La Mosquitia Region in the eastern part of the country. Some indigenous groups and African-Hondurans practice African and Amerindian faiths or incorporate elements of Christianity, African, and Amerindian religions into syncretistic religious practices and beliefs.
A representative of the Muslim community states that it has 2,500 members, of which 90 percent are converts. The Jewish community states it has approximately 200 members.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions as long as that exercise does not contravene other laws or public order. The constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding public office or making political statements. The law distinguishes among legally recognized religious organizations, religious organizations registered as NGOs, and nonregistered religious organizations. The government does not require religious groups to register. By law, only the legislature has the authority to confer status as a legally recognized group; only the Catholic Church has received such recognition. Those recognized by law receive benefits such as tax-exempt status for staff salaries and church materials.
Religious organizations not individually recognized by law may register as NGOs. The government does not significantly distinguish between religious and nonreligious NGOs. To register as an NGO, organizations must have a board of directors and juridical personality. Associations seeking juridical personality must submit an application to the Secretariat of State for Human Rights, Justice, Governance, and Decentralization describing their internal organization, bylaws, and goals. The Office of the Solicitor General reviews applications for juridical personality and renders a constitutional opinion. Approved organizations must submit annual financial and activity reports to the government to remain registered. They may apply to the Ministry of Finance to receive benefits such as tax exemptions and customs duty waivers. Unregistered religious organizations are unable to obtain tax-exempt status or other benefits.
The constitution states public education is secular and allows for the establishment of private schools, including schools run by religious organizations. Various religious organizations run schools, including the Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist, and evangelical churches. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children receive, including religious education. The government dictates a minimum standardized curriculum for all schools. Some private religious affiliated schools require participation in religious events to graduate.
The government is a party to the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights, which recognizes the right to conscientious objection to obligatory military service.
The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain entry and residence permits, and mandates a local institution or individual sponsor a missionary’s application for residency and submit it to immigration authorities. The government has agreements with members of the CEH, the Mormons, and the Seventh-day Adventists, among others, to facilitate entry and residence permits for their missionaries. Groups with which the government does not have written agreements are required to provide proof of employment and income for their missionaries.
Foreign religious workers may request residency for up to five years. To renew their residence permits, religious workers must submit proof of continued employment with the sponsoring church at least 30 days before their residency expires. The law prohibits the immigration of foreign missionaries who practice religions that use witchcraft or satanic rituals, and allows the deportation of foreigners who practice witchcraft or “religious fraud.” According to the immigration law, individuals who “fraudulently exercise their [religious] profession or office, or commit fraud against the health or religious beliefs of citizens of the country, or the national patrimony,” may be fined or face other legal consequences.
The criminal code protects clergy authorized to operate in the country from being required to testify by the court or the attorney general’s office about privileged information obtained in confidence during a religious confession. The law does not require vicars, bishops, and archbishops of the Catholic Church and comparably ranked individuals from other legally recognized religious groups to appear in court if subpoenaed. They are required, however, to make a statement at a location of their choosing.
The official regulations for the penal system state that penitentiaries guarantee the free exercise of religion without preference of one specific religion, as long as that worship is not against the law or public order.
Religious officials face fines of 50,000-100,000 lempiras ($2,100-$4,300) and legal bans on performing religious duties for four to six years if they perform a marriage without a civil marriage license.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Some religious organizations, including the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum, an interfaith NGO representing dozens of religious groups, continued to criticize what they said was government preference for the Catholic Church and for religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH. Among the criticisms were that the legal recognition of non-Catholic religious groups as NGOs or as unregistered religious organizations accorded them fewer rights and privileges than to the Catholic Church. The groups also objected to the existing application of one uniform set of registration rules for all nonprofit organizations, including all non-Catholic religious groups. Many non-Catholic groups stated that the government should recognize them as religious groups rather than NGOs. The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum said the current legal and policy framework discriminated against all non-Catholic religious groups. The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum also noted exclusive benefits for the CEH included continual tax exemptions and waivers on imports. According to the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum, minority religious groups were often restricted from organizing religious assembly in public squares or parks. According to some forum members, government entities in charge of authorizing the use of such spaces were “influenced by pressures” from the Catholic Church, which they said was “concerned” about the exponential growth of some religious minority organizations.
The official NGO registry office – Unidad de Registro y Seguimento de Asociaciones Civiles (URSAC) – in the Ministry of Governance received 586 applications for new NGO registration during the year in comparison to 1,228 in 2016. This included 235 applications from religious associations (189 in 2016). Cumulatively, the URSAC has registered approximately 2,500 religious associations, of which 1,385 updated their board of directors and legal documents in 2017. The Ministry of Governance rejected applications that did not fit within the legal categories for which the ministry had legal authority.
Some religious organizations, expressed concern at what they said was unequal treatment by municipal authorities issuing permits to distribute religious material or hold events in public areas.
Representatives of several churches said they were concerned about possible corrupt and other criminal practices by government officials that damaged churches or their interests. One evangelical Protestant church expressed continued concern about the government’s handling of a long-standing internal division within its church. In 2016, a court dismissed charges brought by the church against the head of the official NGO registration office for registering a board of directors in 2013 that the church had excommunicated. Some church members said the excommunicated group had links to criminal elements; threatened members of the church, including by setting fire to member’s homes; confiscated or damaged church property; appointed different pastors; and, closed some of the church’s centers of worship. Church authorities stated that government officials refused to take action against the illegal board for criminal actions, possibly due to government corruption or links with criminal networks. The church’s appeal to the 2016 court decision was still pending at year’s end.
Although the constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding political office, the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum said some Protestant pastors, elected in 2013, continued to hold elected office despite a Supreme Court ruling that a 2011 law under which they had been elected was unconstitutional.
Some civil society organizations criticized evangelical Protestant groups, and to a lesser degree, the Catholic Church, for what they said was political activism and close ties to the government. These activities included Protestant pastors holding public office; CEH members serving on the government advisory bodies, including the Police Purge Commission, which makes recommendations for police reform; and the inclusion of Catholic and Protestant prayers at government events.
Some Christians reported facing dismissal if they did not adhere to a dress code, such as requiring women to wear pants, in government workplaces, even if the code did not conform to their religious beliefs. Religious leaders reported that some teachers in public schools pressured students to participate in the religious rituals of the teachers’ faith.
Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church reported continued religious freedom concerns at both private and public schools, from the elementary through the university level. Seventh-day Adventist representatives said their students faced continued problems obtaining permission to be absent from class or excused from taking exams on Saturdays for religious reason from the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the National Teachers University, and public schools in the cities of San Pedro Sula, Baracoa, Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa de Copan, and two private universities. Teachers in the Department of Ocotepeque also said they had problems obtaining permission not to work on Saturdays, notwithstanding a letter issued by the secretary of education excusing members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church from Saturday school attendance.
Non-Catholic religious groups continued to criticize the government for not recognizing them as churches and their inability to receive benefits, including tax exemptions for clergy salaries and imported religious materials. A representative of the Jewish community said the community was required to apply for tax-exempt status at the municipal level every year.
The Catholic Church and some other religious groups continued to press the government to recognize weddings performed by religious clergy without the legally required civil marriage certificate.
The government routinely invited Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders to lead prayers at government events and to participate in official functions, committees, and other joint government-civil society activities. Several religious organizations, including a Muslim religious group, criticized a perceived bias by the government in favor of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant churches that were members of the CEH.
A rule drafted in 2010 requiring Jehovah’s Witnesses to sing the national anthem, salute the national flag, and participate in other patriotic events still remained in the Secretariat of Education’s school guidelines, despite a 2014 ruling by the secretariat’s legal director that the rule was not enforceable. Representatives of the Jehovah’s Witnesses articulated their concern over continuing reports of public school officials pressuring Jehovah’s Witnesses to participate in public celebrations and other school events that run counter to their beliefs.
The government continued to facilitate missionaries’ residency status, including through agreements with some religious groups to facilitate visas for missionaries.
Leaders of the Jewish community reported frequent expressions of anti-Semitism in political discourse and events by political opposition figures, ranging from swastikas spray-painted on public buildings to hate speech in political speeches. The spouse of an opposition presidential candidate publicly lauded Adolf Hitler’s legacy, later issuing a public apology for her statements.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
In March the CEH presented a study that found that between 2005 and 2015, 30 percent of members of evangelical Protestant and Catholic congregations stated they had been victimized by criminals, reflective of the high levels of general violence and criminality in the country. The report found that during this period at least 31 evangelical pastors were victims of homicides during robberies or kidnappings, or for refusing to pay extortion payments to gangs, among other reasons. The majority of the study’s participants stated they believed their faith and religious practices increased their likelihood of being targeted by criminals, and speculated that the public role and prominence of religious leaders increased the likelihood of their being victimized. Other religious group reported being victims of generalized violent crime.
In December Jesuit priest Ismael “Padre Melo” Moreno Coto publicly reported receiving threats due to his management of a radio station and NGO, as well as his opposition to the re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernandez in November.
Some Christians said they faced dismissal if they did not adhere to a dress code in private workplaces, such as requiring women to wear pants, even if in conflict with their religious beliefs.
Some Muslim women reported that some banks asked them to remove their hijab when passing through bank security. They said they were usually able to resolve the issue after explaining that the attire was part of their religious practice. Seventh-day Adventists reported the continued refusal of certain private institutions, including places of employment and schools, to permit them to observe Saturday as a day of rest.
Religious leaders reported that some teachers in private schools pressured students to participate in religious rituals of the teachers’ faith, or in the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, to participate in activities counter to their beliefs.
The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum said it had received some complaints from individuals that some religious leaders discouraged their congregations from participating in interfaith engagements, and noted that some religious leaders in the media referred to other beliefs as sects or made other disparaging remarks.
The Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum, which includes representatives from more than 90 religious and civil society groups, continued its efforts to counter intolerance, discrimination, and the imposition of one religion over others. Religious groups reported working together to develop better relations and cooperate on projects, including between evangelical Protestant groups and the Catholic Church, and the Jewish community and various Christian groups.
Jewish community leaders, representing the two synagogues in the country, said there were cases of anti-Semitic messages in social media and swastikas painted on public buildings. They also said they were concerned that some Christian churches had “adopted” Jewish and Israeli symbolism, some even defining themselves as “Jewish congregations.” The Jewish leaders said some evangelical Protestant groups had issued statements defending or otherwise speaking on behalf of Israel, which the Jewish leaders said had created some tensions between the Jewish community and other religious groups.
Members of the Muslim community said they received some hate messages on their social media sites; however, they stated that they did not believe these messages reflected a broad societal view.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
U.S. embassy officials engaged the vice minister of human rights and justice and the minister of social inclusion and development on the importance of equal treatment for members of all religious groups. Embassy officials said a positive step would be for the government to modify the religious organization registration law to accord all religious groups the same rights and privileges as the Catholic Church. The U.S. government continued to support a development program with the Ministry of Governance to modify registration processes for civil society organizations by creating an online application and renewal process aimed at reducing the burden for NGOs, including religious organizations, to register and file required reports.
Embassy officials continued discussions with religious leaders and other members of religious communities, including evangelical Protestant, Moravian, and Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, Muslims, Bahais, and the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum. These groups said they continued to be concerned over what they stated was the government’s unequal treatment of religious groups, including the absence of a registration law according all religious groups the same rights and privileges as the Catholic Church.
The Fundamental Law (constitution) provides for freedom of religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and to manifest religion or belief through religious acts, ceremonies, or other means; the constitution’s preamble states the nation recognizes “the role of Christianity” in “preserving nationhood” and values the country’s “various religious traditions.” It prohibits religious discrimination and speech violating the dignity of any religious community. The constitution stipulates separation of religious communities and state and the autonomy of religious communities. According to law, the incorporation of religious groups, which provides for financial benefits and government support, requires the approval of two thirds of parliament. Parliament again did not vote on pending applications for incorporation status by religious groups, in violation of its own legal procedures and despite a finding by the Constitutional Court that the body’s failure to vote was unconstitutional. In July the Constitutional Court ruled parliament must amend the law to allow individuals to donate the same proportion of their taxes to unincorporated religious groups as to incorporated ones; parliament had not done so by year’s end. The government launched a criminal investigation of the Church of Scientology (COS) and again barred it from moving into new headquarters. The Constitutional Court overturned a local law in Asotthalom prohibiting the wearing of burqas. Muslim groups criticized the government for anti-Muslim remarks by Prime Minister (PM) Viktor Orban and other senior officials. Jewish leaders expressed concern the government’s continuing campaign against a prominent Jewish Hungarian American business executive could incite anti-Semitic acts.
There were incidents of assault and hate speech against Muslims and Jews, including Holocaust denial, and vandalism of religious properties. Muslim groups cited attacks on Muslims, which they attributed largely to the government’s anti-Muslim rhetoric, and said victims were often afraid to report incidents to the police. Jewish groups reported the level of verbal anti-Semitic incidents remained approximately the same as the previous year. According to a poll by Zavecz Research, 60 percent of respondents considered Muslims to be very dangerous for the future of the country, and 27 percent considered Jews to be very dangerous. Another survey reported that in 2016, one third of respondents had what it termed extreme or moderately anti-Semitic views, while 53 percent downplayed the extent of the Holocaust. In February approximately 600 members of extremist organizations, including neo-Nazis, marched in Budapest and elsewhere to commemorate victims of the fight of Nazi and Hungarian army divisions against the Soviets. The leader of one group at the rally shouted praise of the Waffen SS. In November The Action and Protection Foundation (TEV) organized a conference on anti-Semitism.
U.S. embassy and visiting U.S. officials met with senior government officials, including cabinet ministers at the Office of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry of Human Capacities (MHC), to advocate religious freedom and urge the government to reconsider the law on religion and amend those provisions which resulted in restrictions and discrimination against certain minority religious groups. U.S. officials also expressed concern about anti-Muslim rhetoric by government officials and about the COS investigation. U.S. officials met with various religious groups to discuss rising anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim sentiment and hosted meetings with religious leaders to discuss religious freedom.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.9 million (July 2017 estimate). The Hungarian government does not collect official data on religious affiliation; however, the 2011 national census included an optional question on religious affiliation. Of the 73 percent who responded, 51 percent identified as Roman Catholic, 16 percent as Hungarian Reformed Church (Calvinist), 3 percent as Lutheran, 2 percent as Greek Catholic, and less than 1 percent as Jewish; 23 percent reported no religious affiliation, and 2 percent indicated they were atheists. Other religious groups together constituting less than 5 percent of the population include Greek Orthodox, the Faith Congregation (a Pentecostal group), the COS, Russian and other Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations, Buddhists, and Muslims. The Jewish population is largely concentrated in the capital, while other religious groups are distributed around the country.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The Fundamental Law, the country’s constitution, provides for freedom of conscience and religion, including freedom to choose or change religion or belief, and freedom – alone or in community with others and in public or in private – to manifest religion or belief through religious acts or ceremonies, or in any other way, in worshipping, practice, and observance. It prohibits religious discrimination as well as speech “aimed at violating the dignity” of any religious community.
The constitution’s preamble states that “We recognize the role of Christianity” in preserving the nation and “value the various religious traditions” in the country. The constitution stipulates separation between religious communities and state and the autonomy of religious groups. According to the constitution, the state may, at the request of religious communities, cooperate with them on community goals.
Implementing legislation provides for a dual system of religious communities, consisting of “incorporated churches” with which the state cooperates on community goals as outlined in the constitution, and “organizations engaged in religious activity” (religious organizations). Neither category is limited to Christian organizations.
Religious organizations acquire incorporated church status through an application submitted to the MHC and, if found eligible, by a subsequent two-thirds vote of parliament. The church is then by law entered onto a list of incorporated churches. The MHC has 60 days following the initial application to assess whether the group fulfills all the administrative criteria, which include a variety of documentation and qualification requirements. To qualify for incorporated church status, a religious group must have existed as a religious organization in the country for 20 years, in which case it must have a membership of 0.1 percent of the total population, (approximately 10,000 persons) or be registered as a religious organization and have existed for at least 100 years internationally, in which case its foreign affiliation must be certified by at least two other churches of “similar doctrine” recognized in foreign countries. Its activities must not conflict with the constitution or other laws or violate the rights and freedoms of other communities. A group must also prove that its primary purpose is to conduct religious activity; have a formal statement of faith and rites, bylaws and internal rules, and elected or appointed administrative and representative bodies; and officially declare that its activities are not in violation of the laws or the freedom of others. The MHC is obligated to consult with a qualified lawyer, historian of religions, scholar of religions, or sociologist with an academic degree prior to issuing its decision. Applicants may appeal the MHC’s decision in the Budapest Public Administration and Labor Court and, ultimately, to the Curia, the country’s highest judicial authority.
Following a favorable MHC decision on the applicant’s eligibility, the MHC submits the application to parliament’s Judiciary Committee, which has 60 days to invite the applicant to a public hearing and to submit an assessment to parliament on the group’s compliance with additional criteria. These criteria include an assessment that the group poses no threat to national security (provided by parliament’s National Security Committee), that it does not violate the right to physical and mental health or the protection of life and human dignity, and that the group is suitable for long-term cooperation with the state in promoting community goals based on its founding documents, number of members, network of institutions providing public services, and access by larger societal groups to such services.
Approval of a request for incorporated church status requires a two-thirds majority vote by parliament, which must take place within 60 days of a motion by parliament’s Judiciary Committee. If a religious group receives such parliamentary approval, the state must grant specific licenses to the group to support its participation in tasks to achieve community goals. If parliament rejects the application, a detailed explanation is required and the applicant may challenge parliament’s decision in the Constitutional Court within 15 days. The law does not prescribe any consequences if parliament does not act within the 60-day period, nor is there opportunity for appealing parliamentary inaction.
A 2011 law on religion automatically deregistered more than 300 religious groups and organizations which had previously had incorporated church status. Those organizations are required to reapply if they wish to regain incorporated church status; their applications are also subject to the approval of a two-thirds majority of parliament.
The law lists 27 incorporated churches, including the Catholic Church, a variety of Protestant denominations, a range of Orthodox Christian groups, other Christian denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Seventh-day Adventists, the Salvation Army, several Jewish groups, and the Hungarian Society for Krishna Consciousness, the sole registered Hindu organization. The list also includes Buddhist and Muslim umbrella organizations, each encompassing a few individual groups, bringing the total number on the registered list of incorporated churches to 32.
The law authorizes the Budapest Metropolitan Court to register a group as a religious organization if it has at least 10 founding individual members whose primary objective is to conduct religious activities that do not violate the constitution, other laws, or the rights and freedom of other communities. The organization’s membership may consist only of individuals; no “legal persons” such as corporations or other associations may be members. The court must approve applications that meet all of these criteria. Applicants must submit the name and address of the organization, names and addresses of founding members, identifying information on the group’s legal representative and the term of his or her appointment, the founding documents of the group, and a statement that the primary objective of the organization is to conduct religious activities. If the court rejects an organization’s application, the decision is subject to appeal to the Budapest Metropolitan Court of Appeals.
Every registered (but not unregistered) religious community may use the word “church” in its official name regardless of whether it is officially recognized by parliament as an “incorporated church.” Officials from both incorporated churches and registered religious organizations not recognized by parliament are not obligated to disclose information shared with them in the course of their faith-related service, such as during rites of confession.
The Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU) reports that unregistered religious organizations enjoy protection for faith-related services. Unregistered groups are allowed to function and to worship but lack legal status and the rights and privileges granted exclusively to registered religious communities.
By law, no state office may determine or supervise a registered religious community’s faith-based activities. Their doctrines, internal regulations, and statutes are not subject to state review, modification, or enforcement. Their names, symbols, and rites are protected by copyright law, while buildings and cemeteries are protected by criminal law. Unregistered groups, according to HCLU, enjoy copyright and at least some other protections, but the law is unclear about the extent of those other protections.
The constitution establishes a unified system for the Office of the Commissioner for Fundamental Rights (ombudsman). The ombudsman investigates cases related to violations of fundamental rights – including religious freedom – and initiates general or specific measures for their remedy.
Incorporated churches have certain privileges not available to religious organizations, such as greater access to state funding and exemption from state oversight of their financial operations connected to religious activities. Incorporated churches and their associated institutions (classified as “internal religious legal entities”) that provide public services, such as healthcare, education, or other social services, are automatically eligible for full state subsidies (a subsidy based on the number of persons receiving services coupled with a supplementary subsidy) for all their public service activities. Religious organizations may also take over or establish public service institutions and are entitled to receive a per capita state subsidy to cover the wages of the staff employed by these institutions. They may also apply for additional funding from an additional budgetary allocation.
For incorporated churches and religious organizations that operate their own schools, the state provides subsidy, based on the number of students enrolled, for employee wages, but only incorporated churches automatically receive a supplementary subsidy for the schools’ operating expenses. According to the law, religious organizations may apply to the MHC for a supplementary operational subsidy covering approximately 30 percent of their total costs for schools, and the MHC decides on a case-by-case basis whether to grant it.
Taxpayers may allocate 1 percent of their personal income taxes to a nongovernmental organization (NGO), including a religious organization, and another 1 percent to an incorporated church (but not to any other religious organization), and the church then receives additional matching funds from the government. On July 14, the Constitutional Court ruled the provision prohibiting taxpayers from making an additional 1 percent allocation to unincorporated religious organizations was unconstitutional. According to the decision, all religious communities – including unincorporated religious organizations – should be eligible to collect the 1 percent personal income tax donations for churches. The court did not clarify whether its decision covered unregistered religious groups. The court set a deadline for parliament to modify the law by December 31. The Constitutional Court said the state can differentiate between religious communities and make its own decision about which ones it wants to support; however, it may not force its decision on citizens and constrain their religious choices. The ruling was a result of a citizen’s suit against the National Tax Authority.
Both incorporated churches and religious organizations are free to use taxpayer donations as they wish. Only officials of incorporated churches are exempt from personal income tax under certain conditions. Land owned by a religious group deregistered in 2011 may be retained by the religious organization that is the deregistered group’s legal successor. Both religious organizations and incorporated churches are prohibited from purchasing agricultural land. Incorporated churches, but not religious organizations, may acquire new agricultural land as a gift or an inheritance.
If incorporated churches or religious organizations cease to exist (e.g., by dissolving themselves) and have no legal successor, their assets become state property that must be used to finance public services. This may also occur if, upon the initiative of the government, the Constitutional Court issues an opinion that the activity of the incorporated church violates the constitution, and parliament confirms the decision by a two-thirds majority vote. The Constitutional Court also issues opinions upon the request of the Budapest Metropolitan Court on whether a religious organization is in violation of the constitution.
Treaties with the Holy See regulate relations between the state and the Catholic Church, including financing of public services and religious activities and the settlement of claims for property seized by the state during the Communist era. These treaties serve as a model for regulating state relations with other religious groups, although there are some differences in the rights and privileges the state accords to each of the religious groups with which it has agreements. The state has also concluded formal agreements with the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Hungarian Lutheran Church, the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary (MAZSIHISZ), and four Orthodox Churches.
Military and law enforcement personnel may freely practice their religion in private and also at their workplaces if their religious practice does not violate their mandatory service duties. The Catholic Church, the Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, and Jewish congregations receive automatic authorization to provide chaplain services to the military; other incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission.
Penitentiaries generally allow inmates free practice of religion, including providing them with special diets, such as kosher, vegetarian, and pork-free meals. All incorporated churches and religious organizations must seek permission to offer pastoral services in prisons. Rejection of access requests may be appealed to the National Prison Service, the prosecutor’s office, or the ombudsman. Detainees have the right to participate in communal religious services three times a week and to contact without supervision representatives of incorporated churches or religious organizations having permission to access the facility. Detainees in special security regimes may only receive individual spiritual care and are excluded from community spiritual programs. In the case of pretrial detainees, during the course of the criminal investigation a public prosecutor or judge may restrict personal interaction with a religious representative but not participation in communal religious services.
Incorporated churches receive automatic authorization to provide pastoral services in hospitals, while religious organizations must seek permission.
One-hour-per-week faith-and-ethics or ethics-only education is mandatory through the first eight grades of public school. Students and their parents choose between the faith-and-ethics class provided by an incorporated church of their choice or a generic ethics course taught by public school teachers. Religious groups are entitled to prepare their own textbooks and determine curricula for their faith-and-ethics classes. Private schools are not obligated to introduce faith-and-ethics or ethics classes. Unincorporated religious organizations are not entitled to provide religious education as part of the mandatory curricula in public schools, but they may offer extracurricular, optional religious education in public schools if requested by students or parents.
Incorporated churches and religious organizations have the right to open their own schools. In addition, the law affords incorporated churches and religious organizations the right to assume operation of public schools through a formal agreement with the MHC. In these cases, the government continues to fund the schools. Religious communities, school teachers, the affected parents, or the operator of the school may initiate such transfers, but they can only be executed if the designated religious community is able to collect the signatures of more than 50 percent of the parents and adult students enrolled at the school. Whether newly established or converted from public status, religious schools are free to conduct their own religious teaching without government input and to make faith education mandatory and not substitutable with an ethics class. The government inspects both religious and public schools every two years to ensure they conform to government standards.
The constitution prohibits speech that violates the dignity of any religious community. The law includes a prohibition of “calling for violence” – in addition to inciting hatred – against a religious community or its members, punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. The law provides a maximum punishment of three years in prison for impeding someone else through violence or threats from freely exercising his or her religion. Abusing an individual because of his or her religious affiliation is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Physical assault motivated by the victim’s actual or suspected religious affiliation is a felony punishable by one to five years in prison. Violence against a member of the clergy is classified as violence against an “individual providing public service” and is similarly punished with a prison sentence of one to five years. Any person who engages in preparation for the use of force against any member of a religious community is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment not exceeding two years.
The law prohibits public denial, expression of doubt, or minimization of the Holocaust, genocide, and other crimes against humanity committed by the National Socialist or Communist regimes, punishing such offenses with a maximum sentence of three years in prison. The criminal code makes wearing, exhibiting, or promoting in public the swastika, the logo of the Nazi SS, or the arrow cross in a way that harms the human dignity or the memory of victims a misdemeanor, punishable by detention for a period ranging from five to 90 days.
The law provides for the lifting of official immunity of a member of parliament (MP) who incites hatred against religious communities or publicly denies crimes of the Communist or National Socialist regimes. No MP has been the subject of such a proceeding.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Summary paragraph. By year’s end parliament had not amended the law as mandated by the Constitutional Court in July to allow individuals to donate a portion of their taxes to religious organizations in the same way they could to incorporated churches. The government paid a fine to a religious group as ordered by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) as compensation for losses incurred by the government’s revocation of the group’s status as an incorporated church. Parliament also did not vote on any of 14 pending applications by religious groups previously found eligible for incorporation, despite a legal obligation to do so. The government launched a criminal investigation of the COS and denied for a second time permission for the group to move into headquarters in Budapest. The Constitutional Court ruled an Asotthalom law banning burqas and restricting the activities of muezzins was unconstitutional. Incorporated churches reported their reliance on financial support from the government inhibited their ability to speak out on matters of public concern. Muslim groups complained about anti-Muslim statements by PM Orban and other government officials. Jewish groups expressed concerns about PM Orban’s praise for a World War II (WWII)-era politician who signed anti-Jewish laws. The government continued its campaign and public messaging against a prominent Jewish Hungarian American business executive, which Jewish leaders said could incite anti-Semitic acts.
By year’s end, parliament had not complied with the July ruling by the Constitutional Court to amend the provisions of the religion law which the court found unconstitutional that allowed individuals to allocate an additional 1 percent of their income tax to incorporated religious groups but not to unincorporated ones. In addition, parliament again failed to revise other provisions of the religion law the Constitutional Court had previously found unconstitutional in 2015, namely that the short (four months) and peremptory legal deadline for religious groups to fulfill requirements for a change of legal status violated religious freedom. Separately in 2015, the Constitutional Court had also ruled, in agreement with a 2014 ECHR decision, that the law’s criteria for incorporated church eligibility related to the minimum membership (0.1 percent of the population) and length of operation (20 years domestically or 100 years internationally) of a religious organization violated the ECHR’s finding of an obligation of neutrality and impartiality.
In December 2016, the government’s Data Protection Authority (DPA) launched a data protection investigation of the COS. According to the COS, the DPA seized various documents and files from its offices in Budapest and Nyiregyhaza, including “preclear folders” (PCs) containing what the COS called confidential communications between penitents and their minister. The COS stated the seizure of the PCs constituted a violation of privacy and of members’ right to freedom of religion. In the same month the Church filed a legal complaint contesting the seizures, and individual COS members filed complaints with the ombudsman. On October 17, the DPA issued a report which, according to the COS, portrayed the Church’s spiritual practices as mind manipulation, a portrayal which the COS denied.
According to the COS, the DPA then filed a complaint against the Church, alleging criminal abuse of personal data, and turned over its seized materials to the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI). On October 18, 60 NBI agents raided the COS headquarters in Budapest, seizing documents and sealing off the building. On October 19, the criminal section of the tax office, investigating possible financial crimes, executed search warrants and seized documents at COS offices in Budapest and 15 other locations. According to the COS, the authorities also froze the Church’s bank accounts and placed a lien on its Budapest headquarters. The Church’s spokesperson called the search “religious suppression under the guise of data protection.” State authorities said their actions stemmed from concerns with methods of personal information collection and storage, and not from the COS’s religious views. The COS said Church members demonstrated in front of the DPA, the tax office, and parliament following the raid. The government did not recognize the COS as an incorporated church but had approved its registration as a religious organization.
On April 25, the ECHR ordered the government to pay 3 million euros ($3.6 million) to the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship (MET) as compensation for losses in 2012-14 resulting from the government revocation of MET’s incorporated church status. The government and MET had failed to reach agreement on compensation by December 28, 2016, as ordered by the ECHR. The government made the payment on October 16, before the ECHR’s October 25 deadline.
Parliament failed again to vote on any of the 14 applications by religious groups which the MHC had previously found eligible for incorporation, despite the 60-day legal deadline for action on an MHC referral. On December 20, the Constitutional Court ruled parliament’s failure to act within the 60-day legal deadline for action violated the constitution. The MHC reported no religious groups submitted new applications for incorporated church status during the year.
The Constitutional Court ruled in April that the ban passed in 2016 by the town of Asotthalom on the wearing of burqas and chadors and on the call to prayer by muezzins was unconstitutional. The court said local authorities could not pass regulations directly affecting a basic right or restricting it.
In January the government denied for the second time a COS application for a certificate of occupancy for its headquarters and place of worship in Budapest. The government had denied the first application in May 2016 and subsequently issued an order requiring the COS to vacate the building. In January the COS challenged the denial of the certificate of occupancy in the Administrative and Labor Court of Budapest and requested a stay of the order to vacate the site. On October 12, the court denied the request for a stay of the order. The Church appealed the denial, and the appeal was pending at year’s end. COS lawyers said they believed the city of Budapest was acting “in bad faith” and that the Church remained gravely concerned the city could take away its headquarters and place of worship.
The government continued to provide approximately 94 percent of its total financial support to incorporated churches and other religious groups to the Roman Catholic Church, the Hungarian Reformed Church, the Lutheran Church, and the Jewish community, which it considered to be the country’s four “historical” religious groups, an unofficial designation the media also used. The government said more than 94 percent of citizens who reported a religious affiliation were affiliated with the four historical religious groups.
As of November 9, the government had provided 59.2 billion forints ($229 million) to incorporated churches for a range of activities, including maintenance of buildings, support for religious instruction and culture, support for community programs and investments, and wages of church employees. The government allocated additional funding for churches providing public educational and social services. Of this amount, the Catholic Church received 38.7 billion forints ($150 million), the Reformed Church 9.4 billion forints ($36.4 million), the Lutheran Church 2.9 billion forints ($11.2 million), MAZSIHISZ 2.7 billion forints ($10.4 million), and the Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation (EMIH) 762 million forints ($2.95 million). The government support for incorporated churches also included funding to a dozen churches for renovating their buildings and organizing community programs. As part of this support the government made two allocations totaling 2.4 billion forints ($9.3 million) to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), which according to census data had approximately 2,400 members. Press reports speculated that members of the ROC, who did not have a place to worship in the western part of the country, would be able to build their own church in the town of Heviz.
Some incorporated churches expressed concern that if they spoke out on issues of public importance, the government would withdraw some of its financial support, which in many cases constituted two thirds or more of the churches’ total funding.
On December 27, the government awarded an additional 88 billion forints ($340.5 million) to some incorporated churches and religious organizations, with the Reformed Church receiving almost 59 billion forints ($228.3 million) of this total.
According to tax authorities tracking the 1 percent tax allocations designated to incorporated churches, all major churches suffered significant losses both in terms of the value and number of donations. Donations to the Catholic Church decreased from 2.6 billion forints ($10.1 million) in 2016 to 2.2 billion forints ($8.5 million). The three large historic churches – Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran – combined lost almost 450 million forints ($1.7 million) and 120,000 tax contributors. Church leaders expressed fears that if this trend continued, the dependence of churches on the state might increase, weakening their religious autonomy. The government modified the law during the year so that, effective January 1, 2018, these declarations would not have to be submitted by individuals on a yearly basis but would be valid until the taxpayer changed them.
The number of church-run schools slightly increased. Of elementary and secondary schools, 14.3 percent were operated by incorporated churches and 0.1 percent by religious organizations in the 2016-17 school year. Of preschools (ages 3-7), 7.2 percent were operated by incorporated churches and 0.1 percent by religious organizations. Approximately 207,600 students studied at preschools and elementary and secondary schools operated by registered religious communities (incorporated churches and religious organizations), compared to 204,000 in the 2015-16 school year. Approximately half of these students were in schools operated by the Catholic Church.
Religious entities provided social services to 107,918 persons and child protection services to 8,992 persons over the year (32.4 percent by the Catholic, 27.1 percent by the Reformed, and 12.96 percent by the Hungarian Baptist churches).
On September 14, the ECHR dismissed a 2009 complaint by a former pastor, whom the Hungarian Reformed Church had dismissed for disciplinary reasons, alleging that Hungarian courts had failed to deal with a monetary claim by the pastor against the Reformed Church. The pastor had filed a suit and subsequent appeals in 2007-09, which ended with a Supreme Court finding that the dispute involved ecclesiastical law and was outside of the court’s jurisdiction. The ECHR ruled that the domestic courts’ conclusion that the case was governed by ecclesiastical rather than domestic law was not unreasonable.
There were numerous reports of perceived anti-Muslim rhetoric by government officials and politicians, including at the highest levels. Muslim groups criticized as anti-Muslim the government’s statements portraying asylum seekers and migrants, most of whom were Muslim, as dangerous for the future of the country and Europe and unable to integrate into European society. On November 3, governing Fidesz Party parliamentary group leader Gergely Gulyas said, “There will be no mosques in Hungary; that is how we respond” to acts of terrorism. In response to this comment, Zoltan Bolek, President of the Hungarian Islamic Community (HIC) issued a statement reading in part, “We have been experiencing Islamophobia for years and it is regrettable that … other churches did not stand by us against statements directed against us!”
In his remarks in Baile Tusnad, Romania on July 22, PM Orban said Europe was being de-Christianized and that “European Union leaders … are seeking a new, mixed, Muslimized Europe.” HIC President Bolek, whose members he said were almost all citizens, attributed public hostility toward the community largely to the anti-Muslim and antimigrant rhetoric of senior government officials and some media outlets. Jewish groups expressed fear that public discourse targeting certain societal groups, in this case migrants and Islam, could spread to include other minorities or religious groups.
At the European Parliament in May, PM Orban described a Jewish Hungarian-born Holocaust survivor, U.S. citizen, and business executive as a “financial speculator attacking Hungary” who had “destroyed the lives of millions of Europeans.” Frans Timmermans, Vice President of the European Commission, stated he found that language anti-Semitic, after which Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto stated the government’s disputes with the businessman had “absolutely nothing to do” with his Jewish origins.
In July the government launched a billboard campaign featuring a picture of this businessman, with text stating he should not be allowed to “have the last laugh.” MAZSIHISZ President Andras Heisler called on PM Orban in an open letter to end the campaign, which he said was not anti-Semitic, but could lead to anti-Semitic acts. Vandals spray painted a bus stop and bench with the words “Die, rotten Jews” followed by the businessman’s name, and billboards in Budapest and elsewhere were defaced with the graffiti “stinking Jew” written on the businessman’s face; images of the graffiti circulated widely on the internet and social media. The graffiti recalled the “dark periods of Hungarian history,” Heisler declared.
At a June 21 ceremony, PM Orban called WWII Regent and Hitler ally Miklos Horthy, who signed anti-Jewish laws into effect in the interwar period, an “exceptional statesman.” MAZSIHISZ President Heisler said in a statement that due to the era of anti-Semitism that was associated with Horthy’s name and his responsibility for the deaths of 600,000 Hungarian Jews and tens of thousands of Hungarian soldiers in the Don army, his era “cannot be put as an example for future generations.”
On July 18, during a visit of Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, PM Orban declared Hungary’s failure to protect its Jewish citizens during WWII was a crime. He again stated the country had “zero tolerance towards anti-Semitism.” During his visit to the Dohany Street synagogue (the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world) with PM Orban and PM Netanyahu, MAZSIHISZ President Heisler welcomed Orban’s remarks about the country’s war-time collaboration with the Nazis, but commented there were still “two-faced assessments of the Holocaust.”
On February 14, PM Orban met with Heisler following demonstrations earlier that month in Budapest and elsewhere by extreme-right groups that included neo-Nazis. Heisler called the demonstrations “unacceptable,” and the PM agreed the government should seek a legal solution to stop them. The two men also reportedly discussed possible government assistance to rebuild the Zuglo Synagogue in Budapest, which burned down in 2016.
Speaking at the 150th anniversary of the act on the political and civil emancipation of Jewry on November 21, Under Secretary for Social and Heritage Protection and Special Cultural Investment Projects Csaba Latorcai said Jewish culture was undergoing a renaissance in the country, and the government regarded the more-than-5,000-year-old intellectual and spiritual heritage of Jews as valuable. According to Latorcai, “The survival and strengthening of Europe, and Hungary in it, should be sought in the depths of the faith rooted in the Jewish-Christian traditions and in sincere dialogue.”
On July 5, the Chabad-affiliated EMIH presented a new Hungarian translation of the Talmud to the public. EMIH Rabbi Slomo Koves thanked the government for its “support and cooperation in preserving spiritual heritage.” MHC State Secretary Miklos Soltesz urged a return to religious and cultural traditions, referencing the flourishing Jewish cultural life in the country and enumerating political and financial support for the reconstruction of many synagogues.
In July Minister of Agriculture Sandor Fazekas officiated at the opening in Csongrad County of Europe’s largest kosher slaughterhouse for geese.
In an interview on December 15, Jobbik Party Chairman Gabor Vona stated that he had pushed his party in a more centrist direction, and that it would not return to its far-right origins or to making anti-Semitic remarks. According to Vona, “The kind of anti-Semitic expressions which took place in Jobbik earlier are impossible to imagine. Or if they did, they would naturally draw the most severe sanctions.”
The government again took no action to advance the plan to open a new Holocaust museum and education center, the House of Fates; the project remained pending, although the physical infrastructure of the museum had been completed by the end of 2016. Some Jewish groups and historians criticized the museum as an attempt to obscure the involvement of Hungary and Regent Horthy in the Holocaust and stress instead the role of Hungarian rescuers. Senior government officials repeatedly issued assurances that the museum would be opened only if Jewish community representatives reached a consensus agreement on the content of museum exhibits.
The country is a member of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
The number of physical and verbal anti-Muslim incidents increased, while the level of anti-Semitic incidents remained largely unchanged compared with the previous year, according to accounts by the respective communities. Incidents against the two groups included assault, discriminatory treatment, hate speech, and vandalism.
The Brussels Institute, founded by the NGO TEV, registered 16 incidents of anti-Semitic hate speech and two of anti-Semitic vandalism from January to June. The group reported 48 anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, compared with 52 cases in 2015 and 37 in 2014. Incidents in 2016 consisted of one threat, 10 cases of vandalism, including the painting of swastikas and other Nazi symbols, and 37 instances of hate speech, much of it on social media.
HIC, one of two existing Muslim groups, with a membership of 5,000-10,000, reported a continued increase in anti-Muslim public sentiment, although it did not cite statistics. The HIC and Organization of Muslims in Hungary cited fear among community members of physical and verbal attacks and harassment. Zoltan Sulok, head of the Organization of Muslims in Hungary, said his group’s members experienced a negative impact from antimigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric. Many members, he added, did not bother to report incidents because they did not believe doing so would lead to any effective action by authorities. Muslim organizations said individuals often associated Muslims with terrorists, and women could be threatened for wearing headscarves.
According to HIC President Bolek, frequent verbal attacks and comments on social media, such as a Jihad Watch Facebook site, incited hatred and sometimes urged action against the Muslim community. He stated the community reported that Muslim women wearing headscarves were spat upon or verbally harassed daily, but they generally did not report these incidents to the police because the police did not respond sympathetically to such complaints. Bolek called on the churches and other religions to express solidarity with Muslims and act against hate speech.
A poll of approximately 1,000 persons conducted by Zavecz Research in April found 60 percent of respondents considered Muslims to be very dangerous for the future of the country and 22 percent as slightly dangerous. Twenty-seven percent of respondents perceived Jews as very dangerous and 21 percent as slightly dangerous.
In April TEV published its 2016 annual report on domestic anti-Semitism, based on a survey conducted by the Median Opinion and Market Research Institute. The report concluded that approximately one third of citizens harbored anti-Semitic views. The study cited “cognitive” anti-Semitism (receptivity to stereotypes, misconceptions, and conspiracy theories) and “affective” anti-Semitism (emotional rejection of Jews). Between 2015 and 2016, the proportion of the population that researchers categorized as “strongly anti-Semitic” and “moderately anti-Semitic” remained consistent (20 percent and 13 percent, respectively). Eleven percent of respondents said there were no gas chambers in the concentration camps (up from 7 percent in 2006), 18 percent said Jews had “made up” a large part of the history of the Holocaust, and 24 percent said the number of Jewish victims in the Holocaust was much less than generally stated.
On November 29, Jewish leaders, politicians, and security experts discussed anti-Semitism at a TEV-organized conference titled, “Is there a Future for Jews in Europe?” Some speakers described Islamic immigrants as “dangerous” and criticized the Jobbik Party for contributing to anti-Semitism. The speakers included a representative from the American Jewish Committee and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who praised the government for measures taken to decrease anti-Semitism, raised concerns about Jewish safety and security in Europe, addressed potential links between Islamic migration and anti-Jewish attitudes, and said some nationalist movements had elements of anti-Semitism. He also stated recent efforts to alter and distort history – including attempts to rehabilitate and erect statues to WWII-era anti-Semitic Hungarian leaders and attempts to construct the new Holocaust museum – damaged the country’s international reputation. Two other speakers faulted the government for using anti-Semitic code words in its media campaign against a Jewish businessman. Ministry of Foreign Affairs State Secretary for Security Policy and International Cooperation Istvan Mikola cited the need to “continue to fight against all forms of anti-Semitism and to ensure that everyone was free to practice their religion …”
In March HIC opened a cultural center and prayer house in one of Budapest’s districts and named it after Gyula Germanus, a 20th century professor of oriental studies and an expert on Islam. According to District Deputy Mayor Zoltan Rozgonyi (Fidesz Party), many local residents expressed concerns about the new center. Referring to the European City Charter on safeguarding the rights to safe and violence-free living conditions, he said the municipality was responsible for guaranteeing the safety of the local community. District Mayor Gergely Karacsony (opposition Dialogue Party) called the issue a matter of private real estate in which the local municipality had no say and no obligation to provide an opinion and information. He added administrative measures could only be taken if HIC breached the rules. Speaking to the press, HIC President Bolek called the building “a house of peace” and stressed there would be no place for extremism or violence there. HIC also publicly assured the mayor the HIC intended to abide by the law.
On February 6, approximately 600 members of extreme right organizations, including neo-Nazis and sympathizers of the country’s WWII-era, Nazi-collaborationist Arrow Cross Party, rallied in a prominent park in Budapest and other cities around the country for a Day of Honor commemoration of the victims of a failed attempt by German and Hungarian troops to break through Soviet lines besieging Budapest in 1945. At the Budapest rally, the former leader of the militant fascist group Army of Highwaymen, Zsolt Tyirityan, praised a Nazi paramilitary group, shouting, “Appreciation and my respect to the Waffen SS! Glory to the Waffen SS!”
On December 9, Scientologists protested in Budapest in support of religious freedom for Scientology and other faiths and to protest the law on religion that deregistered hundreds of religious groups, including the Church of Scientology. Local press estimated the number of protesters at approximately 100, while the COS said more than 1,500 persons participated. “We have come to a crossroad for religious freedom in Hungary,” said Attila Miklovicz, Director of Public Affairs of the COS Budapest. Another Scientologist, Timea Vojtilla, stated, “We want the government to ensure true religious freedom, and not let certain agencies hinder the free exercise of our religion.” The demonstration ended with the reading of the Creed of the Church of Scientology.
The Attila Hotel and Restaurant in Budapest’s 3rd District unveiled a bust in tribute to WWII Regent Horthy in its courtyard on June 17. The mayor and village council of Perkata approved another bust of Horthy in May but, due to protests, revoked their approval; that bust was instead placed in a private castle in Kaloz.
Numerous extreme ethnic nationalist websites, run by groups such as Kurucinfo, the Army of Highwaymen, Ero es Elszantsag, and HunHir, continued to publish anti-Semitic articles.
On June 1, anti-immigration activists spray painted a circle with a line drawn through a bomb and the medieval Christian Crusader motto “Deus vult!” (“God wills it!”) on the pavement in front of the HIC mosque in Debrecen. The group also published a video in which its activists – without showing their faces – said they did not want to live on a continent where “foreign cultures can crush our several-thousand-years-old heritage,” and urged people “to say no to Islamization!” HIC President Bolek called the incidents “outrageous” and “stupid.” He added that HIC was a peaceful community, and just because they were Muslims, they should not be confused with terrorists. The HIC declined to file a police report but the Hajdu-Bihar County police launched a vandalism investigation. Approximately 1,000 Muslims living around Debrecen, most of them foreign students, prayed at the mosque.
A monument commemorating Jewish slave workers killed in the Holocaust was defaced in Balf, west of Budapest, in August. A government spokesman issued a “strong condemnation” of the act. Police investigated but did not identify the perpetrators.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
In frequent meetings with cabinet ministers, state secretaries and deputy state secretaries in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and other government officials, including in the Office of the Prime Minister and MHC, U.S. embassy representatives continued to advocate religious freedom and urge reconsideration of the religion law to amend those provisions that resulted in discrimination against minority religious groups. U.S. officials also voiced concerns regarding the government’s anti-Islamic rhetoric and the COS investigation.
The U.S. Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues visited the country May 17-20 and, accompanied by embassy officials, met with officials at the Office of the Prime Minister and representatives of Jewish communities, the Holocaust Memorial Center, and the House of Terror Museum. The Special Envoy encouraged government officials to intensify their efforts to restitute now-heirless property seized from Jews during the Holocaust and to develop an inventory of the heirless property that had yet to be restituted. In a press conference, he urged people to avoid using words that acquired anti-Semitic context during the 1930s and 1940s.
Embassy and visiting State Department officials met with representatives of the Jewish community to discuss anti-Semitism and the challenges of promoting tolerance education and historical truth, issues related to its legal status and relationship with the government, restitution issues, and commemoration of the Holocaust.
Embassy officials maintained regular contact with leaders of religious communities, including the four historical groups, as well as Baptists, Muslims, MET, and COS, to understand their issues of concern, encourage religious freedom and tolerance, and discuss the effects of the religion law and anti-Islamic rhetoric.
On September 25, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith breakfast with leaders of the Catholic, Reformed, Evangelical-Lutheran, and Jewish religious communities, as well as with the leaders of the HIC and the Hungarian Baptist Church to discuss the legal status of religious groups, the financial dependence of their communities on the government, and the importance of interfaith tolerance.
On April 11, in a show of support for the Bet Orim Reform Jewish Congregation, which lost its incorporated church status due to the 2011 law, the Charge d’Affaires attended a seder hosted by that group. On April 19, he participated at the commemoration of the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust at the Pava Street Holocaust Memorial Center.
The Charge d’Affaires attended and delivered remarks at the opening of the Gyula Germanus Islamic Cultural Center on March 31, where he said the purpose of the center was to share good ideas which could serve as an antibody to fear, hatred, and prejudice. On June 14, the HIC awarded the embassy the Gul Baba Award for its continuous support of the Muslim community in the country over the previous 10 years.